A Lifetime of Drilling

December 21, 2018

Having recently retired from the ground investigation industry, with some forty years of experience, and finally as Principal Geologist within the Infrastructure & Energy Division of SOCOTEC, I was asked to pen a perspective on how the sector has changed.

A bit of background, I started my career as an assistant geologist with Soil Mechanics Limited in 1978 which later traded as ESG and in 2017 was acquired by SOCOTEC. Over this time significant changes in how the UK GI industry is organised has taken place.

In the 1970’s and early 1980’s GI’s were managed by a few London-based Consultants with 5 or 6 major GI contractors located in the regions carrying out most investigations.  Many of the GI contractors were owned by the large civil engineering contractors working with in-house rigs and operatives and little if any borehole construction was subcontracted out. As an assistant geologist you could be on site anywhere in the UK or overseas.

From the mid 1980’s many more consultants became involved with geotechnical work and the sector became regionalised with GI teams spread around the major cities of the UK.  At the same time subcontractors, both cable tool and rotary, began to take over from in-house crews leading to the proliferation of SME’s who act as the GI management contractors we see in the industry today. This expansion in employers, contractors and consultants, has provided nationwide job opportunities for young geologists and engineers who want to work in ground investigation. Regionalisation, however, limits their experience to the ground conditions and techniques appropriate their area. It is to the detriment of the industry that young staff and operatives miss out on a broader nation and worldwide education and experience than when I was in the formative years of my career.

There has been little if no advancement in cable tool boring rig design over the last 40 years with the recent exception of the complete redesign of the cable tool rig to comply with health and safety legislation. The new cable tool rig has still to prove its capability in the field and with the number of ‘old-style’ rigs in the industry it will be a few years before this new design makes an impact.  Rotary rigs are the opposite to cable tool; seeing significant changes to design in the last 40 years. In the late 1970’s the majority of GI rotary rigs were direct mechanical drive spindle type with very few of the top-drive hydraulic rigs we are familiar with today.

The switch to top-drive units with the trend for them to be more compact, was driven by the industry requirements for a rig which is capable of hole construction using a wide range of drilling techniques and by increased focus on health and safety. It was unheard of in the 1970’s and 1980’s to see a GI rotary rig fitted with break out clamps and holding clamps, interlocked safety cages, remote control both drilling and tracking, dynamic sampling hammers, wireline winches, on board flush pumps, etc., all of which are fitted as standard on most rotary rigs today. These changes have been driven by health and safety legislation and hopefully these improvements will continue to be made to the benefit of operatives and make companies adopt plant-upgrade strategies instead of the stop /start capital investment programmes I have witnessed throughout my career.  Lead Drillers should have modern, efficient and safe plant to work with.

At the start of my career rotary drilling was usually restricted to rock but over the last 40 years it has expanded to include core drilling to obtain Class 1 samples in soils with Geobore S, dynamic sampling of overburden and drill and case systems to advance boreholes through obstructions and ground not ideal for cable tool boring or core drilling.  I first worked with the predecessor to Geobore S on the GI for the proposed Baghdad Metro in 1982/3. Soil Mechanics then introduced this system into the UK in 1984 and since then it has become a standard method of core drilling in many different materials to provide high quality 100mm diameter samples for laboratory testing. I was involved with the GI for the Dalton in Furness Bypass in 1987 where Geobore S was first used in glacial till to provide Class 1 samples replacing cable tool boring, which was unable to advance through large boulders.

In the last 10 years sonic or resonance drilling has made a significant entry into the UK drilling market and has proved very successful in overburden materials such as glacial till in which cable tool boring and core drilling struggle to advance the hole and retrieve samples. It is also been used extensively in ground contamination studies in the UK to provide specimens for laboratory tests, which have not been affected by the drilling process.

Who had heard of geo-environmental investigations in the late 1970’s. They started to appear in the late 1980’s when heavily contaminated industrial areas left derelict after the restructuring of the UK economy became available for development. I was involved in the first large GI with a substantial geo-environmental element carried out for the Black Country Spine Road in the West Midlands. No ground investigation these days is complete without a geo environmental element and the requirements of this sector lead to the development of techniques such as window sampling, dynamic sampling and the introduction of sonic drilling into the UK market. Aligned with increased awareness of ground and groundwater contamination has been the significant increase in awareness of the environmental impact drilling works have not just on the nearby ecological system but on the local human population. This can only be a development for the better.

Other developments  and improvements in the last 40 years include the introduction of small self elevating jack up platforms suitable for use in the civil engineering sector, which have made the construction of boreholes in tidally affected waters easier and safer, development of sophisticated high-pressure dilatometers and self-boring pressure meters as well as the introduction of the measurement of drilling parameters during borehole construction.

The most significant change in the UK drilling industry over the last 10 to 15 years has been the introduction of much improved health, safety and welfare driven by changes in legislation aimed at improving the general health and safety of construction workers. Forty years ago, you would have worn a pair of safety boots and possibly a safety helmet. Today Drill crews are kitted out in smart good quality work wear and PPE, good welfare facilities are provided, and we have health monitoring through programmes like Constructing Better Health. These can only be seen in a positive light and a massive improvement over where we were 40 years ago; long may it continue to improve.

Safety improvements such as the production of task specific RAMS, morning briefings, task specific tool box talks, open and honest reporting of reporting of incidents and near misses and a willingness to raise concerns have to be a significant improvement on where the industry was even 20 years ago. Major clients such as HS2 are constantly driving H and S change and improvement and this will only continue as they attempt to reduce the potential for a serious incident. As an industry we need to improve how we manage H and S on-site and on several very large contracts I have been responsible for a full-time on-site H and S Manager has been allowed for at tender stage and involved pre-mobilisation and during the site works. In the future I would like to see clients on major infrastructure projects instructing a full-time qualified H and S manager to be on site during the GI.

Linked to improved health and safety is the significant improvement in the training and annual auditing of drill crews over the last 15 years. The British Drilling Association (BDA) first introduced the Driller Accreditation Scheme in 1990, prior to this date drillers had no proof of competency or formal training. The Accreditation Scheme required a driller to be assessed as competent to perform his role, but formal training and annual audits were some way off. In 2000 the NVQ for Drillers was established and in 2005 the BDA introduced the annual audit.

Over the last 5 to 10 years formal training for drillers has really taken off with many undertaking courses to operate ancillary plant such as fork lifts etc., personal survival courses for offshore work, 4WD vehicle driving, load slinging, banksmen, working at height, asbestos non-licensed worker etc. All SOCOTEC in-house Lead Drillers have undertaken the SSSTS course to improve their understanding of health and safety. Though training costs money and disrupts work patterns, in my opinion, the current position is a massive improvement on where we were even 20 years ago. The drillers appreciate the training they are given and take the lessons leant into the workplace. It is a pity some clients and consultants do not police the “yellow book” requirement for BDA Audited Lead Drillers. My hope for the future is that clients and consultants will see the benefits of BDA Audited and well-trained drillers and the level of audit uptake will increase. My concern is this will only happen following a serious incident.

Advances in electronic data management have changed how field records are collated, data shared and analysed and the how GI reports are presented. Until the mid-1980’s all data was recorded using manuscript record sheets and the borehole logs and laboratory test results for GI reports were prepared using typewriters, draughtsmen prepared site plans, all in situ and lab test results were hand-calculated by the technician or engineer/geologist with final reports being issued as paper copies. The availability of early PC computers in the mid to late 1980’s saw the introduction of the computerised borehole log and monitoring of some lab tests with data acquisition units. This trend for electronic data and monitoring has continued and was boosted when the Association of Geotechnical Specialists (AGS) introduced version 1 of the AGS Data transfer System in 1992. In 2018 the industry still uses some manuscript record sheets but the continuing trend is for the provision of digital data with daily drilling journals, field logs etc prepared on tablet computers, monitoring with data loggers in the field and the lab becoming common place, lab and field tests results calculated by computer, site plans produced via CAD and reports no longer printed on paper but transmitted electronically and data provided in AGS 4 format for import into a data base. Though these systems undoubtedly improve data handling and the speed of data transfer, they have diminished the technical quality of the end product as we removed interaction with the lab technician, geologist and engineer who had the experience to identify when something is not quite right. The computer tells us the answer, so it has to be right seems to be the norm. This is also seen in the Specifications and Bill of Quantities, which we see every day, which often contain errors and omissions with documents prepared taking no account of the anticipated ground conditions and the type of investigation required. However, computers provide rapid access to existing information, for example via the BGS website and the rich seam of information you can mine from search engines. It would have been wonderful to have had access to all that information 30 to 40 years ago. When I started in the drilling industry, there was very little published information on borehole construction in the civil engineering sector and you learnt about borehole construction at the rig side talking to Lead Drillers and observing.

Borehole construction is dominated by males with few, if any, females, possibly due to the physical and mobile requirement of the occupation. In the UK 99% of the personnel employed on construction sites are male. More women may be attracted into the industry with increased automation of drilling rigs, which will no doubt occur as technology develops and Health and Safety Regulations are changed to maintain relevance with new technology. Female engineers and geologists make up less than 10 % of the GI work force and this must improve. Some barriers are being broken down with females holding senior roles in the UK GI contracting and consulting sectors. The industry needs to recruit and retain the top quality graduates of both genders if it wants to develop and thrive.

Like all engineering the GI sector is struggling to recruit and retain young people and this can only be a bad thing. There are many reasons; it could be remuneration, working conditions, unsuitable and unsociable working hours, the mobile nature of the work in early career stages, the pressurised environment and the increasing health and safety responsibility and consequences. The development of personnel and possible lack of career progression could also be a factor along with the increased use of agency/self-employed staff, where earning potential is higher but restricts knowledge and range of expertise. The GI contracting industry in 2018 does not allow people to develop a wide range of expertise, for example, in borehole design and construction, lab testing, reporting etc, and this is partly due to dominance of Agency and self-employed staff. This disconnect between the various facets of GI in my opinion have resulted in a lowering of the quality of the end product. The industry needs to give staff time to develop expertise in lots of different areas and reward staff for technical competency and not just commercial acumen. Young engineers and geologists also need to understand that their development and promotion to senior positions may take longer than they believe it should and allow themselves time to gain critical field experience. The same can be said for Drillers where the current trend is to get them to Lead Driller status in two years, again experience and learning from others in the field cannot be replaced. The drilling industry is not suited to all and young drillers and graduates either love or hate it. Those that love it tend to stick around for a long time and those that hate it move into another sector. Clearly having spent 40 years in the UK GI sector, I must love it; there have been a few jobs that have not gone to plan but even those taught me something and it is not often I go home at the end of the day without having learnt something new about the drilling industry or myself. It is the variety, challenges comradeship and site banter that has kept me doing it for 40 years.

If you want to work in an industry that allows you to travel, meet new people all the time, work with talented people, constantly challenge you, occasionally frustrate you and give you a job with endless variations and lots of fun then I would certainly recommend the drilling industry to you. If you want a 9 to 5 job, home every night, a nice warm office, minimal stress and little variation, don’t join the drilling industry, but I guess you already know that because you are reading this article and, therefore, have already been infected by the drilling bug.

Stephen Tomlinson, Principal Geologist

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