Safe way to success

Lone Star Drills president Joe Haynes lists safety tips for volunteers drilling community wells
Safe way to success Safe way to success Safe way to success Safe way to success Safe way to success

Joe Haynes

While many have easy access to fresh and clean water and take this for granted, millions around the world are not so lucky. In an effort to help, volunteers often travel thousands of miles to assist in providing access to this crucial resource in impoverished regions of Africa, the Caribbean as well as Central and South America.

Travelling to these remote areas, where equipment and modern conveniences are often unavailable, can pose safety concerns. Accordingly, safe practices and proper training are keys to success.

Planning and preparation begin long before the flight takes off. Charity organisations work with villages to determine a safe and convenient well location with stable ground, low risk of contamination and close access for villagers. While organisations complete this behind-the-scenes work, it's a perfect time for volunteers to gain knowledge and experience that will make for a safe and successful mission.

Preparing and packing

Preparation and training go a long way toward maximising safety. Partner with a charity organisation and drill manufacturer that offer training videos and safety guides for 24/7 support. Research required immunisations for tropical and subtropical areas and background on the country's regulations.

Additionally, participation in pre-departure training helps volunteers become familiar with equipment, as well as the different roles on a drill site. Understanding the distinct roles of drill team members reduces confusion about individual responsibilities, minimising the risk of injury. The team should include a foreman, lead driller, assistant driller and a helper to work alongside locals and make sure the crew remains safe. Training also provides a hands-on opportunity for volunteers to view drilling equipment and learn safe operation procedures, such as how to check equipment for proper lubrication and how to set up a mud pump.

Pack proper attire, including work boots, hard hats and any necessary gear. Bring comfortable clothing, but avoid anything loose that could get caught on moving parts. Pack sunscreen and a portable canopy to protect against blistering sunburns and the risk of heatstroke.

Safe equipment, safe people

Regular equipment maintenance is essential as it reduces the risk of injuries caused by worn or damaged components and also helps minimise downtime. Make a daily habit of checking equipment for proper lubrication to keep the operation running smoothly and prolong the life of the drill.

Greasing and examining the drive chain provides an opportunity to look through the drill's major components, such as the mast, swivel and drawworks. Be sure to reference a torque guide when checking loose fasteners, nuts or bolts, including the shuttle bolt, rotary head bolt and table base. This prevents minor inconveniences from becoming large safety or operational problems.

Next, rope off the job site for the safety of bystanders and organise tools on dry ground. Position the drill in a shaded area, if possible, and make sure it is on stable ground and properly anchored. Anchoring is a must when using compact rotary drills as it stabilises the drill platform and helps force drill bits through soil and rock. Check to see if the drill manufacturer includes anchoring kits with its drills to reduce the set-up time.

Once the drill bit starts spinning, there is nothing more important than situational awareness. Prevent hazards by paying keen attention to the environment and the task at hand. Be alert for any hazards or sounds that indicate potential concerns. If the drill starts making an unusual noise, a slapping chain for example, isolate the issue and troubleshoot it using the operators' manual.

When the operators' manual does not provide a solution, contact the drill manufacturer. Being proactive and choosing a manufacturer that offers around-the-clock technical support, answering any questions an operator might have, and is quick to ship replacement parts can greatly impact the success of the mission.

If the drill manufacturer included a service kit with common wear parts and tools, repairs can be completed quickly. Check with the manufacturer about any recommended supply packages and a mobilisation checklist ahead of time to ensure nothing is left behind.

The right drill for the job

Using a drill best suited for the soil conditions will minimise premature wear and reduce the risk of breakdowns, which can result in safety hazards. Drill teams often use a mechanical rotary drill to bore shallow wells — as deep as 200ft (61m) — in cohesive and granular soils. For drilling deeper, hydraulic rigs can reach depths of 200ft to 400ft in sand, clay and rock because of their large drill platform and heavy weight.

Some compact, trailer-mounted hydraulic rotary drills weigh 7,700lbs (3.5t), giving them powerful downforce for drilling through challenging soil. These drills may also feature a bypass control, which allows operators to tailor the downforce to match the conditions. This contributes to safer drilling by making powerful equipment easily manageable for different operators.

A release lever is another safety feature on certain hydraulic models that allows the operator to safely react to changing conditions without risking a borehole collapse. If a volunteer ends up in harm's way or needs assistance, the operator can release the lever, causing the drive head to cease directional motion. To prevent borehole cuttings from settling around the drill pipe or the borehole from collapsing, the drive head will continue rotating. This improves safety for volunteers at the surface without jeopardising the integrity of the work.

Another safety tip for working with hydraulic drills is to refrain from searching for hydraulic oil leaks by hand. The force of pressurised oil escaping from couplings and hoses can penetrate skin. Instead, use a piece of cardboard or wood.

Throughout the project, keep a careful watch over the borehole and cover it with plywood or a bucket when taking a break. While pipe will cover a portion of the borehole, tools or parts could easily slip between the pipe and the wall of the borehole. Occasionally, an operator can stop the machine and remove the object, but more often than not, it is impossible to retrieve. If the object cannot be retrieved, the entire project must be stopped and relocated to prevent injuries. 

Commit to cleaning

After drilling is complete, cleaning the equipment and drill site is an essential safety step. Properly caring for equipment and cleaning saves tremendous amounts of time and ensures a safe start for the next job.

After each job, wash muddy drill pipe to prevent rust and replace the thread protector caps before loading the pipe onto the trailer. Flush the mud pump and hoses with clean water. Remove soil and coat drill bits with oil to minimise corrosion. Clean box threads with a wire brush to remove dirt and grease. Any potential hazards, such as debris, should be removed from the area to avoid injury.

Keep the drill site roped off until the job is complete. This prevents bystanders from potentially injuring themselves on equipment or stepping into the borehole. Once the water is clear and all safety standards are met, pour concrete around the well and install a hand pump. Following these procedures will help ensure villagers receive clean, safe water.

A successful project is one that achieves its goal without causing injury to those involved. Proper preparation, situational awareness and routine cleaning and maintenance are the foundation to an impactful mission.

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