GeoDrilling International: A case study of drill site safety management in South Africa

Published in the July/August 2017 edition of GeoDrilling International

Managing safety

Colin Rice, of Colin Rice Exploration & Training, describes a case study of drill site safety management in South Africa

Drill site safety has assumed an increasingly important role in South African exploration projects over the past eight years, and much of the increased focus on safety has been due to very onerous legislation that regulates operations. In South Africa, an exploration borehole is deemed to be a ‘mine’, and so all exploration drilling activities are regulated by the Mine Health and Safety Act. As the name suggests, the act was written to regulate mining activities and not drilling operations – in fact, the word ‘drilling’ appears only once. Nonetheless, all exploration activities must fully comply, and all persons involved in any exploration activity are subject to the very arduous requirements and the significant penalties that are prescribed in the act. Because there is no reference to drilling operations, mining companies have had to interpret the requirements of the act and then apply them to their respective exploration operations. Understandably, different mining companies interpret the requirements differently, and so several interpretations exist, and it is not uncommon that equipment deemed to be compliant at one mine is deemed to be non-compliant at another. This has caused confusion between contractors and their customers.


Approximately six years ago, Colin Rice Exploration & Training was approached by a major mining company to conduct a safety audit on a 33-rig exploration drilling project. It involved rotary-percussion drilling, and both wireline and large-diameter conventional core drilling. Three contractors were awarded work on the project, and so the auditing project involved many different types of equipment operated by crews with a wide range of competencies. Most significantly, there were three companies with varying levels of understanding of the fundamentals of safety management and very different attitudes to drill-site safety. The contractor had very little idea of its legal responsibilities or of the consequences if it fell foul of the law. Previous safety audits had been done by safety officers from the mine, and often the officer reported issues that were frivolous, while serious safety issues were not identified. It was clear that the quality of the audit was directly related to the level of drilling experience of the safety officer, and so it was common that different officers would inspect the same operation and arrive at different findings. Consequently, conflicts grew more frequent – the contractor was viewed as ‘the problem’, and safety personnel appeared to be on a crusade to stop the contractor from working for whatever reason they could find. It was clear that the safety management system had to become more consistent and comprehensive, and so a project was started to develop a set of drill site safety standards that would cover all aspects of a drilling operation. From these standards, a set of standardised safety inspection checklists would be developed that would be used by both the mine personnel and the contractor to conduct inspections. The first step was the development of a drill-site safety standard, it had to:

  • interpret and include all legal requirements;
  • include all ‘best practice’ in cases where the legal requirement was insufficient;
  • include requirements for all drilling methods and techniques;
  • be easily understandable; and,
  • eliminate or reduce the level of subjectivity required in doing a safety inspection.

The development of the standard went through many iterations before it was considered complete, but at every stage it was shared with the contractors and the checklists were used in the safety inspection process. Since the contractor was included in the process, it took ownership and the development of the highest-quality standards became easy. In addition, because the contractor and safety officer used the same checklists to do their safety inspections, there were no surprises. 


Drill site safety has four components, so the standards are developed in four sections:

  • Equipment: requirements for the drill rig, compressor, booster, water pump, mud-mixing facility, rod trucks and support trucks, welding machines, diesel and water bowsers.
  • Environment: general requirements while mobilising, drilling and during rehabilitation.
  • Personnel: requirements for crew and supervisor training and competence assessment.
  • Procedures: requirements for all routine and non-routine operations. 

The inspection checklist asks a simple question directly related to each of the requirements in the standards document – the safety inspector merely has to tick a box: yes, no or not checked. The way in which the questions are framed eliminates subjectivity, and because every aspect of the operation is included in the checklist, the inspection is comprehensive. 

Three separate checklists are used at different stages of the drilling operation. A pre-deployment inspection is done by a competent inspector, preferably at the contractor’s workshop, before the equipment leaves for site. In this way, any defects can be remedied in the workshop by qualified staff rather than at the mine. Once the drill and all ancillary equipment is on-site, set-up and ready, a pre-operation inspection is done. This will check issues that could not be inspected at the workshop; barricading, sump layout, lifting tackle and rod racking, for example, will all be checked. If all is in order, the inspector will authorise the contractor to start drilling. A periodic checklist is used on a weekly or biweekly basis and focuses on checking aspects of equipment that require regular maintenance and repair such as the core barrel, overshots, hoist cables, chuck jaws, quill rods, rotation-head guides, etc. This inspection also checks and verifies operating procedures. Initially the contractors pushed against the implementation of a safety standard. However, it did not take long for them to recognise that the process had many advantages. Firstly, it levelled the playing field – all contractors had to conform to the standard, and so pricing of contracts was much more comparable than was previously the case. Contractors also began to realise that improved levels of safety did not hinder productivity. Probably the greatest improvement was in the relationship between the contractor and the mining company; the contractor and the mine knew exactly what the requirements were and so there were no surprises when a safety inspection was done. Consequently, the contractor became a part of the solution to the problem.