Recognizing Safety Hazards While Drilling

The following is an article written by our very own Barry Morris for ADSC – The International Association of Foundation Drilling, emphasizing the importance of recognizing safety hazards in the workplace. Please check out their website to learn more about ADSC’s impact on foundation drilling.

In late May of 2023, I embarked on an exciting new chapter in my career journey by assuming the role of Director of Environmental, Health, Safety, and Training (EHST) at Tri-State Drilling, Inc., a well-established drilling company with a rich history dating back to 1955. Renowned for being an innovative industry leader, Tri-State Drilling has been a long-standing member of the ADSC community.

Although I am a newcomer to the foundation drilling industry, my expertise in construction safety spans over 17 years, primarily within the renewable energy sector, including wind energy, solar, and industrial projects. Regrettably, my tenure with the foundation drilling team began with a significant incident occurring within only the initial three hours. An employee sustained severe injuries due to an accidental movement of the Kelly bar during a tool exchange.

That unfortunate event reminded me of another accident that’s important to explain first. When I began my safety career after retiring from the military in the early 2000s. I’d spent 20 years in the United States Air Force with a background in explosives, missile, and nuclear surety safety programs. I was the guy who made things that went Kaboom!

In November 2005, while employed as a laborer for a small construction company, I witnessed an accident that occurred within a wind turbine nacelle. Situated over 280 feet above ground level, the nacelle contained critical components such as the gearbox and generator. Despite the crew’s experience and diligent preparation for the day’s tasks, they failed to recognize a fire hazard within the nacelle.

What they failed to recognize that day was that the insulation material (which looked like egg-crating) that lined the machine’s interior was highly flammable. When accidentally ignited, it migrated so quickly that there was nothing to do other than to evacuate the machine. Tragically, on that unforgettable day of November 11th, 2005, we lost one of our crew members.

Shortly after that event, the company’s owner heard that I had safety experience in the military and asked if I’d be the company safety guy. I informed him my military experience had nothing to do with construction safety. Nevertheless, in January of 2006, I accepted the position, acknowledging the profound impact the incident had on both his immediate family and our work family. If by assuming this role, I could prevent such a catastrophic event from occurring again, I would be inclined to do so.

Fast forward to the end of May 2023, mere hours into my new role, a distressing call shattered the routine: an employee had been severely injured by a Kelly bar. The outer element, which was hung up about a foot from the Kelly stub, fell and pinned the employee’s finger between the stub and the outer element. The crew failed to recognize the position of the Kelly bar during the pining of a single flight auger attachment, and the potential of it falling unexpectedly.

The following day, I’m on an airplane to New York to do a root cause analysis with the Owner and the General Contractor to find out what happened. During the investigation, the crew stated several times that they would not have attempted to perform the attachment exchange if they had known and recognized that the Kelly bar was hung up. I thought of the crew in 2005 and recalled a similar statement: “Had we known the insulation was flammable, we would never have . . . “

The two distinct incidents, while dissimilar, shared hauntingly similar contributing factors. In both cases, the crews were seasoned and knowledgeable, yet they overlooked the immediate hazards present in their work environments. Had the first crew known that the insulating material in the nacelle was highly flammable, they would not have attempted a hot work operation. The second crew also confirmed that they would have never attempted the tool exchange if they had recognized that the Kelly bar was hung up.

How To Identify Safety Hazards

The challenge for safety professionals and employers is to get employees in the field to recognize those hazards before being exposed to the hazardous conditions, whether it’s a line of fire, a crushed-by / caught-in-between, or a potential fire hazard.

The first and most effective method for identifying hazards is by offering comprehensive education and training. This includes safety orientations, specialized 10-hour OSHA awareness courses tailored to our industry, and thorough reviews of our company’s program policies and procedures. By providing such training, our employees acquire a deep understanding of the hazards inherent in the specific tasks they are assigned.

The second action we need to do is evaluate employees and job sites to ensure they understand those hazards and how to mitigate them. We can do that through proficiency testing, equipment training, and performance evaluations. Additionally, we must conduct on-site observations to validate that teams are following established programs, policies, and procedures and not committing unsafe acts or are exposed to unsafe conditions.

The third leg is to audit the programs and continually evaluate our job sites and processes. Doing so ensures we provide employees with the best available training, equipment, and working conditions.

I have focused on the corrective actions from the Kelly bar event in May of 2023 to reinforce the above steps and what we did to ensure it does not reoccur.

  1. Education and Training
    1. Reviewed/updated the activity hazard analysis (AHA) for tool head exchanges.
    2. We created a video to demonstrate the hazard of the Kelly bar that is hung up.
    3. We updated our safety orientation to include specific lines of fire hazards.
    4. We painted the second stage (orange/red) of the Kelly bar to provide the crew with a visual of the unsafe condition the Kelly bar was in.
      1. While the paint may wear off, it is a continual reminder to the crew when they must repaint and are reminded of the hazard.
  2. Evaluate knowledge and proficiency.
    1. Verifying crews are painting Kelly bars daily.
    2. Performing increased task safety observations.
    3. Adding knowledge verification into training programs (testing).
  3. Audits
    1. Increased field safety audits.
    2. Increased operation audits. (It’s not just the Safety Guy)
    3. Acting on the audit results – promoting what we are doing right and correcting what we do wrong.

In conclusion, despite the nearly two-decade gap between the two incidents and their disparate job scopes, they shared strikingly similar contributing factors. Despite the crews’ experience, meticulous planning, and access to appropriate tools, equipment, and personal protective gear, they overlooked the hazards present. This underscores the critical importance of continuous education, training, and validation to ensure that employees comprehend and identify hazards in their work environments. By prioritizing these measures, we can significantly enhance the safety of any industry in which we operate, fostering a culture of vigilance and prevention to safeguard lives and promote well-being.

Be Safe and recognize those hazards!