By Paul Wiseman
“We can dance if we want to…
I can act like an imbecile”
“Safety Dance,” Men Without Hats, 1982
Those two lines are not consecutive in the song, but for some reason they’re the only ones I remember. They’re pertinent to a story about safety expert Dusty Roach because he’s seen plenty of both, especially the acting like an imbecile, in his years in the safety business.
Every safety person has a story. No one in their right mind enters this field—in which they are, almost by job description, ignored or, at best, answered with rolled eyes or a deep sigh—unless they’ve seen the stark nightmare of a safety failure.
Dusty Roach is no exception.
One of his early oilfield jobs involved a drilling platform in Italy. He’d separated from his first job, in the Permian, because he had a date one evening that conflicted with the sudden requirement to work a second shift.
In his recollection the date was mediocre, it cost him his job, and he had to hitch a ride home in the sweltering afternoon sun.
Learning his lesson about work priorities, he worked his way up to driller faster than most. As a new guy on the next job, he impressed the existing driller by helping the veteran fill out his logbook. Very appreciative of the help, the driller offered Roach to “break you out as a driller.” This offer was unheard-of for someone of Roach’s youth.
Soon after completing a degree at Angelo State he applied to go overseas and was sent to Italy as an assistant driller. During a one-year hitch of 12-hour shifts in a rotation of 30 days on and 30 days off, he became buddies with an Australian of Italian descent, whom he called “Charlie.” He met the man’s wife and small children, visited their home, and learned Italian (learned quickly because Roach already knew Spanish, another Romance language). “Charlie spoke Italian with an Australian accent,” Roach recalls.
Roach and his wife traveled the length and breadth of Italy with Charlie’s family during their 30-days-off times.
The day came when the crew encountered a problem while drilling out from secondary intermediate casing. “The superintendent was antsy to get back in, save time, make money, drill hole,” said Roach. But as they went back into the hole, they discovered cement in the casing. “We became stuck and when we tagged the cement it was green. It plugged the jets—we got stuck and we couldn’t go up, we couldn’t go down, we couldn’t rotate. So the superintendent came out” in the middle of the night and told Roach and Charlie to pressure up on the well far beyond what the crew had done already.
Five thousand psi didn’t work, so they were told to release the pressure at a diverter valve. Roach did so and, upon returning to his place, he discovered that the superintendent had had them double the pressure to 10,000 psi, “which was the max rating of everything we had on [the rig].”
This still didn’t work, so the two friends were ordered to release the pressure again, this time using the pop-off valve for speed. The pop-off valve was on the ground.
“I started going out the backside of the rig and Charlie knew where I was going and what I was doing, and he climbed up on top of the pump—it was a button, spring-loaded pop-off valve—and he hit the button.
“When he did, the assembly parted and the arm supporting the valve” began to unthread because of the extreme pressure and because it was not welded in place. “It started spinning around like a helicopter.
“It caught him in the back of the head…” and the rest is horrifyingly ugly. Charlie died instantly. The impact threw his body 30-40 feet away from the pump.
“It was the most traumatic event I’ve ever had,” Roach said. “As a result of that, that was when safety became real to me.” Before that, Roach himself saw safety procedure training as an unnecessary nuisance.
The second most traumatic event was delivering the terrible news to the family. He wanted to quit right then and there.
In addition to dealing with survivor’s remorse because Roach himself had been told to release the pressure, he was told to falsify the official report to be given to Italian authorities. This was to relieve the company of liability.
After an agonizing decision, he left, never to return to that company.
Since then, as a trained safety person, he’s seen some interesting things, either in person or as an after-the-fact investigator.
One day, “I was driving out to a well servicing rig,” where there was a pit catching the drillout cuttings. A worker on the pit, monitoring the return, was smoking. During that time, some natural gas escaped into the return.
“That thing lit up and exploded,” he said. “When it did, it blew him off the catwalk that he was standing on. When they called me I was about three miles from it and I could see the smoke.”
At the caller’s suggestion Roach called 911 and hurried on to the site. Upon arrival, Roach saw that the hard hat from the guy on the pit was completely melted, and the man had been blown about 15 feet away from the pit.
Roach was told, “He lost his leg.”
Roach said in reply, “My God, he lost his leg?”
The response was a matter-of-fact “Yes.”
They continued, “He’s grabbing something to eat—he’s okay.”
“How is he okay?” asked a confused Roach.
Came the reply, “He had an artificial leg.” The prosthesis was still nearby but had been rendered unusable in the explosion that melted the hard hat.
In Borneo he dealt with 6-inch-long rhino beetles, jungle vines that re-covered the cleared path every night, and a 20-foot anaconda wrapped around drill pipe. The anaconda turned out to be a delicacy for the nationals, who solved the problem by killing and roasting the reptile. Retrieval involved a fork lift and some big, sharp knives.
Roach is keenly aware of the irony of being the safety guy in an industry founded by wildcatters. “The nature of our business, it was founded on risk—financially, physically, mentally, spiritually, in every sense of the word, it was founded on risk.” In spite of that, he says, attention to safety is “getting better. It’s 100 times better than it used to be.”
Better, yes, but sliding backwards some, as it always does, when good times return. Booms—even moderate ones like today’s—require new bodies to be thrown at jobs, and Roach sees too many foremen succumbing to management and profitability pressure, throwing those bodies into the fire without sufficient safety training.
So, can a company improve compliance by offering employees a reward for a certain number of days of accident-free work?
Not necessarily. “People start hiding the accidents that they have in order to get that reward,” he said.
After decades of deep-in-depth accident investigations as the safety guy and as operations manager, Roach has a simple answer when asked if all accidents are preventable.
He has arrived at that conviction by bringing a healthy dose of skepticism to any after-the-fact investigation. “I don’t take the first, second, or third story that comes out of their mouths. Then, once I get all of the facts, invariably there was a policy and/or a procedure that could’ve prevented it. I believe firmly, all accidents are preventable.”
Roach admitted to a single exception, on which he declined to elaborate.
He says there are four commonly used steps in minimizing accidents, summarized by the acronym CAME: Command, Apply, Monitor, and Enforce. “That’s the structure that most companies use. You can mitigate virtually all hazards by addressing each one of those.”
The first two largely exist on paper, which is a good start. But most problems occur in the latter two steps. “Monitoring it is okay, but that’s usually a large breakdown because the people that are in charge of monitoring it are the ones that are getting the directives [from management] to improve profitability—money, hurry up and ‘git ‘er done.’” Enforcement then may be limited to, “I told him a million times,” with no consequences enacted.
He’s also identified three types of failure-prone workers. “They are: unable, untrained, or unwilling.”
For him, “unable” can involve company culpability. The firm might have known about a safer tool or safety device that was needed but not purchased, and the lack of that tool contributed to an accident. “That’s not putting it on the individual himself, but it is a blocked performance.”
Taking into account the tons of steel and machinery in motion on drilling and production sites on a given day across the oil patch, it might seem a wonder that anyone makes it home at the end of their shift—especially after driving home in the widespread traffic jams. But people like Dusty Roach, who’ve lived through their share of horrendous accidents, are working to send everyone home in one piece.
Teller of Stories
On his personal website at dustyroach.com, the oilfield professional indulges his artistic side. Dusty Roach is a storyteller by inclination and by practice as well. As he states there, “I am a son of an English teacher [mom] and banker [dad] and currently I’m in the petroleum industry [the final earthly frontier] as a safety professional. I am a public speaker on leadership and safety and I will witness to anyone who will listen. I am a father, son, husband, and family man who loves life and loves to write about it. I’ve worked overseas in Italy, on a small island off of Borneo, and even did a six-month stint in Chickasha, Oklahoma. LOL
“I’ve quelled riots and I don’t recall having started any, but I am willing to learn. Listening is a lost art as is writing.
“I currently reside in Midland, Texas, where it is so flat that you can stand on a one-gallon paint can and watch your dog run away for three days. I write short stories and poetry and have finished one book on oilfield safety and am working on my second book that contains short stories of my travels and experiences. I plan on getting them published soon.
“So feel free to join me [on the website], sit back, maybe even do a little porch sittin’. We can compare notes and have a grand time.”