What You Don’t Know Can Kill You – One of My Stories

Rig Fire Kills Five in Oklahoma - Houston Chronicle

As a seventeen-year-old, I lied about my age to go to work for Storm Drilling, an offshore drilling company. The work was hard and dangerous, but the pay was fabulous. I was earning a lot of money, saving none of it. Second to the money, it was the exciting moments when all hell would break loose that ‘hooked’ me to the rugged life of an offshore roughneck.

How dangerous was the work? Over fifty years ago, there was no OSHA. OSHA would come along about a dozen years later on. To this day, I have the marks of a roughneck: a deformed fingernail and a scar on my right shin where a jagged piece of steel penetrated.

It was a combination of weariness and a spinning chain that smashed my right hand while going into the hole after changing a bit. The injury to my right shin was the result of a fall onto a drip pan under the blowout preventer stack. In both cases, there were no accident reports, no doctor visits, no lost time.

The Chronicle story linked to the picture was a worst-case scenario where several workers died, others badly injured.

Police, firemen, and emergency medical workers – first responders – are touted as dangerous professions, but the simple truth is they are actually very low-risk jobs when compared to a host of vacations. Professional fishermen and lumberjacks are exponentially more likely to be killed on duty than first responders.

Charted: The 20 deadliest jobs in America – The Washington Post

A half-century ago, offshore roughnecks were at the top of the list.

Ending the rabbit chase, I move the story forward about 40 years, a company building advanced automatic drilling rigs advertised for someone who could program computers and had roughneck experience. I was the only applicant. (Not boasting, just laughing quietly to myself)

I joined the engineering team as the automation system was under development. The manufacturing supervisor, ever seeking to know more than the rest of us, read up on oil and gas well blowouts. Explanation: When the downhole pressure of oil, gas, or salt water is greater than the columnar weight of the drilling fluid, the latter will be expelled by the superior pressure. This is why it’s called a blowout.

Naturally, when combustible gas or petroleum products find the atmosphere and a nearby machine (or smoker) contributes a source of ignition, a bonfire to end all bonfires happens, as it did in the Chronicle story.

So it was, the manufacturing supervisor approached to test me. “Do you know what to do in the case of a blowout, John?” “Yes”, I replied, “I know exactly what I will do.” What’s that?”, he asked. I said, “When I see the blowout there (pointing in one direction), I run as fast as I can the other way (pointing in the opposite direction).”

We all have stories, but few of us tell them. You may think nothing exciting or interesting ever happens to you, but you would be wrong.  There is no life devoid of interesting experiences. Young people need to hear our stories so they don’t make the same mistakes we did.

What’s your story?

John White
Rockwall, Texas

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