Episode 34: Core Challenges in the Understanding & Executing of Safety Strategies w/ David McPeak

Episode 34: Core Challenges in the Understanding and Executing of Safety Strategies w/ David McPeak

Welcome to the 34th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management​​

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 34

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with David McPeak, Director of Education at Utility Business Media.

This episode is part of a special series of episodes recorded from the floor of the 2023 Trees & Utilities conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

Episode 34 Transcript

Philip Charlton: Again, we’re broadcasting from Trees and Utilities Exhibit Hall. Right now, we have David McPeak with us. David, give us a quick intro to yourself into your company.

David McPeak: Absolutely. First, thank you for having me, David McPeak with Utility Business Media. We are a group that provides information, education, and professional development opportunities for folks in the utility industry. We have two conferences every year, iP Utility Safety Conference & Expo. We publish two magazines, one of which is Incident Prevention Magazine. We do a lot of education through the Incident Prevention Institute, which is what I do.

Philip Charlton: How long have you been with them?

David McPeak: I have been there seven years now. Prior to that, I worked for a large electrical contractor as the corporate safety director. Prior to that, actually, I was in the transportation industry at a large trucking company, Operations Manager.

Philip Charlton: Okay, and 10 minutes ago, you were on stage talking.

David McPeak: I love this conference. I had a great group.

Philip Charlton: What was the name of the talk, and give us a recap.

David McPeak: It’s a really important talk. The title of the talk was called, PPE – Always Use It and Never Need It. What it gets into is I feel like people do a really good job of identifying hazards. But the mitigation of it typically goes as far as, here’s this hazard, here’s what PPE I’m going to put on. I’m protected. Let’s go to work. So what we try to do in an entertaining and appealing way is to help folks understand how the hierarchy of control was designed to work, really talking about elimination of not only hazards but risk. That’s another thing people don’t understand: what’s the difference between a hazard and a risk? It was a fun presentation.

Philip Charlton: I’ll give you free rein to go ahead, give us your definition.

David McPeak: A hazard is anything that could hurt you. Risk is exposure to a hazard. Better and more practical for folks is a hazard is a source of energy and risk is how much energy either there is or could be associated with that hazard. Because if we frame it that way, it becomes very logical of the mitigation process. Eliminate the energy. If I can’t do that, can I remove myself from the energy my exposure? I’ve eliminated my risk. If not and I skip that, and usually that’s not possible. In order to do work, you have to expose yourself to a hazard which necessitates risk, but reduce the amount of energy and the amount of exposure. That’s the key step that I think people miss. That’s most of what we talked about.

Tej Singh: I applaud you for your passion and your focus on safety because this industry as a whole and all the different facets of it, safety is at the forefront; a lot of risk, a lot of complication, and a lot of complicated work. As somebody that started their career in the corporate side of things, and you were a safety director as well, and then you make this transition, was that transition prompted by how you could max your impact? What made you make that shift to the organization that you’re in now?

David McPeak: Like most people, I started in safety not by choice. I got appointed there from another role and somewhat found my niche. But then when I really got into more the training aspect of it, which was very surprising. I’m usually a very quiet and reserved kind of person, but just training a group of people, things that I’m passionate about, it really surprised me about myself that I enjoyed it.

Tej Singh: You saw a different side of your personality.

Philip Charlton: You don’t come across as an introvert.

David McPeak: I am. It’s interesting in a setting like this; I’m 100 times more comfortable up on stage in front of either the whole group or my breakout session, whatever it may be, than walking around this expo hall talking to people. It’s crazy. In this role that I’m in now, when I left the contractor that I worked for, a whole lot of that revolved around compliance, which is necessary, and I’m not vilifying that. But the whole lot of my job was writing reports, going to customers’ meetings, and doing those sorts of things, and this has really given me the opportunity and, really, a platform, too, with the magazines and a lot of the resources that the organization has to get in front of a broader and more diverse group. I really enjoyed it. It’s been an honor and a blessing for me.

Tej Singh: What are some of the core challenges that you see out there in terms of where your audience is in terms of their understanding of safety and their ability to execute safety strategies and principles?

David McPeak: I can’t wait to hear your opinion on this, too. But the biggest challenge I think that the safety profession and safety in general faces, look around you right now. What I mean by that is we’ve gotten so good at safety, people don’t think they need it anymore. The more I feel protected, the better organizations’ cultures get, the better, more educated, more relatable relationships, culture, safety professionals get. While I said look around here right now, protective equipment, it’s gotten so good. If I drive, the car will stop for me. I don’t have to worry about hitting somebody. If I’m climbing and working from elevation, I have 100% fall protection. If I’ve got something sharp, I’ve got cut-resistant gloves. That’s a challenge that people need to realize. The more people feel protected, the less they feel the need to protect themselves. They’re starting to make a lot of assumptions. Honestly, you can say, for valid reasons in a lot of cases, that other people and things are going to protect me. I think that the core challenge that safety professionals will face is getting people to understand basic work methods, the need to protect yourself, and don’t assume other people are going to do it.

What was your thought there? I got to hear it.

Tej Singh: I agree. That was probably one, independent thought. I think the other thought is more around the data and how we look at safety-related data. I think we’re not quite there yet. I think there’s a lot of data available. Sometimes I’m not sure all the right data is being collected or how it’s being analyzed. I think the industry is going through a little bit of that transition where the world is going through this obsession with data, and I think safety is going to catch up in terms of the modernization of analytics and a lot of this. I think there are some folks out there that are ahead of the curve. But I don’t know if the whole industry has created some standard yet in terms of data and data analytics. OSHA does a great job, etc., but I think it’s more how people are reporting. I think there’s a lot of value in how data is looked at, how it’s analyzed, and how it’s used for risk management practices. I think that’s where I think there’s still a lot of room for growth is what I would say. I don’t know if you’ve seen that or feel the same way.

David McPeak: I agree, and I love what you said. There’s a big difference between information and data. Historically, this goes back to the culture part of it though, and this excites me. It’s always been very reactive data and information around the incidents, which isn’t bad. There’s a lot of good stuff and observations and whatever else, but it’s typically all been very punitive, here’s what we did wrong, and we need to fix it kind of thing. I think it’s twofold. The near-miss and the near-hit, good catch, whatever you call it, getting people more comfortable to record psychological safety, and folks are getting a lot better about that. We had a culture where nobody wanted to voluntarily report anything 10, 15 years ago because I was going to get in trouble about it. We fixed that. Well, I shouldn’t say we fixed it, but that has improved.

Reports started going up. Then it’s just your typical bell curve. Now, they’ve started going down again. I think a lot of the reason is now people are reporting all this stuff, but nobody’s doing anything with it. It’s a waste of my time now. It’s good that people feel more comfortable reporting, but one of the things that I don’t think we’ve taken advantage of, and this would, I think, solve a lot of that problem, is not always react to things, but look at things that we’re doing right. HP Principle Four, Human Performance Principle Four, people achieve high levels of performance because of support, encouragement, reinforcement that they receive. What are we doing right that we need to repeat? A lot of times, you find folks are just working out of habit. Really, they don’t even know it’s right and that they should repeat it. It’s just the way we’ve always done it. I think maybe that half of the equation is the point we’re missing. But I agree with what you’re saying.

Tej Singh: I also think, and this is more of the psychological side, there’s complexity around the word. Somehow, there’s fear associated with safety. It’s like, if I report everything, is that going to change the outcome, or is it going to get me in trouble? Do they think that I’m not doing something right? I think a lot of this is going to be around education, which, I think your organization is in a great position to help change the relationship with the word, so people are a little bit more proactive, like you said. Let’s look at what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and let’s identify really where the true risks are and not just use it as a tagline.

Philip Charlton: What’s the reach of your organization? Is it United States, North America, or are you international?

David McPeak: Our focus is the United States. It’s not much, but we have a decent presence in Canada, a little bit some around the Caribbean. In today’s world, I don’t know that anybody’s not international if you have a website, and you do a couple of podcasts, and if you’re on YouTube and all. Sometimes, the articles that I write in the magazine, you randomly get a call from somebody, hey, can I translate this into French and use it in my safety meeting? Our focus group is there in the United States.

Philip Charlton: Are you learning anything from the other countries?

David McPeak: It’s just interesting to see different perspectives. That’s part of why I really enjoy what I’m doing now. Working for one organization, you get that perspective: good, bad, right or wrong. When you go to different organizations, and even different countries and whatnot, again, some good, some bad, some right, some wrong, probably indifferent. But it’s interesting from even a standards and regulatory agency standpoint, employer versus employee and who’s responsible and held accountable for safety in some of these things and different perspectives, I won’t name the countries. If a hurricane or an ice storm hits in America and the power’s out, when do you want your power back on? You go to other places around the world and a hurricane just wipes everything out. Folks are really grateful, and the expectation is more on the months kind of timeframe. It’s just amazing the different perspective sometimes that people have.

Tej Singh: That’s very true. I mean, we’re obviously very fortunate living in the western part of the world because you’re right, our expectations is right now. But that’s great. You’re doing some amazing things. What are some things on the docket for you in terms of things you want to get done in the upcoming year, next year? Any goals for your organization, for your message?

David McPeak: It’s not at all the question you asked. I’m really trying hard—I’ve done it one time—to break 80 in golf. I won’t do that again.

Tej Singh: By the way, I have the same goal.

David McPeak: It’s a hard goal. Organizationally, one of the things we want to do is utility industry. We’ve always had a real heavy presence in the electrical power line worker part of it. We’re really trying to grow and expand what we offer for folks that work in gas for vegetation management and to keep up with a lot of the new technology and renewable energy and that sort of thing. Typically, you think of an organization as we educate people, but that’s one of my biggest goals for this upcoming year is to make sure I stay educated, our organization stays educated, all the stuff that’s happening, but to grow our service offerings within the utility industry and stay abreast on all the changes that are happening.

Philip Charlton: Very good.

Tej Singh: Well, you’re doing some great work. Again, we applaud you. It’s a great initiative. It sounds like a great organization, and it was a pleasure meeting you, pleasure talking with you. Thank you for this.

Philip Charlton: Yeah. Thank you for your time.

David McPeak: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it. I appreciate it.

Tej Singh: Absolutely.

Outro: That’s it for this episode of Trees and Lines brought to you by Iapetus Holdings. If you liked the show, please give us a five-star rating on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at We’ll chat with you soon.

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