Doug Riseden is the industry’s biggest advocate for safety in the trenches
Had his teenage self been told he would become an educator who loves the teaching element of his job, Doug Riseden likely would have laughed.
“I really had very little idea what I wanted to do. When I was growing up, I hated school and now all I want to do is go to classes and learn things and teach things,” Riseden, now 64, said.
Riseden is Hymax technical support manager for Krausz USA, a subsidiary of Mueller Water Products Co., but his path to the water and wastewater treatment industry was not conventional.
Riseden grew up in southern New Jersey near Philadelphia—Haddon Heights, N.J. to be exact—where he lived for his entire childhood. As a adult, he lived in Vermont where he met Sarah, the woman he would eventually marry. He recalled her ringing up his groceries at the cashier’s counter and how he fell for her the first time he saw her.
“I even asked her to marry me when she checked me out at the counter. She of course said, ‘No,’ but over the months, I wore her down and here we are,” he said with a laugh.
Similar to his upbringing in South New Jersey, his wife had lived in Burlington, Vt., since she had been born. One wintery day when the married couple—sheltered in their home from the frigid air—peered through ice on the inside of the sliding glass door at the snow outside, Sarah asked Riseden, “Can’t you get us out of there?”
It was those few words that set off Riseden’s professional journey through the water and wastewater treatment industry when two months later they moved their family to North Carolina.
North Carolina Bound
“I started my career in the Liberty Public Works Department, which is near Greensborough, and started out there as a meter reader of all things,” Riseden said.
Riseden’s boss at the department told him he was overqualified and that in most situations he would not have been hired for the job. But Riseden replied that despite his life experiences, he did not have much knowledge about public utilities. Riseden quickly learned that meter-reading was not what he found to be enjoyable with his work.
“What a thankless job,” Riseden said of meter reading, adding he found the greatest pleasure in work when he was in the trenches. “I decided if there was a leak, I was going to be the first one in the ground with a shovel, and I was.”
Riseden was determined to be the best trench worker; he would be called upon every time a trench worker was needed. He got one such call on Easter around two years into his time with the department when a wastewater backup was affecting a minister’s home. Risden was the only one to respond to the call and fix the problem, and afterward he was called to the town hall.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. What have I done wrong?’“ Risden said.
But when he entered the town manager’s office, she told him the public works director was leaving and she wanted Riseden to fill the position. Despite the promotion, which Riseden accepted, he continued to jump into the trenches with his employees to lead by example. Respect for his employees became the underlying philosophy of his management style.
“Employees spend so much time at work, more than they do with their families, more than they do doing the things they love most times, and so I wanted to always treat the employees with respect and make sure that they could be as happy as possible,” Riseden said.
He held that position for a couple of years before he moved to Burgaw, N.C., where he continued in a management role with a bigger and more progressive community.
Progressive & Proactive
Burgaw, Riseden said, was a larger community with a bigger public works team, and the public and community leadership were more progressive than Liberty, N.C., where he started his careeer in the industry.
Liberty is a bedroom community for commuters who work in Greensborough, and residents liked their community the way it was. Riseden said he always felt accepted in Liberty, but his move to Burgaw opened new opportunities for progressive utility thinking and action.
“We had a greater sense of responsibility to our citizens there,” Riseden said. “We were not just maintaining, we were always trying to improve.”
In His Spare Time
Despite passion for his work, Riseden also finds enjoyment outside the office. He spends much of his time with his wife of almost 30 years, Sarah, with whom he has four children: Zachary, Ben, Nicholas and Kayla.
Riseden used to own and ride a motorcycle for enjoyment and freedom, and these days he likes to go saltwater pier fishing. Florida is home to the longest fishing pier in the world, Skyway Fishing Pier State Park, and Risden noted his satisfaction with the hobby is not the solitude of it.
“It’s the beauty of the ocean,” Riseden said. “I plug for blues and spanish mackerel, so I’m always plugging and moving. I’m telling you if we went up there and threw your sunglasses in, we’d catch a fish with those sunglasses. That’s how heavy those fish run on their migration down south. It’s incredible.”
He said he and his wife also enjoy going to the gun range for sport. While he is not competitive, he and Sarah like to outdo each other at getting better shots. Riseden said they have recently taken to going to the gym together as well.
With that degree of responsibility, Riseden took a proactive approach to managing the public works department. He prioritized inspections of system assets—water tanks, wells, etc.—based on need, and he developed ways to produce more water from the drinking water aquifer. The smaller things also were important to Riseden.
“We’re going to take care of our infrastructure, but we’ve got to take care of the community and take care of the issues like keeping it clean and keeping the grass cut, doing the street sweeping each Friday, all sorts of things to make that a better community,” Riseden said. “Not only did the employees respond, but so did the townsfolk. They could tell the difference.”
This role for Riseden lasted around 10 years when he felt a different a call to duty. He had a desire to serve for a greater purpose.
“I got this tugging at my heart. I don’t know how else to explain it,” Riseden said. “I was never in the military, but I had this desire to serve.”
Operation Enduring Freedom
In November 2010, Riseden took a role with Fluor to manage water distribution systems in support of the International Security Assistance Force as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Fluor had a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to supply workers in support of U.S. Armed Forces in the Middle East.
Riseden was stationed at several forward bases where he worked with reverse osmosis systems, wells and water storage units to ensure potable water met U.S. Army Technical Bulletin Medical Standards. He worked with Fluor for around six months, before he realized it was not the best fit for him.
“I think mainly because I wasn’t busy enough,” Riseden said, explaining that the job had him working 12 hours on the clock and 12 hours off the clock every day of the week. “Then you’d do that week after week after week after week. I’m glad I went over there and I’m glad I did that.”
It did not take long, however, for him to recognize how much he was needed back in the states. As soon as he had arrived in Afghanistan, Riseden said that he was receiving calls to work for communities state-side, and when he returned, he assumed a few roles as operator responsible in charge (ORC) for some small community water and wastewater systems.
Between consulting and ORC work, Riseden said he did not have a clear goal in mind for what was next in his career path. Ultimately, that was influenced by his wife who applied to jobs in Florida.
Riseden applied to work with Krausz in the position he currently holds, and the couple yet again made another move. That role would not only lead him to a job in which he finds satisfaction and one that he loves, but it also exposed him to another calling: training and teaching workers about safety.
Passion for Safety
Riseden said he saw a need when working with Hymax to speak about safety in trench work.
“We lose employees all the time to trench cave-ins,” Riseden said. “It’s such a sad situation where people die in these trenches for what I consider laziness, the fact that they don’t want to do shoring when they go down in there.”
Riseden has spoken about the topic for several organizations and at conferences, including the American Water Works Assn. Annual Conference and Exposition. He continues to speak about the topic until people start following all the procedures correctly. For him, there is one line that generally precedes tragic cave-ins: “I’ll just be down there for a minute.”
“Next thing you know, they’re trying to dig me out because I was lazy,” Riseden said. “When I do it, I just think of it as educating people, but maybe we’re also saving some lives.”
While the passion for the topic of safety may be the true one, Riseden said he loves speaking at events in general. Whether the topic is reviewing shoring procedures for trench work or teaching supervisors how to be better managers, Riseden feels at home at the front of a room speaking to a group.
With his day job, it is the problem-solving that always brings him back. Riseden talks to and troubleshoots with engineers on a regular basis to ensure Hymax products are installed properly and safely. It goes beyond simply selling products.
“We don’t want to just sell our product, we want to be the expert in our field,” Riseden said. “We want to be a source that people go to when they have a problem. They know they can get the answer and get their problem taken care of.”
Risden opens himself up to all possible solutions. And when he knows the best one, he will make sure it is executed safely.