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Episode 28: The Evolution of Safety in the UVM Industry – Part 1 w/ Dr. Anand Persad

Trees & Lines Episode 28: The Evolution of UVM Safety - Part 1 w/ Dr. Anand Persad

Welcome to the 28th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 28

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for part one of a two-part conversation with Anand Persad, Chair of UAA Research Committee, Director of Research at ACRT, and Affiliated Professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

You can find part two of the conversation here.

Episode 28 Transcript

Intro: Welcome to another episode of the Trees and Lines podcast. On part one of this two-part episode, Dr. Anand Persad, Chair of UAA Research Committee, joins us to discuss the evolution of safety in the vegetation management industry. Have a listen, hope you enjoy.

Philip Charlton: Welcome Anand, thanks for joining our podcast today. If you would, why don’t you start us off by giving us your background, a little bit of your personal story, and I guess as a researcher, you get to pursue whatever you want to. Tell us a little bit about those things you’re most passionate about.

Dr. Anand Persad: Thanks, Phil. It’s great to be here, and I don’t get to pursue everything that I want to. But just a little bit of my background, I grew up, as you know, in the Caribbean. We have a lot of influence from England there. I went to school in the England system, did a lot of my examinations out of the UK, then started at the University of West Indies undergrad and then post-grad and eventually here at the University of Florida, continued the education. I worked on a whole slew of topics in the natural area; biological control, getting into the high-fidelity PCR world was interesting. Then I started my career. I had a choice of academic at the university or corporate or hybrid, and I chose hybrid. I’ve been that hybrid person for the past 18, 20 years, keeping some academia, keep an involvement in academia and supervising grad students along the way, but being a player in the adaptive research world in the industry. That’s what gets me here to be able to talk to you guys today, I guess.

Philip Charlton: Yeah, good. I just got to spend a week with Dr. Anand Persad in Belize. We’ll talk about that more in a little bit. But boy, the number of things you’ve been involved with over the years is just amazing. I know now you got a focus on safety. Tell us about some of the research you’re doing and all the findings.

Dr. Anand Persad: Yeah, this is great because it’s come full circle. I used to, for my post-doc, look at the human brain and their relationship to insect bites and encephalitis and mosquito-borne diseases and so forth. I never thought in my wildest dream that it would come full circle because some of the things that go on when you have these issues, things like zoning out, things like not paying attention, things like being able to move between a cognizant and a state where you know what you’re doing to enter an emotional state and back is delayed. Well, we are seeing that in our everyday lives. I don’t think everybody’s been bitten by mosquitoes. It’s great to be able to revisit this in terms of safety. One of the things I’ve been doing is analyzing near-misses and fatalities in our industry over the past few years. There are some findings consistent with the fact that we are not paying attention sometimes and why is the big question. That’s been a journey. I spoke about it at the women in veg management in the Trees and Utilities, and we can probably talk a little bit about it here as well.

Tej Singh: I wanted to understand a little bit more about your decision to keep a foot in the research side of things. You said you’ve been splitting between some of your professional time and your academic time. What does that split look like?

Dr. Anand Persad: It’s the way that I’ve always lived my life. I’ve been very, very questioning as a kid growing up, why, why? In the corporate world, there was a lot of this is how you do it, and my questions have always been, why don’t we do it this way? I’ve been what some people would call me a disruptor, for want of a better phrase. When you’re doing that, you do need to have some research that goes into why do you do this, and can it be done in a different way, in a better way, in a more timely manner and so forth? That’s been one of my passions really, is to find out more around why things are the way they are.

Philip Charlton: He’s a disruptor, Tej. You can relate to that.

Tej Singh: Yeah, I know, I definitely can. Yeah, for sure. A lot of your research is going to be dependent on the quality of the data that you’re able to get. How will you be able to get your data? Do you have enough of it to prove out some of the conclusions that you’re pointing to?

Dr. Anand Persad: Yeah, it’s all factual. It’s all accidents or near-misses, or in some cases, it’s surveys. It does get into a little bit of the abstract world. As you know, research is an art and a science. It does get into that world where we ask people, a group of warm bodies, hey, what are your thoughts on this? Then we distill some relationship from this is what people are saying, and this is what we are seeing. Then we look for alignment or we try to find the gaps and then we try to see how can we work in the industry to reduce the gaps or to take some of that air out of the gap?

Philip Charlton: Anand, I know one of our recent conversations you talked about how diversity impacts the way people see safety. Maybe there’s a difference between men and women or other cultural differences. Do you have findings around that?

Dr. Anand Persad: Oh, absolutely. There are several but great bodies of work out there that show when people are together for an extended period, they do start to think alike. It’s a study that has been done in isolated tribes. For example, there are tribes in Africa that have lost the ability amongst themselves to know if somebody is fearful because they’ve worked together for so long that they become what we call moose blind, if we have a pet in the apartment. I call this loosely breed blind. It may not be the best appropriate words, but where we work together as a team, so we don’t have that outside perspective or perspective from another angle. If, for example, everybody, let’s say on a bus, is really fearful of a lion on a safari coming on the bus, then somebody may do something awkward like get out of the bus and run, or they may all get out of the bus and be so fearful they might just want to come out of the bus. If, however, you have a few brave souls who would dare to say, hey, that lion is not going to get on the bus, then you’re going to have a sweet spot where people are going to say, well, okay, let’s get in the middle. There’s a potential for the lion coming on the bus, but we’re not going to get out and run. That’s where having that perspective and that diversity of thought helps us.

Tej Singh: Can you share some of your conclusions on the different demographics and what you’ve seen in terms of the people that are taking the high-risk work, what their demographic looks like and how they’re interpreting safety and some of the topics versus some of the decision makers and folks that focus more on the corporate side of things? What have you been able to draw out as it relates to this industry?

Dr. Anand Persad: As you know, it’s very dynamic and things are changing all the time. There are two fronts on that. When we look at it, a lot of the incidents that I’ve recorded and looked at tend to be overreached. It tends to be that last effort or that last task at the end of the day or at the end of the week. There are two peaks, either very early in your career or very late in your career. The scary thing is that it’s almost the same amount of incidents happening the folks in the middle of the road tend to have. That’s where we are mixed. We have a mix of careers that come in. They tend to be safer as a pool.

The second piece has to do with gender. Men and women do think about things differently. It extends in our industry as well. This is one of the things we want to take into account as hiring managers, where we mix our work teams that are out there. Women groups for some research I’ve done, if women are given free choice and a pool of men are given free choice to discuss what keeps them up at night, what are some of the research, what are some updates of the factors that go into their personal security and so forth or the security on the job, the women, by far and large, tend to focus on PPE and things that secure themselves. Things that we don’t think about like cybersecurity would keep them up at night, things like having a good PPE. Men, on the other hand, focus a lot on things like driving. Whereas women don’t put a huge emphasis on driving, one would think that maybe it’s understood for them that they already think that everyone should be a safe driver, so we’re not going to spend gray matter on that. That’s where we see differences in our industry. It’s a plug for having a gender mixed group out there because like that lion in the scenario with the bus, having mixed teams.

Tej Singh: How receptive is the industry to that type of research where you’re trying to distill things by these unique differences in individuals? Have you ever seen folks in the industry say, okay, that’s pretty interesting. We’re going to use that information and the data, and we’re going to modify who we put in leadership positions as it relates to safety or execution or operations.

Dr. Anand Persad: I think we live in interesting times, and it’s starting to get a foothold. The era now that change is upon us and it just seems to be changing more and more. Change seems to be the constant. I’m certainly finding a more open door to these emerging topics, and it’s getting traction. Certainly at the last Trees and Utilities, it was a very popular discussion point. I think back to your point on culture, there are records and research done that bringing folks from different cultural backgrounds together does bring a common sense of improvement in the way the final product manifests itself because you get a different perspective.

Tej Singh: It’s a complicated conversation, especially in our current environment today because there’s lots of discussion around equality, rightfully so, keeping things in balance. But I think you bring up a really interesting point where you want to almost take advantage of some of these differences that the data shows and put people in a position where you get a better return on effort and work and the sharpness of something. How do you prevent yourself from losing sight of a bigger objective?

Dr. Anand Persad: I think the key here is always looking at what’s next. As a researcher, you’re always there looking at the emergent concepts. You do contribute to building out some of the established information, but there’s always data, and interpretation of that data helps drive information. That’s what our role as adaptive researchers, and I use the word adaptive because we look at real world situations and the development of ourselves, development of our industry, and advancing our industry. As researchers, we do want to leave the world a better place by by getting into the emergent concepts. You’re right, it could lead you down into a wormhole. That’s why I use the word adaptive research a lot because you’ve got to be pragmatic. We are not here looking at necessarily too much abstract material, but keep our feet grounded in the real world. That helps.

Philip Charlton: Think about safety in the United States. Everybody starts a chainsaw, and they got their PPE on, the steel-toed boots and everything else. But when you go to those front-line areas, they’re nowhere near there. Do you try to move them to where we are, or do you try to get them to evolve a step at a time?

Dr. Anand Persad: I think that’s a really cool comment. I want to say that in our business, if you look at our industry a few decades ago, it was hugely the people who would be working in our industry came from a farming background. Very early on, their culture was they knew sharp implements are going to cut. They knew that they had to spend dedicated time if they wanted to do it properly or don’t do it at all. They knew that, and that culture is what helped our industry get to where we are. What I see in some of the frontline areas is folks trying to achieve with whatever tools they have, and yeah, PPE isn’t a common thing. I’ve seen people in flip flops using chainsaws and so forth. Your first impulse is to gasp. But then I’m reminded of when I first joined the business and I met a group of tree climbers who would tell me, one of the safest climbers they know came from my neck of the woods, Trinidad and Tobago. But they could not train him to climb in boots because he’d learned to climb without shoes coming from the Caribbean. But he never caught an accident during his career. Back then actually, he was allowed to climb, believe it or not, in North America without shoes, which is something we would probably gasp at right now.

But that story beside itself tells us that folks are going to evolve in their own space and their own time. You can be a catalyst for it. You can help the local industry work and bring their business up. When you look at injuries in these places, it’s very, very minimal. I think it goes back to the famine days that I mentioned earlier where a lot of these practicing arborists in the frontline areas, they’ve grown up with sharp implements. They know from a kid that this can be done in a safe space, and there are things that they themselves wouldn’t do. We would think that they’re going to do everything. But they might actually tell someone, hey, you’re holding a machete the wrong way, or you can strike someone if you swing too far back. They themselves have their own safety code that sometimes works. We may look at it and say, wow, how did they even survive at the end of the day? But we got to understand that there’s a safety code operating. I’ve yet to hear of an indigenous tribesman in the Amazon basin getting poked by a spear from another one, yet they walk in single file up and down all kinds of terrain, spears in hand. There is a code operating, Phil, that I think that eventually there would be formal practicing arborists with acceptable codes at one level internationally. That’s where even this podcast is going to help.

Tej Singh: There are so many more distractions. Everybody’s wearing all this protective equipment, there’s manuals, there’s training, yet we still have high risk incidents. We tend to have lots of incidents. Is the conversation more about distraction? You’ve got phones, you’ve got all these other things that can affect a person’s concentration versus back in the day or some of the examples you’re giving, it just was a different time. Mental health was in a different place. There are all kinds of things today that I think are contributing factors to what may be leading to some of this stuff. I know it’s a complicated thing to discuss, and we’re still, as a society, figuring it all out. But have you started to shift to some of those questions in figuring out the use of technology on a personal level can be a real problem, and how much is this contributing to real incidents?

Dr. Anand Persad: It’s funny because I know we haven’t talked about this before, but there is something called a light pole that I’m involved in. It involves people walking into light poles being distracted. It used to be, like you mentioned in the good old days, when you would walk into a light pole when you’re inebriated. It’s a Saturday evening, you’ve had a good week, and you’re celebrating, etc. You walk into light poles then. We find that people are bumping, and I may be guilty of stumbling every now and again on the sidewalk here and there. But people are on their cell phones, and you’re right, technology could be distractions, and it could lead to some safety issues. Texting while driving, reading your phones etc. is something that we got to get on top of at a personal level, but also as an industry.

It used to be fine in our industry to have a hands-free call while you’re driving. It’s no longer case in point, and you realize, what’s changed? Now, a lot of companies are insisting that you stop, you put your vehicle in park, and you continue on the side of the road as a safety measure. You’d be like, 10 years ago, it was fine to say, I’m on the freeway, but I got you on speaker, and that was fine. Now, it’s not. When you look at the evolution and how we can bring checking mechanism before things get too far ahead, and I think that’s where it is. It’s checking. It’s checks and balances. Technology, I think our advances are good, but we have to make sure they don’t become a bait.

Tej Singh: We talked about people maybe where the life cycle they are in their career and the impact that may have, gender as an example. But it seems to me that there’s a disconnect with language. You’ve got people out in the field performing high-risk work. Is there some relationship that you’ve analyzed or dug into where you see possibly language being a bit of a key input to incidents, etc. because interpretation of safety metrics, culture, expectations, there can be a gap because information is not disseminating accurately? Have you seen that relationship?

Dr. Anand Persad: Yeah, Tej, and that’s a great question. It’s stuff lost in translation. I’ve seen it happen in English speakers as well where someone says alien, by the time it gets down the line, it’s air. At the end of the day, I think we need to understand the industry. We had very wordy rhetoric. We had to do X, Y, Z. You had a manual for this, you had a manual for that. Nobody reads a thick book.

Tej Singh: Oh, I thought you were going to say nobody reads anymore. But, yes.

Dr. Anand Persad: But the point is, I think what you bring up really revolves around training. Also, we could incorporate, I understand, material too for the non-English speakers. But I think we are getting to the point where we are using and we are getting back to the hieroglyphical ideas where we can start communicating, and people already do it. OMG, IDK, they’re using these acronyms for things. In our business when it comes to safety, sure, we’re going to have to have rubric around the safety tenets, but also looking at it from the perspective of adaptive learning. You can tell someone, hey, the coffee in this mug is hot, don’t touch it, or you can let them know, hey, what’s in this cup? It’s coffee. Is it hot or cold? It’s hot. So right away they know by asking them what’s in here and is it hot or cold, and they know it’s hot. They know to themselves, they won’t put their fingers in the mug to get burned.

So right then, tell people how to be safe. We need to inculcate in our training programs. I think in addition to language, there is that training evolution that we are heading toward. But I think it’s positive. I think we’re going to get there. It all comes back to how we provide the material and how we base it, how we write it into our business plans and so forth. Safety should be a number one priority of any business plan we write.

Tej Singh: I think all the utilities and the leadership state that as a priority. However, I think where sometimes the disconnect comes in is it’s the execution. There may be a plan. There’s a good roadmap. There’s a good blueprint. But I think the inputs, the people, how you get there, there’s a lot of art and science. There’s a lot of complicated elements. To your point, I even think of myself sometimes when you’re doing corporate training. It’s like you’re being injected with all this information, and it’s just how much are you actually retaining? Getting people to understand information and making it sticky so that when they’re in complicated situations, they know how to apply that information.

I think that journey is complicated because it involves people. I see it from a very practical perspective, and so I’m trying to connect these dots, this incredible research, great philosophies, great ideas. But at the end of the day, there’s somebody on the other end who needs to take that information and execute some plan. The amount of environmental factors that impact that execution are many. There’s performance metrics. There’s a pressure to get something done. I’d be interested to see as your data evolves, when you factor in some of those variables, how much things get skewed. How do you prevent that? How do you hedge against that? What are the steps that allow that blueprint to stay true to making sure that, in fact, safety is the priority? It’ll be interesting to see the evolution of your research.

Dr. Anand Persad: Yeah, I agree. I think the execution is a big piece of it. One of the things we do intend to leave out in our considerations is time allotment for a task. Even in training, we talk about, we’re going to dedicate this much in our budget for training. What does that translate in terms of time management training? What does that translate into time? As people say, time is money. We’ve got to say time is safety. We’ve got to start there.

Tej Singh: If you can get that tagline out there, I’ll buy you a really nice dinner.

Dr. Anand Persad: Yeah, there you go. I’m working on it.

Philip Charlton: Anand, we probably need to wrap this up. Before we go though, what would you like to leave the audience with?

Dr. Anand Persad: I think the message of time. We live in an interesting period in our human development, and I think time is of the essence. Also, like I said earlier, time is safety. Time is productivity. Let’s find a balance.

Tej Singh: Love it.

Philip Charlton: Yeah, very good. Well, thank you for being with us, Anand. We appreciate it.

Tej Singh: Yeah, it was a real pleasure.

Dr. Anand Persad: Thank you.

Outro: That’s it for this episode of the Trees and Lines podcast brought to you by Iapetus Infrastructure Services. If you like the show, please give us a rating of five stars on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests in the future, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at treesandlines@iapetusllc.com. We’ll chat with you soon.

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