Have you ever, while walking around a state or national convention, noticed how loud conversations are in the hallways and corridors?
I would love to chalk up the volume to the passion with which drillers share ideas and greet old friends. I would like to say that, but the simple truth is many of us (including me) do not hear so well. Drilling work is full of loud noises and we “need to be able to hear the rig and communicate with helpers,” so many of us do not use hearing protection for much — or any — of our career.
We know we should have, and many of us warn the younger drillers that they should wear ear plugs. But how effective are we at enforcing use? “Do as I say and not as I do” is not a good strategy for parenting a child or mentoring an up-and-coming driller. Both tend to emulate someone they respect.
I remember the first time I ran an older Joy 12 coring rig on a job with the owner of the company I worked for. I had a very good work relationship with the owner, Dominick. Although we were not friendly, he saw the effort and talent I brought to his company, and I saw someone who had worked to make his company one of the best contract drilling companies in the Midwest. He was still willing to, personally, do anything required to get a job done well in to his 70s. I respect the man and, to this day, feel his style of leadership is by far the most effective. Ask no one to do anything you are not willing to do yourself and, if they hesitate, dive in yourself.
Needless to say, the goal of the entire company was to limit Dom from having to go do something he should not have to. So, when the coring job came in that day I began to prep my rig to go to the job.
“You’re not taking that,” Dominick said. “You’re taking the 12, and I am going with.”
My first thought was, “Crap!” I had not even seen that rig move in my time with the company.
Once at the jobsite, Dominick set up the rig while I mixed mud. We began to drill and advance casing. This rig had two 300-cubic-inch Ford industrial engines, one for the rotary head and drawworks, and one for the mud pump. Once drilling, Dominick called me over to the control station.
“Do you hear that? It is like music,” he said. “You must tune the engines together.”
I did not want to admit it at the time, but all I could hear was noise from the two gas power plants. I could not “hear” anything. I stayed up there and cored, watched the water pressure and hoped I would begin to hear that rig. I went home with my ears ringing and my head pounding. I knew I should have worn hearing protection, but I was so intent on “hearing” the rig I did not safeguard my hearing. As a matter of fact, as I sit here over 20 years later in the quiet of my shop, I still hear ringing — it’s tinnitus, permanent damage done to me by my own actions.
So, what could I have done differently? I could have used my PPE, but Dominick did not wear earplugs and I needed to “hear” the rig. Turns out that, using hearing protection, I would still have heard the pitch changes I was looking for. Like many workers, it just comes down to not wanting to look weak in front of someone. Drillers tend to be a macho bunch and, on occasion, we tend to poo-poo even the most basic safety measures.
Was it worth it? Twenty years later, after a lot of bad decisions, I’m not so sure. I struggle to hold a conversation if there’s a lot of background noise. I’m known as “that loud guy,” and often have people mistake me talking as me yelling. And I have that constant ringing when it’s quiet.
I can't say my drilling career alone is to blame. Choices outside of work also have a huge impact on my ability to hear. I like hard rock music and, like most fans of rock and roll, I prefer it loud. I fly radio-controlled aircraft, and the glow and gas engines can be very loud. When I started, mufflers were not required and I often ran engines with straight pipes because I thought they sounded cool.
Now, as an instructor teaching drilling, I ensure students wear hearing protection. We also limit exposure to loud noises wherever possible.
This is just my story. Yours may differ. But I will tell you that the idea for this column came to mind as I sat in my shop, listening to that incessant ringing.
Until next month, stay safe and wear your hearing protection and your mask!