During a horizontal directional drilling (HDD) operation, one of the most dangerous work areas is the ‘exit pit’ where the drill head (reamer) emerges from the ground. No one should be anywhere near this equipment at any time it’s operational.

That’s because when it’s in operation, the reamer moves at a fast and forceful pace. In fact, the part that sticks out of the ground can move back and forth, up and down, and even sway beyond the boundaries of the exit pit. Anyone near the equipment is in danger of being struck by, pulled into, and potentially wrapped around the spinning reamer.

Certainly, no one would want to be on top of the reamer when it’s turned off only to have the machinery fire back up to begin the pullback process. But, it does happen.

What your employees need to do in order to stay safe

The only time to approach the reamer is when the machinery is shut down and locked out after the initial underground path is drilled. Workers should stay on the ground while connecting the utility lines and only give the command to start after leaving the exit pit and ensuring they’re a safe distance away.

The most serious HDD injuries occur after utility cables or pipelines are connected to the reamer to be pulled back through that underground path.

Other steps to take to avoid injury include:

  • Establish a safe distance from the drill rod and connecting product during pullbacks. Safe distances vary by worksite and the type of material being pulled through. Your employees should be far enough away so that they will not be struck by moving equipment once the pullback process begins.
  • Tie back long hair and don’t wear loose clothing or jewelry around the HDD drill. These increase the risk of an employee being pulled in should they not adhere to the safe distance when the machine is in operation or if the machine starts up unexpectedly.
  • High visibility vests or clothing should be worn to provide good visual confirmation that workers are at a safe distance.
  • Communicate. When the time comes to begin the pullback process, the operator of the drill—who is stationed where the drill first entered the ground—should be in contact with the person at the other end (the tracker) who hooks the utility lines to the reamer. Using a radio, hand signals, and if possible standing where he/she can see the tracker, specific language must be used to confirm no one is in danger.

An example might be (if the safe distance is 10 feet):

Operator: “Are you at least 10 feet from the drill?”
Tracker: “Yes I’m at least 10 feet from the drill.”
Operator: “Is everyone else at least 10 feet from the drill?”
Tracker: “Yes, everyone else is at least 10 feet from the drill!”

At your safety meeting

Demonstrate and discuss how the drill rod moves, how that movement can pull a worker in, and how that can lead to injury.

  • Establish the safe distance from the drill before work starts and announce it at the meeting.
  • Establish and practice the language between the operator and tracker that must be repeated before the pullback process begins.
  • Make sure workers have the right PPE, such as: high visibility vests, hard hats, safety glasses, and dielectric rubber gloves and boots. Make sure radios are in proper working order.
  • Review your emergency response plan.

HDD-related injuries can be catastrophic and even fatal. But, by exiting the exit pit and then staying a safe distance away from the machinery when it fires up, your employees can watch the powerful machinery do its job, without putting their well-being in jeopardy.

The above evaluations and/or recommendations are for general guidance only and should not be relied upon for medical advice or legal compliance purposes. They are based solely on the information provided to us and relate only to those conditions specifically discussed. We do not make any warranty, expressed or implied, that your workplace is safe or healthful or that it complies with all laws, regulations or standards.