Monday, June 30, 2014

drilling payment

When I plan subcontracts, there are generally two ways that I prefer to pay for the work: by the unit of x produced, or by time spent. For drilling, most of the time, I prefer to pay by the foot rather than a day rate.

The footage rate is a performance basis. If the driller brings equipment prone to break down or encounters problems with the geology and can't go as fast as he'd planned, then the drilling company is on the hook for that extra time. This carries more risk for the drilling company, so their cost proposal is likely to be on the high side. However, if I have lots of information about the local geology and quirks of the site (for example, if we've already put in a couple of boreholes) and we have a pre-bid meeting, then the drilling company has less risk and will provide a more reasonable footage rate.

If a crew is being paid by the day, then there's less incentive for them to be as efficient as possible, and if they have equipment breakdowns or obvious periods when they're not productive, then I need to have a reckoning regarding how much of that time I'm willing to pay. However, if the work involves a lot of not drilling (they're required to decontaminate the drill rig with toothbrushes, they need to haul all their equipment and investigation-derived waste back to the staging area every night, etc.) then paying by the day does make sense. The drillers would need to have a wildly inflated footage rate to account for all that extra work.

I have zero interest in paying for stuff on a time and materials basis: today the driller used 2.5 bags of sand on this monitoring well, 3 bags of sand on that well, 2 rolls of teflon tape, 3 well caps, 3 well locks, 15 protective casings because they were all installed at once... It's a good way to make things overly complicated, and I don't really care what items were used, as long as the work was done safely and to our standards.

In the past, I've used a mix of payment items (mobilization fee, footage rate for each type of drilling, standby for delays that I cause). If it's a big job with multiple rigs, it's really best to go through and determine how much of each item on a daily basis. Otherwise, the accounting gets... difficult. And generally, the driller has his own items which I don't care about because they'll get rolled into the final invoice back at the office. But as I've gotten older, I've tried to minimize the number of items so that I have the level of accounting I need but the person watching the rig doesn't spend ages trying to figure out what we'll pay for.

On the surface, the intricacies of subcontracts appear overly nitpicky and not all that interesting. But since I've been stuck with massive cost overruns, invoices that bear no resemblance to reality, and heated arguments in the field about who paid for what... it pays to get this stuff right. And it doesn't take all that much effort to do so - you just need to consider what the end goal of the project is and how the subcontract helps or doesn't help that goal.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

fieldwork + ticks

I was traipsing through the woods (and the fields, and a bunch of heavy shrubbery) and didn't notice any ticks, spiders, or other unsavory critters hanging out on my clothing. But my coworker, who covered the same ground, found one tick in "an unspeakable location" and several more on his pants. Am I lucky, or just not very good at detecting ticks on myself?

I was having phantom "creepy crawlies" everywhere for the rest of the day after he said it. It was a long afternoon.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

tailgate wrangling

It's standard to have a tailgate (field team briefing) meeting every morning of fieldwork. Everyone gets to the trailer/office/designated meeting area and we discuss the plans for the day and any health and safety items of note. It usually takes about 10 minutes. Did anything go wrong/did anybody notice anything yesterday that we can do better today? Any special issues with what we're doing? Where will everyone be, and how do we all stay in touch as needed? The tailgate meeting is where I hand out the sign-in sheet, and often I have a form everyone has to initial documenting their attendance at the meeting.

The whole point of the meeting is that everyone shows up at one place so we can go through this stuff before we scatter to the wind. As the field team leader or the site safety person, I can give multiple team briefings as needed if someone's going to show up at a different time, especially on days when crews first arrive at the site. But it's far better to have a single team briefing at one time, so we can include everyone and I'm not chasing after stray people.

So how well does this work out? In my experience, from best (easiest to wrangle) to worst (hardest to wrangle):

1. Coworkers who are full-time field people (for the job in question), for a job that we're staying somewhere for: We're all at the same hotel. I have your cell phone information and have no compunction banging on your door if you don't show up.

2. Coworkers who are full-time for this job who are commuting: You may get stuck in traffic. Once or twice. After that, you'd better be here early enough that you can account for traffic variations. I have various options for exerting pressure on you to be on-site as needed (usually a discussion with management will shake loose some solutions).

3. Skilled labor subcontractors: Drillers, heavy equipment operators, other construction types. These folks are used to clients who demand exact (and early) arrival times. With very rare exceptions, once instructed (and they see that I'm serious about expecting them, so after the first couple of days) they will show up on time to the meeting, will head immediately to the gathering spot, and will help me out by publicly shaming anyone who shows up more than 2 minutes late. They may be caught late in traffic or have heavy equipment that will take a while to arrive, or switch out personnel (who will require a whole site briefing) unexpectedly.

4. Scientific subcontractors: These are more variable, and include folks such as remediation specialists, surveyors, geophysics folks, archaeologists, etc. Most of the scientific contractors I've used have been great, although in many cases they are used to being totally independent and may need to be reminded to check in for the tailgate meeting. However, a few contractors have considered themselves above the rules - not showing up when they say they will, ignoring safety protocols when they're inconvenient, not turning on their radios or checking out so I have to do a manhunt before I lock everything down for the night... It is a rare scientific contractor who is so special, they cannot be replaced with someone else. Maybe not for that project, but those contractors shouldn't expect another bid request from me.

5. High-level technical coworkers: These include corporate health and safety personnel, the project manager, and various technical leads. They should at least be aware of health and safety/site access protocols, but tend to drop in unannounced. I usually just give them a quick site briefing when/if I find out they're on-site.

6. Regulators, client representatives, neighbors, facility staff: They may have no idea how the site runs, and in the case of some client reps and facility staff, have no experience or interest in health and safety/environmental investigations. Regulators are better about checking in. The worst is when "not direct line of command" but interested parties want to know the content of these briefings but may not actually be interested in showing up. Or they say they'll show up, and you keep 10 or 15 or 20 other people waiting for no-shows.

The tailgate meeting is often just an exercise in attendance documentation. But if I'm trying to keep a complicated project moving forward, it's important to make sure everyone, from contractor foremen to laborers to scientific staff, are on the same page, and to have a forum to communicate changes and complications.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Poison ivy + gloves

After this incident, I became extremely careful about wearing nitrile gloves at field sites with poison ivy. So then what happens?

(I know it's a strange photo - I have my wrists up-turned and jammed together and the angle makes it look like I have a bizarrely skinny right arm)

I have two theories:

1. I was juggling a bunch of gear, some of which likely sat on/knocked against poison ivy plants. When I collected everything in my arms, the urishiol (oil) got transferred to the inside of my wrists.

2. It was hot out. I had sweat pouring out from under my gloves every time I raised my hands. That moisture represented a gap in my skin's defenses, so that's why I got the blisters there.

I like theory 2. I had a short sleeve shirt and the scratches on my arms to show that I blundered into just about everything. But I have only a few stray bumps near the scratches.

Luckily, I'm still working through the giant tub of prescription steroid cream I got in grad school for just such an occasion.

Monday, June 16, 2014

where do geologists end up?

Ben Schmidt is a data visualizer with a bunch of graphics regarding higher ed and careers. I started poking around, and here are a few relevant to environmental work/geology:

One is a visualization of college majors compared to careers (most common majors/most common careers). You can click on a particular major to see the most common careers. Unfortunately, the "career" track doesn't appear to include a "scientist" or "technician" option, and so the sort of work I do would probably get rolled into the "miscellaneous manager" option. I couldn't figure out a way to save/show the chart, but for people who don't click on links, geology majors tend to end up in miscellaneous analyst/manager positions or in education. The breakdown is similar for environmental science majors, although the legal profession is a little more popular.

Another graphic shows the percentage of selected BAs compared to all other majors over time. You can click on the majors displayed on the left of the chart. In this case, the majors are grouped into large categories, but physical science majors have generally been decreasing and engineering has been relatively stable. You can also split out the results by institution type and school (if it's been added in).

I do have to keep in mind that geology and the environmental field are extremely small industries, as I've discussed before. So those visualizations really just give a hint as to what we're doing.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

One minute of work

Last month, Athene Donald was asked to describe a minute of her job.

Most of the minutes of my job would not be all that exciting to watch. Watch Short Geologist scowl at her in-box! Type furiously away! Scribble notes while shuffling between several extra-large pieces of paper!

Even in the field, at any given time I'm likely to be on the phone or taking notes of some sort. Or dragging awkward/heavy objects around. But I do have exciting minutes. For example, when the driller cuts open an acetate liner and there's all sorts of cool layers of soil and bits of unidentifiable metal. Or he shakes out the rock core and there's a vug with giant crystals inside. Sometimes I don't have the joy of discovery, but instead the joy of bushwhacking through thickets or mashing mud around. Sometimes I'm doing boring stuff but there's a territorial grouse or squirrel chattering at me for entertainment. And watching a drill rig in action can be cool if you really stop to look at how all the pieces work together.

When I'm in the field, usually I'm juggling a bunch of stuff at once, and if nothing's going wrong at that minute, I'm probably preparing for the next thing that will need to be fixed. But it's worth taking some time out to appreciate those minutes which are terrific.

Friday, June 6, 2014

six figures!

I have just now (ok, probably sometime earlier today) gotten 100,000 pageviews! Of which about 70,000 are just me poking around old posts, either because I'm trying to find inspiration for a new post or because I'm trying to find something specific to link to.

I kid. For the last year or so, I've been able to maintain a reasonably steady pageview count, and the number goes up even if I haven't checked in for a while. So it's not just me and my (extremely small) commentariat.

I've noticed that a few of the longer-running blogs in the geoblogosphere, and those that were especially active when I first started writing, have dropped significantly in frequency or have stopped altogether in the last couple of years. So maybe I have more viewers by attrition.

Many of the geoblog aggregators I'm familiar with include blogs that are relatively inactive. Do you have any favorite websites (or blogs) that list a bunch of environmental/geology blogs that are active? I may need to poke around to add to my bloglist...

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

it stinks!

A few months ago, I visited an area with very stinky tap water (stinky groundwater) from naturally-occurring hydrogen sulfide, which produces a rotten-egg odor. It reminded me of other times I've encountered stinky groundwater. In order of increasing offensiveness:

1. Sulfurous water doesn't smell great, but it doesn't bother me all that much.

2. Monitoring wells set a tad too close to a septic tank can be... unpleasant.

3. I've worked at former tanneries, and monitoring wells screened in essentially a pile of carcasses produce a particularly rancid stench.

4. The worst, by far, was a site of a large ethanol spill. It was an industrial staging area which had quite a lot of old hydrocarbon contamination. The site had a bunch of hydrocarbon-eating microbes, and when the ethanol hit that contaminated groundwater, the bugs went bonkers. All good, right? Well, what those bugs produced was butyric acid, at an eye-watering concentration (literally). It smelled overwhelmingly of stale beer vomit, which then permeated everything. The car we were driving. Our bag of trash (from our gloves). Our clothing. That smell followed our sample bottleware through the hallways of our office and lingered for ages.

If you wear the proper protective gear, the smell of what you've been playing with all day doesn't usually permeate your skin/clothing. But some stinky water can be more... persistent. There's nothing quite coming home from work smelling like a frat party. A bad frat party.