Working safely around hazardous materials and contaminants


The first step in working safely around hazardous materials should always be a hazard assessment review.

The OSHA standard mandates companies must conduct a hazard assessment to identify the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and properly train employees on how to use it. OSHA compliance officers will review written hazard assessments for completeness and accuracy.

In the case of water well drilling, this requires assessing the chemical, environmental, and physical hazards workers will have to deal with on each and every drill site. And don’t forget biological hazards such as snakes, ticks, and poison ivy.

Many different chemical compounds can be used depending on the water well drilling activity and rehabilitation requirements. Other hazards may be geographical. For instance, radon and high lead and arsenic levels in the soil are natural hazards that can be present in drilling mud and cuttings.

Additional hazards drillers may encounter include petrochemicals if they drill into an area where there has been a leaking underground pipeline or petroleum storage tanks. Pesticides and bacteria resulting from farm runoff should also be considered in farming communities as trace contaminants at low levels.

Creating a safety barrier

Having assessed what hazards may be present, the next step is to determine what PPE is best suited for the job. Providing a barrier by choosing the right PPE is critical. Review the properties of agents used either to treat the well or that are in the water.

Many of the agents used in well drilling or reconditioning are irritants because of their high alkalinity or acidity. A quick assessment of the use of these agents will help the drill crew understand the type of barriers best suited for use against skin irritants. Examples include gloves, long sleeves, filtering facepiece respirators (dust mask), barrier creams, and clean rinse water. When selecting the right type of glove for the job, consider the many factors in the work activities.

Training for the 'what ifs'

The best communications technology available for use in the field is not a substitute for proper training, awareness, and an understanding of the site should you need to react to an unplanned incident.

An important aspect of training is getting good feedback from the drillers and a good understanding of what they are doing and how they’re doing it. This allows us to collectively evaluate and decide if the current procedure is best and discuss what the response should be if unknowns are encountered. Tool box training, daily safety meetings, annual training programs — all are essential.

Another aspect of providing effective training is to ensure there has been an effective transfer of knowledge. Do the workers recall and understand what the safety manager is saying about the hazards and the nature of those hazards?

Material safety data sheets (MSDS) are a critical component of working safely around hazardous chemicals. Any compound containing hazardous chemicals require an MSDS from the supplier which will be used in training, taken to the job site, and transported to the hospital with the worker in the event of an accident.

Drilling can be done safely and without incident. Informed and properly protected drill crews will accomplish their work without unwanted events and exposure to hazardous materials when the assessment, equipment (PPE), and training has been performed and repeated frequently.

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