Fighting to Stay Alert

Published On: May 23, 2022By Categories: Features, Safety, Workforce Development

The increased workload and lack of labor, coupled with supply chain shortages, have led to both fatigue and driver safety concerns.

By Mike Price

Photo courtesy Yellow Jacket Drilling Services LLC with its corporate office located in Phoenix, Arizona.

The water well industry has not slowed down its production in recent years. Instead, it has only sped up, meaning positive profit margins but fatigue and driver safety concerns.

Fatigue and stress have risen across the industry due to the increase in workload and persistent issue of finding new labor as well as supply chain shortages. Some water well contractors are booking wells a year or more out and pushing their crews into 50- to 60-hour workweeks to keep up with the current demands. Some are also working weekend shifts and unable to take the necessary time off to help prevent fatigue.

It’s not just the water well industry. The pilots union for Southwest Airlines recently told the company’s executives that “fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines’ number-one safety threat.”

“We all need to remember we can’t do everything right now and handle each thing one problem at a time,” says Brian Snelten, PG, president of the National Ground Water Association and area manager for Layne Christensen, A Granite Company, in Aurora, Illinois.

“I’ve found being honest with my customers on realistic schedules is the best way to keep them happy. They may not like what we tell them, but the more information we can provide on the delays or reasons for changes, they usually understand. They just want to be kept up to date. We must remember we can’t always please everyone and sometimes it’s good to walk away from a problem customer.”

Management at larger drilling companies walk the fine line of monitoring its drivers, overtime hours, and drive time all while trying to accommodate clients’ schedules and maintain healthy work-life balances for its drilling crews.

“The trend we have noticed nationwide is that being so busy will quickly cause fatigue among our crews,” says Will Keyes, CWD, southeast regional manager for Griffin Dewatering Corp. in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Safety is our number-one concern and fatigue can lead to safety incidents that just aren’t necessary and could have been avoided if we were just a little better rested. We have had several discussions in management about how to build in breaks throughout and swap crews out on long-term jobs that can help balance out the work and home time.”

Keyes says this has been critical to the success.

“They understand that if they need a break, they can call one of the operations managers and we can get them some time home as needed,” Keyes shares. “Keeping our guys happy is a number-one concern in this market where they can easily find another drilling opportunity elsewhere.”

Fatigue and the Circadian Rhythm

Fatigue and circadian rhythms are linked together.

Circadian rhythm of human alertness. Image courtesy Circadian Technologies Inc.

Fatigue is a state of tiredness that leads to reduced mental or physical performance that can endanger workplace safety, according to John Fowler, CSP, CMSP. Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, running in the background to carry out essential functions and processes. One of the most important and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle. (See circadian rhythm and sleep cycle images).

While coffee, energy drinks, and soda are among the common go-to drinks in the industry, it’s important to understand their limitations.

“Just relying on energy drinks is not a good way to combat fatigue and to combat the circadian rhythm,” says Fowler, safety manager at National Exploration, Wells & Pumps Inc. in Elko, Nevada, in the latest NGWA: Industry Connected video interview on fatigue, driver safety, and mental health.

“Your circadian rhythm is going to affect your alertness really regardless of how much caffeine you’ve had or not. What we need to do in this industry is realize that in the afternoon around 2 and 3 o’clock and also in the morning, 4, 5, 6 a.m., that our alertness is at the very bottom of the chart.

“And we need to say to ourselves, you know what, if I’m doing something at those times, I need to take a second, I need to step back, and really think it through and make sure that I haven’t missed any steps because we just aren’t as alert as we normally are.”

Fowler, who serves on NGWA’s Safety Task Force and once chaired it, identifies some common symptoms of fatigue as:

  • Craving sugar and carbohydrates
  • More difficult to stop eating
  • More clumsy
  • Appearing older
  • More susceptible to sickness.

Working into the evening and night comes at a price, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The accident-injury rates are 18% greater during evening shifts and 30% greater during night shifts.

“Working 12 hours a day is associated with a 37 percent increase in the risk of injury,” Fowler adds.

Sleep cycle. Image courtesy Healthycell.com.

“Without a doubt when we’re working long shifts and into the night, we really need to step back; we need to think about our circadian rhythm; and we need to think about what our bodies are doing; and just realize that yeah, I may have had a couple cups of coffee, I might feel awake, but my body is not as alert as it should be.

“We really need to take a step back and make sure that we’ve thought through whatever task it is we’re doing.”

Fatigue and Sleep

With fatigue, it all comes down to sleep.

Several different sleep cycles take place while sleeping. Different phases also take place to repair both the body and brain. Seven hours of sleep is the average amount needed for each night.

However, there are some people who have different requirements for sleep.

“There are some people out there who don’t need a lot of sleep, and there are also some people out there who need more sleep, so it’s important to really get a handle on how much sleep that you need,” Fowler states.

“It’s interesting you can tell where you are in those sleep cycles by the way you wake up. If you wake up and you’re refreshed, it means that you’re up at the top of one of those sleep cycles, right sort of in and out of consciousness, and that’s the best time for you to wake up.

“If you’ve ever woken up and been confused about where you are, that’s because you’ve woken up in one of those deep cycles when your brain is basically getting flushed out. The key is to shoot for those seven hours so after those seven hours you’ve gotten the appropriate amount of cycles and when you wake up you’re good to go.”

Fowler understands it’s easier said than done on getting the sleep needed. Nevertheless, Fowler provides some tips to do so:

  • Most importantly, set a regular sleep schedule every night or early morning if working night shifts.
  • Darken the room (if staying in a hotel room, use clothespins to ensure window shades are closed completely).
  • Discontinue screen use one hour before bedtime.
  • Set the room temperature to 68°F.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Don’t stay awake in bed. If awake for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed to do something else before trying to fall back asleep.

“You want to make sure that when you go to bed that your body knows that it’s time to go to sleep,” Fowler says. “That’s why it’s really not a good idea to lay in bed and watch TV and lay in bed and surf on the computer or whatever else people do. You really want to set it up so that when you get into bed, your body says, ‘OK, I’m in bed, it’s time to go to sleep.’”

Driver Safety

Fatigue aside, Fowler and others in the industry deem driving the drilling rig, water truck, or other water well equipment to the jobsite as the most dangerous part of a contractor’s job.

Yellow Jacket Drilling’s new hire training taking place here in late April covers safety hazards on the drilling rig, mostly focusing on how to be aware of one’s surroundings, where to stand, and where to put one’s hands. Photo courtesy Yellow Jacket Drilling.

“The way I explain it and look at it is when you’re on a drill site, you pretty much know what the hazards are,” Fowler tells the company’s new employee class. “There’s a bunch of them. But when you’re driving down the highway, who knows?

“That car coming the other way, you have no control over, you have no idea what’s going on in that car or anything, so that’s what we tell our guys: When you get to the drill site, it actually gets safer. It’s the driving on the highway where it’s completely out of our control.

“We can control the drill site, mostly; I would say 99 percent of the stuff there we can control. We know what the hazards are, but man, that highway is beyond our control, out of our control.”

Marie Maher, PG, regional exploration manager/senior associate for Terracon in Chattanooga, Tennessee, notes that the trend of drivers in the United States has gotten worse the past two years.

“It’s really odd because you think there’s less people driving since the pandemic hit,” says Maher, who also serves on NGWA’s Safety Task Force, “but it seems like people who were on the road were more aggressive. I think a lot of that, we always talk about distracted driving, and I think that’s the majority of it.

“There’s just so much access to being distracted, whether it’s eating, drinking coffee, which we’ve all done, so it’s not just the phone. I think that’s where fatigue comes into play where your mind is on so many other things.”

As the industry is on the road more due to the increase in workload, it increases the probabilities of being in a traffic accident. Therefore, a renewed focus on defensive driving is needed.

“We have tried installing dash cams to help protect our employees from other distracted drivers,” Keyes says. “We always say that everyone on the road is too busy to drive. Safe driving is a topic we cover every week at our safety meeting. We want to help our drivers better understand the risks associated with being on the road these days.”

With a jump in driving vehicle accidents recently, Yellow Jacket Drilling Services LLC has found success with dash cameras.

“There has been an unfortunate increase in people rear-ending equipment or vice versa, all those fender benders,” says David Messina, CSP, director of health and safety for Yellow Jacket Drilling in Phoenix, Arizona, in the latest NGWA: Industry Connected video interview, “and for us, the dash cams have been a real lifesaver with that.

“It’s a trend the insurance companies are noticing. We’ve had several incidences already where the cameras have saved us from being at fault in an accident where the video of the dash cam is like, ‘Hey, this person obviously changed lanes on us; I know they’re saying we rear-ended them, but watch the video.’

“And it’s been just so valuable to have when you can pop in the video. You show the officer who’s like ‘Dude, you changed lanes right into these people; of course they rear-ended you,’ and they get cited.”

Yellow Jacket Drilling has a fleet of about 50 drilling rigs and all the company’s vehicles are tracked by Geotab, which is GPS fleet tracking software. The company tracks its driver statistics (see list in sidebar) more than anything else.

“We’ve gotten a lot of rear-enders on the freeways that are not our fault,” says Vern Christensen, operations manager for Yellow Jacket Drilling’s water supply and pump services division. “How we counteract those things, we follow those tends, then talk about them and go out to the crews and talk to them in-person or have a conversation with them and make sure they’re aware of what we’re seeing.”

Beyond distracted driving, road rage killings have spiked nationwide over the past year. An average of 44 people were killed or injured in the United States in road rage shootings each month in 2021.

Keeping Track of Driver Safety with Geotab
Vern Christensen, operations manager for Yellow Jacket Drilling’s water supply and pump services division, shares the following Geotab reports that are produced from tracking the company’s vehicles. The company has devised a score of low-risk, medium-risk, and high-risk areas to focus on and managers discuss them in their weekly meetings with one another.

  • Hours of service report
  • Monthly idle trend
  • Average miles per gallon
  • Estimated weekly idle cost
  • Speeding violations
  • Odometer report
  • Fleet distance trend
  • Fleet utilization report
  • Asset utilization report
  • Idle cost
  • High idle duration
  • Telematics fault detection
  • Safety scorecard
  • Fleet savings summary
  • Aggressive driving
  • Seat belt violations
  • ELD driver availability
  • ELD number of drivers placed on duty
  • ELD off-duty to drive instances
  • ELD excessive yard move
  • ELD drivers approaching limit
  • ELD Hours of Service log edits
  • ELD Hours of Service driver violations by reasons
  • ELD Hours of Service exemptions report
  • ELD unverified logs
  • ELD unrepaired defect report
  • ELD diagnostics and malfunctions report
  • ELD Driver’s Vehicle Inspection Report alert defects
  • ELD excessive personal conveyance
More Information

Fatigue and Driver Safety

Fatigue affects driver safety, particularly driving equipment to the jobsite or back to the shop during the early morning and late evening hours.

If tired while driving, Fowler dismisses the notion that opening the window, screaming, or turning on the heat or air conditioning will help. If one is lucky, those remedies might last a minute, according to Fowler.

“Really, when it comes down to managing your fatigue when you’re driving, the only thing that is going to correct that is for you to stop and take an actual nap,” he says. “If you just take a 5-, 6-, 7-minute power nap, it’ll take the edge off and you’ll be able to go another hour, hour-and-a-half, something like that before you get tired again.

“But if you feel your eyelids getting tired, either switch drivers if there is somebody else in the vehicle who’s awake, or if you’re in there all by yourself, the best thing to do is to pull over and just take a nap. If you keep trying to fight through, there’s a really good chance that bad things are going to happen.”

Forty percent of people have admitted to falling asleep while driving, according to the National Safety Council. In 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported more than 90,000 crashes on the highway involving fatigue, with 50,000 involving an injury and 800 suffering fatalities.

“When we’re on the highway, we really need to pay attention to what we’re doing out there,” Fowler concludes.

To help facilitate safety behind the wheel, providing breaks while on the jobsite when possible is advisable. Terracon typically gives 15- to 20-minute breaks every two hours, based on the season, type of drilling, and job requirements.

“It’s definitely raised our awareness to it since we’ve had to move folks around so much recently,” Maher says. “Everybody wants hours, but you got to watch. You want to accommodate for the employee’s request, and the hard thing is you don’t know what’s happening at home, so that can be hard to manage. I think that’s where being connected and really knowing your employees is what people need to do.”

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Surveying the current workload demand, most could easily operate daylight to dark seven days a week. This makes assessing one’s own fatigue critical for today’s contractors.

“Now with increasing costs to do business, material shortages, and qualified labor shortages, running a business is more challenging than ever before,” says Richard Layman, MGWC, CVCLD, owner of Pure Water Well Drilling Inc. in Lachine, Michigan.

“Industry personnel are working lots of overtime to try to keep up with demand. And truthfully, we are losing. No time to do normal maintenance; just keep it going to try to meet schedules.”

Layman, who serves on the NGWA Contractors Section Board of Directors, has been through the ups and downs in five decades of drilling water wells as a fourth-generation contractor. He has learned over the course of his career that it’s important to decompress to help his mindset. He does so by hunting, fishing, and exploring new countryside.

Layman likes to share his motto often with others.

“Life is short. Do what you like and get where you want to be and just try to enjoy life. The work will always be there.”


Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at mprice@ngwa.org, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.

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