Drilling in Extreme Heat

Published On: May 30, 2017By Categories: Features, Safety

Significant high temperatures at a drill site can create serious issues.

By Gary L. Hix, RG, CWD/PI

Maximum daily high temperature records are regularly broken throughout the United States.

Those of us who work in these areas—I’m in the Southwest—have to face some unbelievably hot working conditions.

The thermometer can reach 100° before 8 a.m. and still be above the century mark well after 8 p.m. Daytime temperatures of 123° have been recorded near me—and it’s only the beginning of June!

Temperatures this high are considered “extreme” and they can be extremely dangerous. As water well system professionals, we have learned how to work in temperatures in excess of 120° and the associated penetrating solar radiation. Both must be taken seriously.

Most of the traditional articles I’ve seen on the hazards of heat stress fail to provide realistic solutions for those who are drilling wells or pulling pumps.

Take for instance the recommendation to set up a shade to work under. It’s difficult to set up a shade over your drill rig or pump hoist if you’re drilling or pulling pipe 20 feet into the air. Pop-up shades don’t work well in the desert for the work we do. We’ve tried setting up shades several times over nonworking areas—only to have dust devils take them into the next county!

Download an infographic on working in extreme heat created by the National Ground Water Association. It is ideal to post in your office so the important information can be seen be all employees.

What we really need is low-angle shade on our bodies during the hottest part of the day, and that’s from 4 p.m. to sundown.

But building shading walls can cut off what might be a cooling breeze and concentrate and radiate heat and glare right back at you. Setting up the drill rig to have the mast shade the operator’s controls late in the afternoon is one way of making the most of a tough situation. A few water well system professionals will set up an umbrella shade over their platform or chair, but this leaves the rest of the crew to seek shade elsewhere.

Another common recommendation is having workers take 10-minute breaks every hour. We find that difficult to do while drilling wells or pulling and setting pumps. Instead, we work until we get to a spot where we can take a break without disrupting the flow of the task at hand. While we work on, we watch each other carefully for the first signs of heat stress and make that individual take a break while the rest of us work on until we reach a better break time. 

Important Teamwork

A subtle but real indicator of approaching heat stress is observing your own or another person’s tendency to stumble while walking or moving around. Perhaps there’s a slowing down of communication between the brain and the feet, but it happens and we know to watch out for it.

When body temperatures are elevated, the brain doesn’t work as fast and as smoothly as it does in our more preferred temperatures. Doing mental calculations, thinking clearly, and making decisions are dramatically tougher when your body temperature rises.

Moving and working in the extreme heat takes greater physical effort and requires working at a slower pace. Your heart beats faster when working in extreme temperatures, just to keep you properly cooled. We try not to get in a hurry or move about quickly in these extremely hot conditions. Taking slow, steady, deliberate steps and moving at a moderate pace keeps your heart rate at a more reasonable level throughout the day.

Setting up the drill rig so the mast will shade the operator is one
way to provide some relief for those working in extreme heat (top)
as pop-up shades at jobsites can often get blown away by the wind

Working around drill rigs and pump hoists in blinding sunlight with temperatures in excess of 115°, coupled with hot blowing winds that sear your lungs and wick away your body’s moisture, has discernible impacts on the human body. In these hot and dry environments, our bodies must lose water to stay cool—so lots of water must be consumed. We perspire heavily but it doesn’t always show because our sweat evaporates as fast as it forms. The evaporation of our sweat is what cools our skin and helps lower our body temperature.

It’s also important to protect your eyes in these extreme conditions. There’s not just the sun’s ultraviolet rays, there’s also windblown dust and fine sand. Safety glasses and safety-rated sunglasses are a requirement on most summer days.

Without protection, your eyes will begin to feel tired or burning hot because they’re extremely dry. Your eyelids will feel extra heavy if you must face the hot dry wind while engaged in well drilling or pump setting operations. There is a strong temptation to close your eyes and rest briefly. To combat this, I typically carry a small bottle of eye drops and occasionally wet my eyes to relieve the irritation and flush the dust out from my eyes.

There is a feeling of lethargy that comes over your body, making you tired and listless. It fills you with wanting to just sit down in the shade and go to sleep. This is the danger zone. Especially if you happen to be working alone, the last thing you want to do is lie down and go to sleep. Brain activity actually slows down when the body is approaching heat stress conditions. Breathing becomes harder as the excess heat in your body strains to be released.

Covering Up

Covering the head, eyes, ears, and back of the neck is critical when working in extreme heat.

Contrary to what most people think, going shirtless in the heat doesn’t make you cooler. It actually works to the opposite in the extreme heat of the Desert Southwest. Keeping your flesh covered with a light cotton material that breathes and lets air move through as it holds the moisture of your perspiration and blocks the sun’s ultraviolet radiation works the best. Long-sleeve white cotton shirts and loose-fitting long pants work best.

Wearing shorts is definitely out of the question in our line of work in these conditions. Water-cooled vests don’t work in the extreme heat either. The burden of carrying the weight of the water in the vest causes fatigue. Lately I have resorted to using specially made light evaporative cooling devices for protecting skin and keeping cool. (See the image of me wearing this device.)

You must protect all your exposed skin in extremely hot conditions. It’s important to keep all body parts covered even in the early morning and later afternoon hours. In the middle of the day when the sun is directly overhead, shade can be found under something.

In the later afternoon when it’s still 115° and the sunlight comes at you from the side, even a large-brimmed hat gives little protection. This is why many of us use those stretchable water-evaporating fabrics over our heads, ears, and back of the neck. I wish I had started using them sooner. Perhaps I wouldn’t have the basal cell carcinoma and pre-cancers I now have on my neck and ears.

Dizziness is another sure indicator of advanced dehydration. Another sign is a person just standing and staring off into nothing for brief periods of time.

Muscle cramps while working are another indicator of dehydration. But the muscle cramps you get during the day while working in the extreme heat are nothing compared to the cramps you can get in the middle of the night if you are still dehydrated. Bottled drinking water and bags of ice are typically furnished by drilling companies for their employees when drilling in desert areas. Drinking some cool water (cool, not ice cold) in a cooled environment does amazing things for your spirit to continue on with tasks at hand when working in extreme heat conditions.

Extra care and safety procedures are necessary when working in extreme heat. Cramping of your hands, arms, and leg muscles are a sure indication you are becoming dehydrated and are in need of water. While working in extreme heat, drink mostly water, not sodas—not even Gatorade. Water, and lots of it, is better for you. Water, water, and more water. Not colas, not sports drinks—and definitely not alcohol.

Get More Information on Working in Heat
See the latest installment of Safety Matters as it covers this important topic too. Find out environmental risk factors and personal risk factors for heat illness in “The Seriousness of Heat Illness” by Jerome E. Spear, CSP, CIH.

Desert water well system professionals bring water out of the ground in areas where it is needed the most. It takes water to drill wells to make more water. It takes water to keep water well system professionals alive while they drill new wells or repair existing ones.

Desert water well system professionals are a special breed of people who have learned to work and survive in the difficult environment of extreme heat conditions. My hard hat is off to all of them.

Gary L. Hix, RG, CWD/PI, is a registered professional geologist in Arizona, a Certified Well Driller/Pump Installer by NGWA, and a Certified Professional Geologist by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. He is past president of the Arizona Water Well Association and a former licensed water well contractor in Arizona. He has authored many articles on subjects related to well drilling issues for Water Well Journal. He can be reached at gary.hix@cox.net.


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