In my last few columns I have been writing about tough or difficult jobs that I’ve encountered in my career, and how I have solved them. Recently, I was driving to an appointment and I passed a drill rig that appeared to be drilling a new well very near the road I was driving on. I think this was perhaps a small irrigation well, but I’m not sure. What I am sure of is the fact that both the driller and his helper were working bare headed. They had no hard hats on, not even baseball caps — as if a baseball cap has a safety factor. It got me to thinking about safety on the job and safety equipment.
Readers, let’s face it: Our industry does not have a really great safety record. We regularly operate powerful and dangerous equipment — that’s just what we do. One of my pet peeves, and I have had this one for many years, is that we preach safety, safety, safety, and yet I often see workers operating in an unsafe manner. Worse yet, in my opinion, are pictures in our trade magazines of workers without hard hats, safety glasses, proper gloves and other safety equipment.
Now, lest you think that John Schmitt has never been hurt on a job, you would be wrong. I have been fortunate in that I have never been badly hurt, although on one occasion it was pretty close to bad. In fact, maybe it was bad. I am blessed to still have 10 fingers, 10 toes, two eyes that work and one ear that hears — I lost the hearing in the other ear when I was about 10 from the childhood disease mumps. Please don’t think I’m preaching and trying to be a “know it all.” But I have to admit, in almost all cases I’m going to write about next, proper equipment would have spared me some pain.
When I first got started in our industry, I was a young teenager working with my father. Actually, I started going on jobs with him when I was about six years old, but I was more of a companion than a helper. Neither he nor I or any of our hired men wore hard hats in those days. I changed my opinion on hard hats when my dad got whacked on the head from a part of a drive block system he was using to drill a 2-inch well. He was cut pretty badly and had to have stitches. It could have been much worse and he could have died right there. Now, I know drillers who say a hard hat is uncomfortable. My reply? It’s not as uncomfortable as a bang on the head is going to feel. After some years of searching many years ago, I found a quite comfortable hard hat that I still use in 2017. I have changed the suspension a number of times and it really is not at all uncomfortable. In fact, on a cold windy day with the liner in and the ear flaps attached, it’s pretty darn cozy. In hot weather it’s not that much hotter than a baseball cap.
I was loading casing pipe onto the pipe rack of a ¾-ton pick-up some years ago. I was not wearing a hard hat, since I was at a supply house. I also loaded some tanks and pumps into the bed of this truck. The pipe rack was made of heavy angle iron and very substantial. I know because I made it myself. For some reason, I was bent over and jerked upright quickly and banged my head into the angle iron of the pipe rack. I was stunned for a few seconds, although I did not pass out. Blood flowed pretty freely from my skull and the fellows from the supply house bandaged me up. A good hard hat or even a bump cap would have saved me pain and loss of blood.
Another time I’m not sure if any safety equipment could have helped me, but I was not really injured in this instance. I was shutting down a spudder rig for the day and, as was my procedure, using the grease gun on the zerk fittings. At the band wheel of the jack shaft there was a zerk fitting and, for some stupid reason, I stuck my finger into the access hole to feel if the shaft was still turning — guess what? It was, and the key in the end of the shaft grazed my index finger. I don’t think it was even skinned, but I could have easily lost part of that finger — really smart, John. No, actually, really stupid. It was getting dusk and I was in a hurry to finish for the day. Hurrying and not thinking are often factors in accidents. I was just dumb lucky that day.
Over 60 years ago, I really was hurt badly, not on a jobsite but doing some necessary work around a rig in the yard of our shop. I was resetting the socket of a string of cable tools. To those of you unfamiliar with this process, a short portion of the drill cable is pushed through a swivel. All the wires of the cable are untwisted and cleaned. The cable is then pulled into the swivel, which is tapered inside. The swivel is inverted and filled with molten zinc. There are other ways to fasten the swivel to the wire line, but this method always worked well for me. To melt the zinc, I was using an old gasoline-powered fire pot. In those old days, plumbers used a fire pot like this to melt lead for joining cast iron soil pipe. Anyway, I was waiting for the zinc to melt and talking with a close friend who was serving as my helper, a man who is still a close friend some 60 years later. The fire pot worked with air pressure in the fuel tank that forced gasoline through a heating coil and then out an orifice to be burned.
Air pressure in the fuel tank was getting low, so I did something one should never, ever do — I started to pump more air into the fuel tank using a little air pump that was attached. Unknown to me, liquid gasoline had gotten on my side of the piston of this pump and, when I pulled it back, it hit me like a squirt gun only with gasoline. I can remember this like it happened yesterday. Of course, the gasoline ignited and I was burned about the face and jaw. My friend tells me that I beat the flames out myself, and we jumped into a pickup and he drove me to a hospital.
I was hospitalized for about six days and, upon release, told not to go near a drill rig or any heavy work for a month. On the second day of being in the hospital, I felt good enough to get out of bed and look at myself in a mirror. I just about fainted — I looked that bad. By the grace of God and the medical profession I recovered and have no scars. Had I been wearing a proper face mask, the whole event could probably have been avoided. Oh yes, after I returned to work, we threw the fire pot away and heated our zinc with a propane furnace from then on.
Now please don’t think I’m preaching to you, but hard hats, hard-toed shoes, safety glasses and hearing protection are designed for a purpose. Please, please, please use them for yourself and any other workers in your organization if there is the slightest chance for an injury.
All I will say about our Michigan weather is that it has been very hot, but our lawns are still green and our crops for the most part are looking good. Until next time, remember to work safely and God bless all of you.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.