You Know the Drill: Safety in HDD, Foundations Drilling
Safety is key in the drilling business, according to Benjamin Wright, safety director at Dig-It Inc., a telecommunications, power and utility contractor that specializes in horizontal directional drilling (HDD) and foundation drilling.
“I tell new guys all the time when they come in here that this is a dangerous job. You’re working around live utilities. You’ve got environmental hazards in terms of cold weather, hot weather, wildlife, plant life, poison ivy, traffic hazards, all sorts of stuff,” Wright says. “If you can’t keep your guys safe, there’s no point in doing any of this.”
Wright has been with the Hastings, Mich., based company since 2004. It started off as a part-time summer job between his junior and senior years of high school. Now, nearly 14 years later, he’s still there. Wright has advanced from laborer to machine operator to crew leader to safety director. When he started with Dig-It, he says there were just four or five employees. Now he estimates roughly 40 employees, with four or five crews.
The company itself isn’t the only thing that has changed over Wright’s drilling career. He says the industry as a whole has changed drastically, especially in the past four years. “When I started, that was all it was, was low bid wins. That’s not the case anymore. It’s your safety program first and foremost, how thorough it is, the fact that you even have one, is the most important thing. Safety in general in the industry has just really moved to the forefront, which is just really awesome.”
Q. What do you do and what keeps you coming back every day?
A. What keeps me doing this every day is making sure the human element of the business is taken care of. That’s the most important part of the business, is making sure our team members get home safe every night. If you’re not taking care of that, then nothing else matters. I personally feel a weight on my shoulders to make sure the guys get home. That weighs on me daily, but that’s also a commitment I made to the company and I feel like I can do a really good job at it. So I want to make sure that’s happening. So that is primarily what keeps me coming back every day. That and just the challenges we talked about with growing rapidly. We’re trying to implement processes. It’s fun. It’s challenging, but I’ve been in periods of my life where I wasn’t being challenged and usually if you’re not being challenged or swamped, you quickly wish that you were. Primarily those two things.
Q. What does a typical workday involve?
A. It’s different every day, which is great. That’s the best part of the job, really. It can involve administrative stuff, safety meetings with our crews, jobsite visits, meetings with our leadership team. It really varies. I try to keep a plan each day. I make it before I go home. I kind of make a list of stuff I’d like to get accomplished the next day. That helps a lot. Sometimes other things happen and that changes that, but that’s pretty much it. So it changes. There’s not really a set schedule per day in terms of what I do. But typically that kind of stuff.
Q. What does it take to succeed in what you do?
A. Being open to change really is huge. I guess being able to turn on a dime, so to speak, as situations occur or even just simple decisions that need to be made. It helps to be able to see things from a big picture. I guess the 30,000-foot view, while also being able to see things at the ground level, which is hard for me because I’m a detail-oriented person. That’s one of my stronger assets but sometimes it can handicap me because I’m not seeing the big picture and I’m caught up in the details. Definitely being open to change, being able to see things from all aspects.
Second, to succeed, you have to be able to interact with your team members, work together. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and the sooner you find out and understand what those are in everyone else, you kind of find a way to make another person’s strengths compliment your weaknesses, and you do the same for that person.
Q. What do you wish you knew when you started?
A. It’s not so much what I wish I knew. Part of me wishes I would have went and gotten a formal degree in the beginning, in the safety industry. When I started here, I was in high school and it was just going to be a summer job. Then it blossomed into this great career I have now in which I’m, hopefully, able to positively impact our team members’ lives every day. That being said, having a decade of field experience as a laborer, operator, crew leader, etc., that’s not something I can just go to a school and learn. And I can always go to school, and I plan to. So I’m thankful for the way it all worked out.
Q. What tool can you not imagine working without?
A. The Internet. It’s such a huge resource and I can’t imagine even 20 years ago not having that around to be able to draw from when I have a question. There are so many resources at our fingertips. That’s extremely helpful to me when it comes to not having a formal education. I think at some point that fills that gap, where 30 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to succeed because you would have had to have the books and learn and be taught all of the stuff, whereas now I can get some of that from the Internet. I do other training courses. I do a lot of certification classes. So there’s that.
The second thing would probably be having colleagues to reach out to. I’ve got a couple of other colleagues that do have the educational side of things, so that helps. But also, they just have more experience or different kinds of experience, so I can reach out to them and say, “Hey. I’m running into this. Have you run into something like this before? How’d you handle it? What’d you learn from it?” So, I guess the perspective of another person is invaluable and they see things from a different angle that you may not have seen right away. So perspective is huge.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A. I’ve got two pieces of advice, actually. One would be removing fear from decision making. If you’re making your decisions with fear as your basis, it just clouds your judgement and cripples you. That being said, there’s a huge difference between fear and being cautious. But just removing that from the equation, seeing things clearly for what they are and being open to change. That’s been huge advice for me.
The second one goes back to the last question, gaining perspective of others. It gives you new insight into how to make a decision or it shows you something you might not have seen because everyone interprets things differently. To gain that perspective that someone else has can change the way you see something. Our leadership team went to Nashville, Tenn., this past March for a four-day strategic planning session and if I was to speak for the rest of the team, those would be the two biggest takeaways from that experience.
Q. How would you describe the present state of the industry?
A. From Dig-It’s standpoint, it’s pretty exciting. Massive infrastructure upgrades are going on right now so, first and foremost, it gives you work. Also, just technology in terms of reporting, the training resources it provides, the resources you could provide remotely to your team members, GPS tracking, etc. Obviously, I’m not a 40-year veteran of the industry, but [we’re in a] drastically different place than when I started working here in 2004. Especially, the changes to the safety side of things are particularly exciting. Changing from the low-bid mentality to a safety-conscious mentality; it’s been a long time coming and that’s something I couldn’t be happier about. That’s not to say it isn’t difficult or we haven’t encountered some bumps in the road or will in the future, but I guess if was easy everyone would be doing this type of work.