Episode 38: Advancing Safety in UVM w/ James Beery

Episode 38: Advancing Safety in Vegetation Management w/ James Beery

Welcome to the 38th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management​​

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 38

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with James Beery, Senior Safety Lead for Wright Tree Service.

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

Episode 38 Transcript

Tej Singh: Welcome to another episode of Trees and Lines at the Trees and Utilities Conference. We’re excited to talk to James Beery from Wright Tree Service. He’s managing human performance and safety there on the West Coast. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

James Beery: Thanks for the invite. It’s a wonderful opportunity to talk about human performance. I have several names too; we could talk about that. I go by Jim, Beery. I’m the senior safety lead for the West Coast region of our national setup. That covers four states on the West Coast, from California, Oregon, and Washington, up to Idaho. I’ve got five safety supervisors who work for me out there, helping me implement human performance.

Tej Singh: Excellent.

Philip Charlton: Well, talk to us about that a little bit.

Tej Singh: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about what is human performance.

James Beery: It’s a great question because it’s not brand new, but it’s kind of new to everybody. There are a lot of folks in the tree and utility world that are pulling it together and bringing it along. It’s really a comparison of what was traditional or Safety-I. If we’re going to call it Safety-II, what is Safety-I? Safety-I really is characterized by command and control, establishing strict rules, telling workers what to do or not to do, and then being very compliance-oriented, whereas Safety-II switches to a learning mindset where everything is about learning and putting all of that learning that we get out of it into a prevention side instead of reacting. In a huge chunk of Safety II, when we learn from those workers, we don’t blame them because it shuts them down.

We’re hoping for a speak-up culture that demands psychological safety and the ability to speak up. Eliminating blame for error, because we all make mistakes, means that if we allow them to make those errors and mistakes while they’re becoming experts in their field and not blaming them, suspending them, and all those sorts of things, they’ll begin to speak up more and more, will get more learning, and will apply all of that learning to the prevention side of mitigation. We’re calling that the capacity model, and that’s inspired by Quanta Services. If you’ve ever seen their capacity model and their sticky model, we’ve come up with TRICKY, which is Tree Risk That Can Kill You, so we’ve adapted. That’s Safety II, in a nutshell, right there.

Tej Singh: First of all, I agree that it’s behavior, and you’re training better behavior so that people don’t have a fear-based relationship with safety. How are you measuring the progress of Safety-II? Where do you think we are in the cycle of the adoption of this philosophy?

James Beery: There are two things there. Let’s start with the adoption of it. It’s about a ten- or so-year-old idea, a concept, a journey, or, if you will, a philosophy for the tree industry. We, Wright Tree Service, have been hitting it hard for a year and a half now, so we had an introduction to the idea.

My personal interaction with behavioral safety and the idea of Safety-II about involving workers go way back. I just didn’t have any terminology for it necessarily along these lines. One of the greatest things about Safety-II and the way it’s rolling out is that it gives us this terminology and these principles to work towards, and then we can layer on top of everything.

Tej Singh: In your career, have you always been in safety in some capacity? How did you find yourself in this discipline?

James Beery: Safety chose me; that’s a great one, and that’s weird, right? Some people choose safety. This one chose me. I spent about ten years in the military, and part of my military service in the army when I was a commissioned officer was working in nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, so I was around decontamination. I was around environmental issues, spills, and hazardous materials. Since I left the military when I was younger, obviously, I’ve been in safety for 30 years now. The Army paid for me to go to a specified or specialized class in environmental health and safety and hazardous materials. Then it just grew from there into a safety profession, and I ended up here in the best industry in the entire world, I might add, tree utility and line clearance.

Tej Singh: That’s awesome. You have to tell him that.

Philip Charlton: Somebody said the other day, don’t plan your career. It’s not going to go according to plan. That couldn’t have been planned from a bioweapons to—

James Beery: Yeah, who would’ve thought?

Tej Singh: By the way, thank you for your service.

James Beery: Thank you.

Tej Singh: Yeah. Sorry, Phil. You were saying?

Philip Charlton: No, that was it.

James Beery: Yeah, you can’t plan that.

Philip Charlton: No, you can’t plan that.

James Beery: Then you see that next opportunity to say that one fits my personality or fits what I’m looking at.

Philip Charlton: I think that was the other message you had. Look for that opportunity and, zigzag, go for it.

James Beery: Be prepared for it, too.

Tej Singh: Are there people in industry that you work directly with or entities out there that you feel are really demonstrating this best-in-class implementation of Safety-II and safety culture? Who do you think is really doing it at a high level?

James Beery: Within the tree side of the business, if we split it between trees and utilities, we’re really gung ho at Wright Tree Service. Beth Lay, who used to work at Lewis Tree, met me a while back, and she was inspirational too. So, Lewis Tree, I don’t know where they are on their journey, but I know they’re giving it a great shot. A lot of companies are talking about it.

I have a specific relationship with our largest utility, which is Pacific Gas and Electric, PG&E, in California, and they rolled out their Safety-II recently. They had it in 2018, and then there were some changes around it, but then they re-rolled it out just recently. They’re doing a great job. Jack Suehiro, their director of contractor safety—you know him—laid it out. I went to his conference, and I shook his hand, and I told him, man, you’ve nailed it. We’re partnering.

Tej Singh: They’re doing great. That’s awesome.

James Beery: That’s the only way to go. Utility line clearance and utilities partnering, that’s the only way this is going to be successful.

Tej Singh: That is absolutely fantastic. That’s great to hear.

Philip Charlton: You need the support of the utility, or it’s not going to happen in the field.

James Beery: They have their own challenges too, because in their organization, they need to roll that out within and get people to buy in and believe it. Even in our own organization, we still have advertising, marketing, and sales to do for everybody in our organization. It’s a huge organization. It takes time. It’s a journey, as we say.

Tej Singh: Did you grow up in the West Coast?

James Beery: I was born in California, and I moved off when I went to the military, then came back, went to school, got my bachelor’s in Sacramento, and then worked in the area, then off to the military again. You’ve got to have your bachelor’s to be a commissioned officer, so then off to Europe for a while and then back. But it’s pretty much been centered around California.

Tej Singh: A colorful career, that’s for sure.

James Beery: Actually, there’s something else, too. In January 2000, I did a project down in South America, and I met my wife down there, Miriam. I moved down there, and I spent 20 straight years in Peru, living and working safely down there. You talk about a challenge because it’s a whole other world down there. Beautiful people, but as far as safety goes, the OSHA thing and all that was way ahead of where they were. But now, they’re as good as we are. It’s really nice to be a very small part of that, but to look back and say, hey, you guys got it going.

Philip Charlton: I’ve done a little bit of work in third-world countries, and I never know where to take them. I know what they should be doing, but you can’t take somebody who doesn’t have any safety practices and go all the way.

James Beery: It’s from the basics.

Philip Charlton: I remember the guy that’s starting a chainsaw, and the first thing he did was take his shoes off because he could climb the tree better in bare feet.

James Beery: Yeah, back to the basics, baby.

Philip Charlton: How do you work on safety?

James Beery: Yeah, it’s tough. It’s a challenge, but very quick culture down there to catch it.

Tej Singh: Language barriers and the diversity of the workforce in the industry—first of all, that’s a great thing. It’s great to see so many different cultures come together to perform a lot of this high-risk work. One of the challenges, of course, is communication, being able to articulate to the folks that are actually touching, clearing, doing a lot of that high-risk work, helping them understand through the various challenges with language the importance of safety, and making sure that the message doesn’t get lost as it’s translating into different languages. Has that been a challenge that you’ve observed, or is that something that you guys have solved for?

James Beery: I personally speak Spanish, so I have kind of a leg up that definitely is helping me get along in my career. I did a research study and wrote an article, I guess it was more than a year ago, that showed the tree industry, which is both commercial and industrial, utility line clearance, all of which, by 2050, will have 50% of its workers who are native Spanish speakers. When you look at any given organization and the leadership who have all that experience, which is critical for passing their experience to the new guys, so many of them are not bilingual in any fashion. There’s a huge communication gap. Wright Tree Service currently has 50% of its workers who are native Spanish speakers. The future of our general foreman or general forepersons, the leadership that’s coming up, is going to be bilingual, and they’re going to be from those countries south of the border, if you will, whether it be Mexico or wherever. It’s huge. They are the future of our company and of any company.

Tej Singh: Yeah, that’s incredible.

Philip Charlton: Your programs have to talk to them in their language, but also probably cultural issues.

James Beery: What a great point. You got a couple of things there, or at least three. One is just the straight-up language issue of being able to speak a foreign language. The other one is the jargon that comes with it because there are so many dialects and jargons that you have to come up with a common definition in Spanish for things that multiple people will call different things. Then there is the culture issue, and different cultures come with different aspects of how they view safety. Absolutely.

Philip Charlton: What a challenge.

James Beery: It is a huge challenge, but we have to get on top of it.

Tej Singh: Absolutely.

Philip Charlton: Then you have how fast you have attrition in the workforce. You just have them, people coming in so fast.

James Beery: It’s about 30%. In our company, we have 30% turnover on any given period that we’re tracking it. That’s big.

Philip Charlton: By the time you get them, with any training, they’re gone.

James Beery: Yes. If we look at it selfishly, at Wright Tree Service, we’re losing 30%. We’re having to retrain a whole other group. But there is also a sub-percentage of the people that come from another company that have some level of experience they bring, and then we send people to other companies with some level of experience. As an industry, it’s not as overwhelming as 30% if you were to lose them completely.

Tej Singh: You mentioned Beth Lay. For yourself, obviously, you’re super passionate, and I love to see that. Do you make a proactive effort to reach out to other stakeholders across the state and across the country with your peer groups to continue to build thought leadership with safety and kind of continue to reinvent and stay up to date on what’s going on?

James Beery: I do. I guess I value—if you were in yesterday’s opening ceremony with our speaker, he was talking about values. I value creativity as well. That creativity, I do to everything I can. I quote President Eisenhower in taking a broad front. Instead of just taking it and looking at it like a program and saying, this is what we’re going to do, I look at every form of advertising and marketing. I can come up with acronyms, retention, forgetting curves, any type of personality issue that might play into that, or any type of facial or language trigger that can help me. I am throwing everything at it, and some of it’s sticking.

In terms of stakeholders, I have developed great champions within the company through my effort because I’m consistent, and I just keep spreading out and spreading out and spreading out. I’ve got a lot of folks in the leadership that are on my side. I still have some stragglers out there in the lower levels. They’re like, well, what about accountability? This guy does this thing; what are we going to do? You have to convince them. There are mistakes, by the way, which I’ll mention in my speech later in my presentation. There are wins, and there are losses with that.

Tej Singh: What are you planning to focus on in your presentation?

James Beery: My focus is on what Safety-II is compared to Safety-I, just to introduce it and then heavily address the idea of accountability because it’s the number one question and the number one pushback from all leadership across the board, whether it be our company or the utility. How do we deal with accountability? It’s a definition of accountability. It’s not a punishment. It’s professional self-accountability, and it’s team accountability, and the team can’t be dysfunctional. It has to be able to trust its own team and have the psychological safety to speak up and say, hey, you’re messing up. That’s the accountability we’re shooting for. Then I’m going to segue into the capacity model because a huge part of the principle of Safety-II is the presence of controls. It segues into that, and I’ll just touch on a couple of things like attribution error, which is where we blame people for their character rather than the conditions and things like that.

Philip Charlton: That’s interesting.

James Beery: It’s out there. They say I would have done it differently. If I were there, I wouldn’t have done it like that. Yeah, but you weren’t there, and number two, did you do anything to help that guy succeed? What did you do to pass on your knowledge? It’s all out there. It’s an amazing thing, Safety-II. It’s amazing.

Tej Singh: I have one quick question before we wrap up today. I’ve heard other people say this as well. They’ve fallen into safety, or safety has found them, and it’s a very nonlinear path to safety. What are you doing to bring younger folks into this industry in a more formalized way so that it’s a picked career right out of the gate?

James Beery: I think you all know that safety is such a huge part of anything we do. We always say safety is number one, but really it’s a balance of safety, production, and quality. Then, if you can’t balance that, it’s like a bank account that you take out of safety to feed production. Something’s got to give. You can’t go too far, and you can’t do too little, so that balance.

One of the things that we’re doing within the West Coast region is supporting, once again, PG&E. I’m not plugging PG&E, but they are actually working with us, and they have given money to a community college program that we host and that we provide instructors for, equipment, and things like that. It’s an apprentice program that puts people into the industry. From that experience, we’re finding people who come in as instructors to support us and others who are coming in to try to get into the industry or have been in it and are looking for a new path. There are some potential candidates for safety professionals because of people who grew up within the trees have that technical knowledge, and all you have to do is just mold them into how to deal with the cultural part of it. That’s the intangibles.

Philip Charlton: That’s a great program out there. Butte College, I think, was part of it.

James Beery: Yeah, Annie Rafferty; she’s the director. We work with her all the time. All that stuff is just awesome. Then we have our credentials program within Wright Tree Service for our SET team or Safety Education and Training team. We have credential programs. We pay for them to do that and keep it up. We’re always doing our training to keep them at a high level. I just gave a four-hour presentation to our very own SET team in Georgia at our biannual training. My boss, Wes, is the promoter, and he just gives me the freedom to just run with this stuff. Sometimes I’ll hit a dead end or I’ll make a mistake, and I’ll back up. Oh, my bad, because we’re all subject to error. Then I’ll look for another path and–

Tej Singh: That’s fantastic.

Philip Charlton: Keep going forward.

James Beery: Yeah, this is awesome.

Tej Singh: Well, it was an absolute pleasure chatting with you.

James Beery: Thank you for the opportunity. That was great.

Tej Singh: You guys are doing great stuff.

Philip Charlton: This was good. Thank you for doing it spur of the moment. You came, and I appreciate that.

James Beery: This is great. I love it.

Tej Singh: Thanks, James. I appreciate it.

James Beery: It’s my first podcast.

Tej Singh: There you go. Thanks, James. I appreciate it.

James Beery: Okay, thank you so much.

Philip Charlton: 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 We’ll chat with you soon.

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