What Makes a Good Driller’s Helper?

We asked a fourth-generation Master Groundwater Contractor what to look for when it’s time to hire a helper.

By Roger E. Renner, MGWC, NGWAF

In today’s job market, finding a good driller’s helper can be a real challenge. The helper must first of all be prequalified to even start working for your drilling company.

Let’s go over everything the helper needs to get started for you and then everything he or she must learn and know when they finally get out on a jobsite.

Licensed and Tested

A helper must first have a Class A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), and these don’t come easy anymore. Years ago, it was called a Chauffeur’s License. It was a $25 endorsement on a regular driver’s license. But now, along with that CDL, the helper must also have the tanker endorsement, and if you haul diesel fuel or propane, the hazardous materials endorsement is a must too.

The hazardous materials endorsement involves passing a 25-question exam, fingerprinting, and background check. This means the helper must have a clean record that your insurance company will accept.

A random drug and alcohol test should be given to all helper candidates. Doing so sends a clear message to all the helpers as well as your operators to stay clear of substance abuse, which is a real issue in the culture we work and live in today. It goes without saying, drug use has no place in the drilling industry.

If either operators or helpers are taking legal prescription drugs, your company must know because driving and operating heavy equipment is at high risk or even prohibited. It is also critical that your company’s safety officer be trained to recognize when a person is under the influence.

Here is a story for you: We had 10 applications for a helper a while back. All were told during the pre-employment interview that they needed to take a pre-employment drug and alcohol test. Three of the 10 failed the drug test and five did not even show up to the clinic for their appointment. Only two passed!

Here is another one: Back in the early 1970s, I was a helper for a seasoned driller. The driller sent me back to our shop only a few miles away for another load of water. After getting the load, I drove back to the site to see the operator getting out of the cab of the rig. He forgot that the front of the rig was 6 feet off the ground, misjudged where the ground was, and fell right on his head, knocking himself out.

I ran over to the rig and discovered the driller was drunk at 9:30 in the morning. After he came to, I called my father on our two-way radio (there were no cellphones back then) who came and got him and drove him to a clinic for a checkup. It was his last day on the job—and the first day of my drilling career.

Knowing Safety

Keeping the helper safe from slips, trips, and falls requires not only a good rational sense and heads-up on the part of the helper, but also heads-up teaching and a watchful eye from a good driller to keep the helper out of harm’s way. After all, the most minor accident can involve possible hospital stays, stitches, loss of work, and skyrocketing worker comp rates.

A good helper needs to work slower at first so they can recognize when they are in fact in danger and the driller needs to pay attention not only to his own risks, but the helper’s risks too.

Communication between the driller and helper needs to be constant. Keeping the helper’s cellphone in the lunchbox during all drilling time is a must. Some contractors have incorporated microphones and earpieces on their helmets to enhance the communication with their helpers. These can work well when hoisting equipment is over their heads and when high pressure fluids require face shields, a good set of steel-tipped footwear, and ear protection.

Over time, the helper will know what to do, when to do it, and how to safely do it.

Rounding Out the Training

At the end of the day, the most important aspect of a good helper is a good driller. Learning the repetitive activities from the driller is the easy part. Learning how not to perform some activities with shortcuts that may result in lost tools and accidents is the critical part.

A good helper should also be trained on your company’s other equipment. Forklift safety training is a must for most operations. Using forklifts to load drill pipe, casing, drill mud, and collars is best done with both the driller and helper serving as a spotter.

A good driller’s helper should also have training on proper DOT load securement requirements. Hours of precious time can be spent at a weigh scale and result in an out-of-service violation. Worse yet, getting into an accident where you lose your load due to inadequate securement.

Lastly, a driller’s helper needs training on the chemicals we use in our industry. Acids for screens and appropriate chlorine concentrations on finished wells are just a few that quickly come to mind.

A good helper will be asking a lot of questions. They’ll want to know why we have the procedures we have in the drilling of a water well. It is all part of the training. Drillers need to show patience—for someday that driller’s helper will be the driller.

Roger E. Renner, MGWC, NGWAF, is president of E.H. Renner & Sons Inc. and is the fourth of five generations of the family-owned business in Elk River, Minnesota. Renner is also a past president of the National Ground Water Association and the Minnesota Water Well Association, and a 24-year member and chair of the Minnesota Department of Health Advisory Council on Wells and Borings. He has been recognized with NGWA’s Ross L. Oliver Award, Individual Safety Advocate Award, and Standard Bearer Award.