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HammerTech Talks with Dona File, Corporate Safety Director, LF Driscoll

By Georgia Bergers on August, 26 2020
In this episode:
  • Unity in the sea of change – hear how Dona is uniting industry leaders around new safety standards in the face of COVID
  • Creating a culture where safety is embraced, not shunned
  • Case studies for safety excellence and the importance of setting aspirational goals
  • Shared wisdom for the next generation of safety leaders

 

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Georgia:

Hammertech Talks is a chance for you to join me as we dig into the world of construction pros to find out what makes them tick and helps them succeed. This series will open the door to an industry that we're passionate about and showcase the amazing people and ideas that are the infrastructure to building great things. Construction folk love a story and a laugh. So we're going to have some fun. And you'll take away new perspectives to improve your operations and help create the next normal in construction. For those of you who don't know us, we're Hammertech, we're a cloud based, performance and productivity platform, ensuring safety, quality, and operational efficiency. Let's get into it.

Georgia:

So today we're talking with Dona File, LF Driscoll's Corporate Safety Director based out of Philadelphia. So welcome Dona, thank you so much for joining us on HammerTech Talks.

Georgia:

So Dona has been at LF Driscoll for an impressive amount of time. And from early days has been deeply invested in pushing the aspirations of their safety program. We got to know Dona through the HammerTech safety leadership round table. And Dona, I have much respect for your inquisitive and perhaps unwillingness to accept the status quo and your frank approach to both giving feedback, but also making sure that best practices are being shared. And I really think we need more of that in the industry.

Georgia:

So the first question I'd love to ask you is, what keeps you in a business for 30 years?

Dona:

A great team and a great company. Driscoll's just been such a joy to work with. I remember as a young carpenter that I really wanted to work for Driscoll because they seemed to have a lot of integrity. And I always felt from the time I was an apprentice, a carpenter apprentice, that I could write my name and my home phone number on any piece of work that I did. And then somebody could call me and question as to why I had made that decision or that cut that way, or struck that line, whatever. And Driscoll was very interested in wanting to do things the right way the first time. And that appealed to me.

Georgia:

It's amazing. And so, from what I can gather, you have a history of creating space for businesses to be able to adopt best practices, long before they're the industry norm. So there's a couple of stories that you shared with me around that. And I wondered if you could share some of those, and through that, let us know what your approach is to creating alignment around best practices.

Dona:

Well, I want to say that I got into the union in 1980 as a first year apprentice, and we didn't even wear hardhats. We built entire high rise buildings in downtown Philadelphia without hard hats. So this has been a huge culture change in 40 years of my career, to get to the place where we really are not just going backwards on things, but we're going ahead. The first was really, as I became a safety director, I was appointed Safety Director in 1992, was to make sure people were wearing hard hats. And I would become frustrated. I was actually very intimidated by my new role. And I would have to talk myself into... Before a safety audit meeting, I'd say, "Now, you know more about safety than everybody in this room." To kind of bolster my confidence. Because men who I was working for yesterday, I was now superior to them. And that was very intimidating to me, especially being the only woman.

Dona:

And anyway, we worked on hard hats. And then in '97 we decided, we put together a corporate safety committee somewhere along the line, maybe 96 or 95, and decided to adopt safety glasses as a standard, a hundred percent safety glasses. And it has taken many, many steps. First it was while you were just using a tool. And then it was just engaged in a task or do you even have them on you for crying out loud? And then I remember poignantly, I went up to one guy, these two men were setting a toilet and I thanked the one guy for having his glasses on. And he said, "Oh, I have to wear my glasses because I only have one eye." So, that was a really meaningful moment to me. And I realized that, I said, "Well, can you please tell that to your partner? Because he needs to have his safety glasses on too."

Dona:

So in 97, I can remember arguing on the corporate safety committee that, do we even need to have this rule? I mean, this is so hard to enforce and nobody else is doing it. Guys don't have glasses on them. And I said, "Listen, we need to have a rule to aspire to. Because if we don't, we're never going to achieve it." When you have to aspire to something all the time and aspire to something more beyond that. So that's how we've been with our journey. And we tracked eye accidents, and they were maybe 33% of our accidents. And it's come down to 2% or almost none.

Dona:

In 2012, we decided we were going to start a gloves policy. And this was really foreign. The only time you really wore gloves was when you were handling something sharp or heavy, like lumber, heavy lumber, rip your hands apart. So getting this idea that you would need to wear gloves. And I started to track in 2012, our hand injuries. And we had, I think it was 28% of all of our injuries were hand injuries, that most likely could have been prevented with gloves. We got down to about 4%, a couple years ago, and now we're hovering around 6%, which is maybe only four hand injuries. But if you walk in a Driscoll job site today, almost everybody's wearing gloves.

Dona:

The new challenge that we've had with COVID-19 is of course, everyone is required to wear, especially in Pennsylvania, a facial covering. So when you have your mask on, and a lot of these are cloth masks, this happens to be a medical grade mask, but level three. So when you have your mask on and your safety glasses and your hard hat, and of course the men fog up, which is what they always said when we just started with safety glasses. And it's like, "Hey dude, I have to wear prescription glasses. So I'm not really sympathetic to the fact that your glasses fog up. Your employer needs to get anti-fog, whatever to help you manage that."

Dona:

Now, with the COVID-19, every workplace in Pennsylvania, from the Pennsylvania Secretary of health, the employer has to provide and mandate mask wearing. So I'm in a separate office now to tape this, so you can actually see my face. But otherwise, at my desk, technically I should be wearing my mask unless I'm eating. So we've had all these challenges in personal protective equipment, which of course is the last line of defense. But the thing to remember about PPE, and it's kind of the mantra that we started with hard hats. We're union labor, we're paid the highest price the market will bear. And it's part of our uniform. You wouldn't go to work without work boots. We don't work in sneakers. 

I can remember arguing with guys about wearing shorts. They wanted to wear shorts to work and sleeveless tees and whatnot. And we have a uniform. We're professionals. And this is what we're expected to do. And you need to just maintain that line. A couple of months ago, Brendan, my assistant came to me and said, "Can we relax the eyeglasses? Because they're fogging up." And this was before it got hot out. I mean, it's been over 90, it'll be more than seven days in a row or eight days in a row this week. So it is excruciatingly hot out here in Philadelphia. And I said, "No, this has been 23 years of my career trying to get safety glasses to be the norm." And we can't go backwards. We just can't go backwards.

Georgia:

And how do you go about maintaining that alignment moving forward, once you've got it?

Dona:

Well, we have a great safety team. So with the COVID now we have a teams meeting every week and we go over things. Our corporate safety audits, Brendan conducts and goes from job to job. And our superintendents know what's expected of them. And honestly, we've gotten incredible executive support in the past several years around safety and talking about, what teams struggle and what teams succeed at the executive level with our Vice Presidents. So the teams that struggle, we give them more support and the teams that strive, we steal their success.

Georgia:

And celebrate the success. I noticed that you established, or you were the Founder and President of the Mid-Atlantic Construction Safety Council. So, as you've just taken us through, you've seen some great changes in that time. And I wondered, starting on a positive note, what do you think is going well with respect to safety in the U.S.?

Dona:

Well I can't speak to the whole country, but I can certainly speak to our region. And in 1997 I decided to start the Mid-Atlantic Construction Safety Council. Because a lot of the feedback we got on jobs was, "Well, we don't have to do that on this job." Or, "We don't have to do that on that job." So my idea was, I actually had my secretary at the time write a letter to all of our competitors and invite them to this... I was in a trailer with a couple of guys, in a pre-planning meeting. It was actually... It was 1990... Had to be 97 and the new fall protection standard had just come out from OSHA. And... I'm so old, I still call it the new fall protection standard.

It wasn't in effect yet, but we put it in effect. And it was basically, tie off. And it really clearly defined what the expectations were. And I said to these two guys, "Listen, if I started a safety council, would you guys come?" And neither one of them knew anything about the fall protection standard, but I would always read the standards and I actually read the preamble to the fall protection standards. So I think I read it twice. I had a pretty good idea what needed to be done. And they said, "Sure." Then I had my secretary write a letter to all of our competitors, which is unheard of, especially in the day. And there were seven of us at our first meeting in October of 1997.

About five years ago I decided that really the council was diverse. We have some contractors and some union leaders and some vendors, a lot of vendors and whatnot. But it wasn't really having the impact that I wanted it to have in the industry. That my dream of uniform compliance across the major contractors was still a dream. And I started a construction management committee, and there's about 12 of us on it now. And we have really gotten a lot of traction. In the beginning, we just sat around and say, "well, what do you do? What do you do? What do you do?" And we have had some initiatives with the bricklayers association. And now that COVID has set us back, it's harder to do in person meetings and whatnot. But we're really starting to see in this region, a lot of uniformity. And if I can expand on that a little bit more-

There's a silver lining in everything. Because with the COVID-19, our AGC local chapter is... The GBCA, the General Building Contractor's Association, the oldest one in the country. And they started an initiative with the building trades safety committee and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters here, so that we established COVID-19 protocols, built on the CDC and the Pennsylvania Secretary of health guidelines. In terms of a response to COVID and then the protocols for your job site.

We got complete buy in across the industry with all of the CMEs, the entire GBCA, which includes contractors and subcontractors, the unions across the board, the carpenters are Teamsters. So they're not part of the AFL CIO. So we had to get them on separately, but this has been remarkable. We just had another task force meeting yesterday with the GBCA. Skanska's another participant on the task force. The union rep from the BT and the carpenters. And we have updated the protocols according to the CDC and the PASOH last week. And moving forward in Pennsylvania, we can use face shields now, which is a great thing to cover the nose and mouth, in lieu of face coverings, that would be either a folded t-shirt, bandana, N95 we leave for the medical personnel, et cetera.

So that's the silver lining of this pandemic is that we really have everybody on the same page. And at the weekly building trades safety committee, the BAs are telling us they want face coverings treated as a zero tolerance policy issue. And that if guys aren't going to wear them, they're going to get them off the site. And if we need help, they will come to our job sites and talk to their workforce.

Georgia:

That's remarkable

Dona:

This could really be a pivotal moment in safety unity in this region of the country. It's remarkable.

Georgia:

Yeah. When we had our first discovery call, I found out that you actually have a wand. So I didn't think before that call, that you could have better embodied a fairy godmother of construction safety, there it is! And then you threw that surprise into the ring. Amazing. So you're going to have to tell us a bit about that. And then I want to know that, if you could wave your wand in the construction industry, what would you change ASAP?

Dona:

Well, I got the wand... I really thought about this and actually in our last phone conversation, you said that it would come to me. I couldn't remember where I got it, but I think my sister-on-law... I'm positive my sister-in-law gave it to me after a trip to Disney in Florida one year for my birthday. So I kept it, and I kept it at my desk as my magic safety wand, because until I go, "Wave the magic safety wand." Nanoseconds. But I think if I had a goal, there was a quote I read in an article. It might've been about Studs Terkel, who was a great workplace sociologist. I'm a undergraduate in sociology. And basically the paraphrase says that "Work should be an activity that people embrace, not shun." And just substitute that word safety.

You think about the safety. What do you do when you have children? You want them to be safe all the time, your elderly parents, you want the to be safe. Your loved ones, you don't want them in a car accident or in a tragedy, or all these shootings that we've been having across the country in major cities now. So I would say, if I could wave my magic safety wand, I would say I would want people to embrace safety and not shun it. I mean, work like your life depended on it. That's my magic safety wand thought for now.

Georgia:

Fantastic. Thank you for sharing that. And so you've spoken a lot about alignment and embracing safety. So how can we build on that and get better together, as an industry moving forward?

Dona:

I think in the beginning, safety was really about compliance. And when OSHA started in 1970, that with the rules and regulations, that it was really about compliance. And in my career, we've really shifted from compliance to a more behavior based safety. We have a safety 360 here at Driscoll we started, that was adopted by the Structure Tone, our parent company. And really it's about reinforcing positive behaviors, creating a workplace where people really want to do the right thing. It's like, do the right thing when I'm not looking, just do the right thing. And I think this COVID pandemic has really transformed the workplace in many ways. So that our work places our job sites in New Jersey are very, very compliant. Because it was such... We're not in North Jersey, but it was such a beginning hotspot in the United States with New York.

I mean, North Jersey and New York are very... A lot of people in North Jersey work in New York City. So definitely affects them. But the job sites we have in South Jersey are very... Everybody wants to do the right thing. And if a plumber was married to a nurse who worked with a doctor who contracted COVID-19, they wanted to shut that job site down and they wanted to have the whole thing sprayed and fogged. And now that we've realized a little bit more about the transmission and the disease, you never see anybody over there not wearing their face masks. And the City of Philadelphia, for the most part, it's true. We do a lot of health care and each facility has its own testing and question procedure.

We found that in more rural parts of Pennsylvania, out in the middle of the state, there's much less face mask compliance because they don't feel the urgency of it. They don't know anybody who's gotten it. They don't know anybody who's died. It's unfortunately, sometimes perceived as a hoax. But I think, to get back to your question, the pandemic has really given us an opportunity for alignment on a lot of things. And we're finding that we've had exponentially less accidents in this fiscal year, this annual year 2020. And I think it's because everybody's being so safe and so cautious and self distancing and et cetera.

Georgia:

And so I guess building on that, if you were to break off a bit of your magic wand and pass that on to future leaders. What would you want them to do to carry that legacy on? And to keep building on that behavioral shift?

Dona:

Across the top of my computer, of course you can't see this, but when I was a carpenter foreman, I worked for a guy I didn't really like that much.

Georgia:

That happens.

Dona:

Because I was a woman or that I might've been smarter than him, but I had sign on my desk "Maintain perspective." And one of our quality assurance engineers here, who was my apprentice several years ago, he said to me, "Don't you remember that sign you had above your desk, maintain perspective?" And I started to think about that, and what qualities it takes over... Safety in my mind, it's like a curvature of the earth change. You're really trying to change people's behavior.

We don't have too many unsafe conditions anymore, but we have unsafe acts.

We have workers trying to rush because they're taught to rush, "Get this done, get this done." And we need to change those behaviors. "Oh I'm going to get on the top of that ladder because I have to go three floors down and carry another one up. And it'll only take me a second." So perspective, maintain perspective. Persistence. I mean, you need to have persistence over a lifetime. And perseverance, because sometimes it gets discouraging, but you just... Think about Winston Churchill, that's all I can say. Is really just press on, and you need patience because a lot of times you're not going to be as successful as you would like to be. And you need an inner passion and you can't give that to people. They have to find it in their own soul. So if I could break this up into those five different pieces, I would say perspective, persistence, perseverance, patience, and passion.

Georgia:

That's fantastic. You've really answered my last question by that. But I'd like to still ask it just to give you the opportunity to add anything further. So we're really working to try and debunk stereotypes around construction as an industry to work in. And also show off the vast choices of roles in the industry. And so, if someone was considering a career in construction, what advice would you give them to perhaps encourage them or to break down some of the stereotypes that they might have preventing them from entering?

Dona:

That's a great question. Before the COVID broke, we had the Women in Construction, a symposium at our Penn First job site. And there were a lot of young women there. And I'm sure I was the oldest, but I said, "Listen, you never know where your career is going to take you. I got into construction because I thought if I knew how to fix that kitchen cabinet, I could fix it better than anybody else. And I always put that kind of energy and precision into everything I do." To hang a door, you're working in a 3D environment. The door has to be hung level, square, and it has to swing. So you can't punch a hinge in the wrong place or drill a hole in the wrong spot.

But you don't know, when you enter construction, you never know where that career will lead you. And from my experience, I'm here today because people saw in me things that I didn't see in myself. And your career might lead you to safety or project management or quality engineering or any of these things. And I want to bring up two of my apprentice boys. One is the General Superintendent for our company right now. And the other one is Quality Engineer. And they always complained I was so hard on them, which I relished. But I said, "But look at where you are today." And you don't know where...

Dona:

Everybody should learn a trade. I don't care if it's learning how to cook or you learn how to cut hair, or you learn how to be a plumber. Everybody should learn a trade. And then my apprentice boy, who's a Quality Engineer now, he actually went through Drexel University and got his degree in engineering. And I give him a lot of credit for that. That's a lot when you have a young family and it took him forever and the expense of it that isn't covered by the company.

So you never know where a job in construction will take you. And just do your job to the best of your ability and with all your passion and someone will notice.

Georgia:

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for such a wealth of advice and some real perspective, to use your own words, of where we're at and where we've got to go. It was a pleasure speaking with you. So thank you very much for your time Dona.

Dona:

And thank you for having me, it's a privilege really. Thank you.

 

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