Many drillers have worked right through the coronavirus pandemic, keeping on the job due to the “essential” nature of their work — particularly in water well and energy drilling. Of course, they’ve done so with increased safety and risk mitigation steps. But are people still paying attention to those safety protocols, or is complacency creeping in on the jobsite?

To explore that question, we turned to Dave Bowers, an instructor with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 AFL-CIO Apprentice and Skill Improvement Program (ASIP) in Wilmington, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. Bowers, who also writes for National Driller, has taught hundreds of drillers how to safely perform their work. As the pandemic drags on, we wanted to hear his ideas on keeping yourself, your crews and their families safe.

The ASIP returned to in-person training after that state’s lockdown lifted in late May. Like a lot of public-facing facilities, it did so with what Bowers describes as “common sense” measures like screening questions, temperature checks and face coverings to minimize the risk of spreading the virus.

“Instructors have to wear an N95 if they’re dealing directly with a member,” he says. In fact, the day we spoke, he emphasized that he wore a mask unless he was in his office with the door closed. “Inside the building, it’s 100% masks.”

He rattled off some of the questions they ask trainees coming to the facility:

  • Have you been in contact with someone that has notified you they’re showing signs of a viral illness?
  • Are you living with someone who is showing signs of a viral illness?
  • Are you feeling sick at all?

By now, many readers know the basic symptoms to look out for: cough, fever, sore throat, and change in smell or taste. Bowers cautions, though, that many of these symptoms are similar to the regular seasonal flu. At the moment, he says that’s a distinction without a difference.

“If you screen and you have symptoms, we can’t allow you access,” he says.


About ASIP

The Apprentice and Skill Improvement Program (ASIP) trains members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) on all kinds of heavy construction equipment.

“My specialty is drilling: water well, geothermal, geotechnical,” Bowers says. “But that’s not all we do. That is a small portion of what we do. Every type or piece of heavy equipment that you’ll see running — from cranes to paving equipment to bulldozers to loaders — we train members on being proficient on those pieces of equipment prior to them going to a contractor.”

ASIP has lowered training capacity to facilitate social distance and allow time for safety protocols related to the virus, like sanitizing equipment. It current serves from about 85 to 120 trainees on any given day. All of that training comes at no cost to members themselves. Bowers says the cost is borne as part the wage package through the participating contractors.

The Chicago-area training facility features 342,000 square feet of indoor training space, nearly 200 pieces of heavy equipment, 30 classrooms, a construction material testing lab, state-of-the-art welding facility, equipment simulator lab and a 200-seat auditorium. Bowers says total training space amounts to about 1,000 acres, where trainees can move earth, dig holes and, yes, drill. Most instructors, he adds, average about 25-plus years in the industry before coming to ASIP.


Mask Up, Drillers

Our conversation covered one of the more controversial aspects of virus prevention: masks.

“Things are not normal, and that puts people on edge,” Bowers says.

That ongoing state of “not normal” has a lot of people chasing “normal,” and that creates situations where people let their guard down.

“It’s human nature,” he adds. “We get tired of something that seems oppressive.”

As a lot of areas in the United States reopened in late spring, that human nature seems to have gotten the best of people. Cases of Covid-19 spiked. Bowers cautions drillers — and everyone, really — to remain vigilant, whether or not their state or country has lifted virus-related restrictions.

“The right way to go about this may not be, ‘Hey, we’re free!’ ” he says. “But, ‘Hey, we have a little more leeway. We can do some things, but we’ve got to do them sensibly.’ If we can’t do them sensibly, then try to maintain that social distance. Wear a face covering.”


Sanitizing Equipment, Machines

Bowers is part of the facility’s safety committee tasked with designing and implementing protocols to keep member trainees, instructors and, by extension, their families safe.

Trainers and trainees no longer share equipment. For example, if they were training on a drilling rig, they would set up two machines: one for the student and one for the instructor. If the student has a question about a control, the instructor would demonstrate the answer on the second machine to eliminate risk of virus transfer via touching.

“Every time someone touches a machine, it gets disinfected,” he says. “It’s labor-intensive, but it’s the only way with that many people coming through here to guarantee that we don’t have an outbreak that infects this facility.”

Between trainings, they clean machine cabs and controls with a product called Vital Oxide. It’s a chlorine dioxide disinfectant approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as effective against SARS-CoV-2, the type of coronavirus that causes Covid-19. It’s less caustic and more environmentally friendly than bleach and is used everywhere from hospitals to commercial kitchens — and, now, drill rigs and shared tools. While much more expensive, at about $40 a gallon, it’s also much safer to use. Fumes from bleach products build up quickly in enclosed areas, while Vital Oxide is a “no-rinse” sanitizer in commercial kitchens. That is, surfaces should not get rinsed with water after sanitization.

The facility had been sanitizing the outside surfaces of heavy equipment with a bleach solution, but switched to a peroxide-based cleaner (after cleaning with soap and water, of course).


Work in the Time of Covid-19

“People that we’re speaking to, they may have all worked through it. But they have spouses and they have kids that have been home,” Bowers says. That calls for continued vigilance. 

“One of the worst things that happened through this entire thing is politicization of the use of face covers. I understand both sides of what they're saying but, the fact is, we can't afford to infringe on someone else's rights to try to exercise ours. That's what we're doing.”

Contractors, he says, need to treat masks no differently than other PPE gear, like hard hats or ear plugs. For people in the field, he recommends N95s in situations where maintaining social distance is impossible for any period of time. N95s adhere to U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NOISH) standards. For situations where N95s are unavailable, or where social distancing is more likely, he’d turn to KN95s. Those types of masks share many of the same characteristics of N95s, but they don’t specifically adhere to U.S. standards (which may or may not matter to individuals using them, depending on the situation). If neither of those types are available and social distancing can be maintained, Bowers suggests using a neck gaiter or one of the many other cloth mask options available — which, of course, need to be washed with soap and water and thoroughly dried between uses.

For the jobsite, one of the most important features in a mask is the small metal or plastic clip at the top. Whether wearing safety glasses or just corrective glasses, that clip works to minimize fogging and give workers a clear view of the task at hand.

Of course, masks, sanitizers and distancing layer over one of the simplest (and least political) aspects of fighting the pandemic: hand washing.

“It doesn’t kill the virus. It just removes it. Well, if it’s gone, off and down the drain, it can’t really affect us.”

The Full Interview

We interviewed Dave Bowers for episode 8 of our Drilling In-Site series. The wide-ranging talk covered jobsite safety during the pandemic, the issue of mask use, PPE and other topics related to coronavirus and Covid-19. See the conversation at www.nationaldriller.com/insite, or listen to the full-length podcast version at www.nationaldriller.com/insite-podcast. Find us also in Apple Podcasts. Search for “Drilling In-Site.”

Working on an interesting project or have industry wisdom to share? Email verduscoj@bnpmedia.com to be considered for a guest spot on Drilling In-Site.