By David Ingram and R. J. Matetic

Many water well drillers are experiencing unnecessarily high insurance premiums and very avoidable citations or violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a direct result of accidents, injuries and fatalities occurring throughout the water well drilling industry. While the costs may be excessive, there are inexpensive strategies to prevent, minimize and eliminate safety and health issues that can reduce these expenditures and, most importantly, prevent injuries and save lives while increasing profits.

Most drilling operations are aware insurance premiums are expensive, but they may not know why. Many operations aren’t familiar with OSHA citations or violations, but they should be in case they’re approached. Expensive insurance premiums and unnecessary citations are the direct result of poor health and safety practices, which is why drilling operators need to improve these concerns within their industry. This can be accomplished economically and will ultimately reduce extreme insurance premiums while helping compliance with OSHA requirements.

Serious accidents
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a federal agency that keeps a collective database of all injuries and fatalities for each U.S. occupation. A summary of the fatal and nonfatal injuries for well drillers is listed in Figure 1. According to these data, approximately 50 percent of all fatalities involving water well drilling are attributed to electrocution.

From 1993 to 1996, the BLS registered 29 fatalities of water drillers. Fifteen of these are due to electrocution, 11 of which were the result of the rig making contact with overhead power lines. Loss of life is the most costly event to any company. Workers’ compensation is the most filed insurance claim by water well drillers. Violations issued under “Excavation,” which includes site inspection or overhead power lines, ranks as the most costly OSHA violation and the second most cited well driller violation.

Nonfatal injuries
The BLS data show material handling accidents account for the largest percentage of injuries for water well drillers (29 percent). From an insurance standpoint, workers’ compensation—which includes material handling—is the most common claim (74 percent) filed by water well drillers. By itself, material handling accounts for 34 percent of workers’ compensation claims. This costs drillers about $7,200 per incident. Material handling accidents are usually cited under the General Duty Clause of the Code of Federal Regulations. This citation is the second most costly violation issued by OSHA to water well drillers. It costs about $5,000 per violation.

The aforementioned correlations are just the top two examples of fatal and non-fatal accidents, which illustrates why water well drillers are paying high insurance premiums and costly OSHA fines. From the databases, many more comparative examples can support the need for improvements in health and safety awareness among water well drilling operations.

Insurance data
According to the National Ground Water Association (NGWA), there are approximately 10,000 well drillers throughout the United States. The following database was compiled from CNA Commercial Insurance, the underwriter of the Drilling Contractors Insurance Program (DRILL). The loss data was collected from Dec. 15, 1993, to Dec. 15, 1997, and tabulates information from 4,786 claims that incurred over $31 million in loss costs. CNA partnered with the NGWA in developing one of the first business insurance programs tailored for the groundwater industry.

The database represents 7 percent of the water well drilling industry—or approximately 650 contractors. It’s believed, however, through direct communication with other insurance companies, these figures are representative for the majority of the drilling industry. Furthermore, if these figures were extrapolated for all water well drilling contractors, the expenditures would be exponentially larger.

The five most common types of insurance coverages for well drillers are “Workers’ Compensation,” “Commercial Automobile,” “General Liability” and “Completed Operations Property.” The loss history percentage and costs involved are outlined in Figure 2. The leading contributors of insurance losses Workers’ Compensation and Commercial Automobile, with 74 percent of the total number of occurrences and 72 percent of the total costs.

OSHA data
OSHA conducts inspections for several reasons. It may deem the site or home office as dangerous if someone complains or anonymously notifies OSHA of unsafe conditions or practices. OSHA will always conduct an inspection, however, if there’s a fatality or if three or more persons are injured in an accident.

The cost of any violation is determined by a complex matrix system. The seriousness of the violation determines the cost of the citation. However, the system has reduction factors that cut the violation costs by different percentages. These may include company size, past violation history or the response given to a specific citation. For example, a small company could obtain up to a 60 percent reduction on a violation, a company with no prior violations could get a 10 percent reduction, and a cooperative company could receive up to a 25 percent reduction for a citation.

A summary of OSHA water well driller citations and violations for the period from Oct. 1, 1994 to Sept. 30, 1997, is listed in Figure 3.

Changing thinking
Suggestions and recommendations to implement safety and health strategies include the following:

  • Make safety and health a higher priority through daily awareness, prevention and control measures.
  • Make sure your employees know the importance of safety and health issues to your company’s success and their livelihood.
  • Develop formal safety and health plans—contact your local state association, NGWA, insurance company or local OSHA office for those specific to well drilling.
  • Find ways to reward employees practicing proper procedure, through recognition, awards or a drawing for a gift certificate.
  • Stop, look at and reevaluate your operations and everyday procedures. You may tend to overlook small and large things because you see them all the time—but are they safe?
  • Lead by example—follow all your rules to the letter.
  • Share the responsibility by delegating—assign a safety director. Give a monetary reward or perk to the safety director. Make it a rotating position. Send them to off-site training.
  • Continue to safety communication and dialog to all employees. One of the most important aspects of ensuring safety and health is practice. Mention it daily. Do it daily.

The bottom line is you’re responsible for your employees’ safety and health. Ultimately, you pay higher insurance premiums and possibly lose an employee for some period of time. Furthermore, OSHA may penalize you for your employees’ poor safety practices even though a safety program is in place.

Unfortunately, well drilling accident statistics remain high and NIOSH is in the process of research and developing formal strategies to be adopted by drillers at this time. However, making well drillers aware of this information is valuable as a deterrent in itself. Our objective is to get drillers to recognize that health and safety problems do exist and improvements on working conditions can be self-implemented.

And don’t forget to be creative! You don’t have to spend profits. Programs and suggestions already exist from other organizations—and they’re free. Find them and modify them to your operations. For example, give logo jackets to all employees if your company has a safe year. Not only is it a professional gesture but it advertises your business as well.


  1. U.S. Department of Labor, Division of Information Services, Washington D.C.:

About the authors
David K. Ingram is a research geologist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at its Pittsburgh Research Laboratory. He has a bachelor’s degree in geology and 18 years experience in mining research with a focus on identifying geological hazards, including groundwater characteristics induced by longwall mining. Ingram is currently involved with research on potential hazards associated with water well drilling.

R. J. Matetic is a supervisory general engineer for the NIOSH Pittsburgh Research Laboratory. He’s been involved in health and safety research for 15 years and has written 35 publications focusing on mine subsidence, multiple seam mining and hydrologic effects associated with mining systems. His current research focuses on identifying causes of injuries and fatalities of the water well drilling industry and providing recommendations for a healthier and safer working environment.

Both can be reached at (412) 386-6547, (412) 386-6560 (fax) or email: [email protected].


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