Workplace safety is making not only a generational shift, but a gender shift as well. In the next installment in our series of interviews with major influencers in the workplace safety industry we talk to Abby Ferri, President of the Ferri Group LLC. The Ferri Group provides full service safety management consulting services. This includes written program review and development, personnel safety training, preparation and coaching for Voluntary Protection Program status, and weekly and monthly site inspection. With over 15 years experience in the field of safety and health in diverse industries including construction, manufacturing, insurance, healthcare, hospitality, beverage, and retail, Abby has valuable insight into where worker safety has been, where it is now, and where it’s headed in the future.
Abby is also a featured speaker at Safety 2018, where she will be delivering three talks on various aspects of worker safety. We were fortunate that Abby took time to visit the Corvex office for a chat with Corvex CEO and President, Ted Smith.
Ted Smith: Abby, thank you for joining us today. I’m really looking forward to learning more about your perspective on the safety industry, and where it’s headed. But first, can you give us a little snapshot of your experience in the safety industry?
Abby Ferri: It’s great to be here Ted, thank you for having me! I kind of "fell" into safety, for lack of a better word. Just before college I was working in Northern Minnesota for a construction company as an administrative assistant. I noticed there were two guys who were never in the office when I went to deliver their paychecks and I was intrigued when I found out they were the “safety people.” First, I loved that they were always out in the field and not stuck in the office. Also, I loved that their mission was to keep people safe. I was registered to attend the University of Minnesota in Duluth, and both individuals highly recommended the UMD Master of Environmental Health and Safety program. So I finished my undergraduate studies a year early, and then went on to complete my masters as well. Luckily I was able to get my first job in the construction industry right out of college. Construction has always been my favorite industry. I don’t have to be in an office and I get to wear jeans every day. What’s not to love about that?
Attracting a younger generation to the safety industry
TS: It’s so interesting that you were exposed to safety even before college, and it’s a great point. Right now not just in safety, but in trades in general, there's a huge age gap. What do you think the safety industry needs to do to start attracting and incentivizing younger people?
AF: Sometimes it’s just because the work is viewed as really tough, and that can be true. But honestly, if people knew more about the trade industry, they would be much more excited about the opportunities there. I think if younger people understood that they could have a great job without having to take on a ton of school debt they’d be more interested, and typically the pay is pretty good too!
It's not only about getting younger people, but also getting women into the field. There are barriers based on long hours, sometimes traveling 30-100 miles from home for your job, and it can be physically very challenging. Although things are slowly changing, women are often still the primary caretakers for kids, and that can make it tough. Also, for safety professionals there is a certain transient nature to the position as projects ramp up and down. That can also be a challenge.
TS: Do you think colleges do enough to advertise? You found out about the Master's program but is there enough communication about these kinds of degrees?
AF: We can do better, yes. But there are more programs now than there were in the past that are accredited. That can get you into the certification pipeline of the ASP, or GSP, into the CSP, and other certification-type programs. I think because of those certification programs requiring undergraduate degrees, safety degrees are becoming much more popular. Safety can also make a great second career. People that aren’t inspired by their current career but have a passion for helping people are really good people to bring into the industry.
TS: You really have to be passionate about people and have that motivation to continually inspire people to be safe. There's a lot of push-back in certain circumstances, and you have to be a special type of person to resist that.
AF: It's almost like sales. You get all these rejections and objections at times. Unfortunately in the world of worker safety you're going to have some people in the working population that you have to "sell" on their own safety. Sometimes they view safety as getting in the way of doing their job.
What it takes to "sell" safety
TS: A lot of Safety Managers I’ve spoken to say the same thing, that they have to sell the workers on safety, and they have to sell management on the need to spend more money on worker safety programs.
Let's talk about what’s changing in the safety industry today. From your perspective, what changes have you witnessed in the past five years?
AF: That takes us back to 2013, after an economic downturn. A lot of companies got rid of entire safety departments or at least most of the staff. Then as things started to bounce back they haven't re-hired those people. During the down times, companies found that they could function without a safety manager, as an HR person or an operations person was fulfilling that job function as well. Companies got this false sense of, "Hey, we’re good. It’s fine, everything's fine." But really, there's still more work to be done with safety. There are companies right now that have 300 or more employees, and only one safety person.
TF: That's interesting because I struggled having these discussions after looking at the data, it looks like injury rates really dropped after 2008.
AF: There was less work, and therefore fewer injuries. It doesn’t mean things were safer. I’ve combed through lots of numbers, and we're actually doing worse as fatality numbers continue to creep up. Worker safety should be on the radar of every executive for this very reason.
The connection between technology, metrics and a stronger safety culture
TS: It's the whole challenge of the lagging indicator and trying to interpret metrics that have been there forever. We always talk about needing a stronger safety culture, but how would you define that?
AF: In the past, I think a strong safety culture was based on lagging indicators, you’re right. People would say things like "we're good because our numbers are good and our ex mod is good," when the ex mod is from four years ago at the latest. That's not really a good way to judge a program. We should be looking at what's going on currently, what the company is doing for their workers, and how we're working to improve the culture.
TS: How do you see that evolving in a way that workers will actually embrace as opposed to thinking it's just another program?
AF: Companies have to be really wary of introducing new things to the workers and I'm always a fan of meeting workers where they are. People have smartphones. For some reason, they think that job site technology always has to lag behind what they have in their hand in real-life. This is the first time that it seems like real-life technology is actually happening on the job site. I think safety managers are getting better at trying to reach the workers and to get those devices into their hands.
TS : Do you see that technology is really being utilized to your point? Can you expand a little bit about what you think it's going to take to get them to say, "Hey? You know what? This is worth it."
AF: I think being able to track some things in real time using a mobile device is the key, but it has to be a simple process. My favorite part of the Corvex technology is that sensors are worn by people. Say we're having a safety meeting. All I have to do is just do some setting on my device and click we're all here. The attendance is taken. We don't have to worry about passing around a sheet. We just know they're there. It’s those kinds of things that improve not only worker safety but also efficiency, where everyone understands the “win.”
TS: At Corvex we use the term "safety community" instead of "culture." Is there a difference between culture and community and do you think that culture needs to transcend a community in a safety perspective?
AF: The use of the term community is different to me. I like it because you could almost treat each job site as its own community. In the construction industry we do treat each job site differently. When you're on a job, or if you're the manager on that job or in a supervisor position on that project, you treat it as your own domain anyway. I think honoring that is part of being a community.
TS: I've read a lot about the C-suite being involved in safety, creating a better commitment to safety and safety culture.
AF: What’s going on between a lot of safety professionals and executives at their companies is that the C-suite doesn’t understand what they should want to know in terms of safety data. They should be asking questions like: Tell me about our biggest job that we have? How many training hours have they done? What are the biggest observations going on right now? What can we get ahead of? What can we learn for the next time when we go to estimate? What can estimators learn from this job because they're bidding a similar job in two months? And the best news is that with technology we can answer those questions much more easily now.
The availability of real time data from platforms like Corvex makes the future of worker safety really exciting for me. Now, my biggest thing is get the level of expertise up with the safety professionals. There's no reason for them to not be tracking things in real time or getting into new technology that moves safety programs forward in a big way.
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Visit Corvex at Safety 2018 June 3-8 in San Antonio, Texas. We'll be at Booth 1953. And don't miss Abby Ferri at Safety 2018 in these compelling presentations: