Fresh out of college in 2003, Abby Ferri, a new construction safety professional, found herself one of only two women at a construction trade association’s safety committee. Abby embraced the challenges of overcoming the barriers presented to her as a young woman in the construction industry, rising to success in a male-dominated industry, and helping to break down those barriers for the next generation.
Fifteen years later as a business owner, and the Assistant Administrator of the Women in Safety Engineering (WISE) group of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), Abby is a role model for women in the trades, and an advocate for workplaces that people can “be proud of and feel safe at.”
Abby’s journey started during her undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota Duluth, during which she worked as an office administrator at a construction company.
“There were two guys who were rarely in the office, yet I always put a paycheck on their desk – I asked what they do and was told ‘they’re the safety guys.’ I talked to both of them to learn more and they pointed me to the Master of Environmental Health and Safety program at University of Minnesota Duluth where I was attending at the time” says Abby.
“I wanted to have a more proactive role in worker health and safety, so I applied and was accepted into the MEHS program. I knew that I wanted to work in construction, and I landed my first job with a contractor before I graduated from school! I moved out to San Diego after graduation and that’s where my story began.”
Abby quickly recognized that she was in a unique, and challenging, position as a young, female safety professional in the construction industry – but found a way to use it to her advantage. “As a young woman on the job sites in the early years, people often didn’t consider me a threat. I took that time to learn from the men (and a few women) on the job sites and really understand their jobs and why they did the things they do, which were often unsafe.”
Abby used her unique status as a more approachable figure to establish respect and trust with workers on the site, and was able to impact safety in a positive way through her relationships with the the workers. “Those achievements earned credibility,” she says, “so the improvement process was a bit quicker after the initial trust and respect was there.”
Now as a consultant running her own company, The Ferri Group LLC, Abby is able to build off of her relationship, respect and trust building approach to help companies improve not only their safety programs, but their foundational safety culture.
“I believe that people can have long and productive careers in high-hazard industries like construction, manufacturing, and oil and gas,” says Abby, “Since college, I felt that these were industries that safety professionals weren’t taking the time to fully understand and dive into.”
Now as a consultant, and her own boss, Abby has the opportunity to dive into it with her clients. “I love a good comeback or makeover story.” she says, “My favorite clients are those who are working on their safety program out of necessity, yet have a good safety mindset. They often don’t look deep enough into their current company culture to understand how to build a good foundation for a SAFETY culture. I love looking back after 3-6 months with a client and seeing the improvement in employee attitudes towards safety, especially if there were some difficult characters. When the buy-in and ‘aha’ moments occur, it’s the best feeling!”
As a successful safety professional of 15 years, Abby hasn’t forgotten the challenges she faced as woman in a male-dominated industry, and those experiences still inform her decisions and passions today.
“As Assistant Administrator of the Women in Safety Engineering (WISE) group of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), I’m often asked why we still need to focus on women in the industry” says Abby, “I think that progress has been made, there are more women in the field as safety professionals and in the trades, however we still have a lot of work to do!”
Abby recalls meeting the challenge of being a woman in construction head on, “I’m usually up for meeting and exceeding challenges, and I often don’t realize something was a barrier or challenge until I am on the other side of it,” she says, “This is especially true of the first five years of my career. As I look back, I cringe when I remember situations of vulgar language referring to women’s body parts being used in my presence in job site meetings, being hit on at the job site and not having a witty comeback in the moment to squash it, and other scenarios that I had been desensitized to.”
Crude language and sexual harassment are no strangers to women working in the construction industry, but Abby points out the barriers and challenges for women run much deeper than ‘cat calls’ and ‘guy talk’.
“The ill-fitting PPE is the quickest one to come to mind,” says Abby, when asked what gender-specific hazards she and other women have faced on the job site – she recalls times when she was handed extra large ‘one size fits all’ gloves and loose fitting safety vests – “but, the other “hazards” are more insidious and systemic and relate to overall work-life balance. We are losing excellent female trades workers because of the lack of flexibility in scheduling and attendance policies that make it tough to care for children and family, which often falls on women. Often, if a worker, male or female, has to leave work early or arrive later due to family and child commitments, they are singled out as troublesome or even lazy. For women, this has translated to leaving the trades for careers that may have more flexibility, or taking on multiple part time jobs in search of the flexibility they need, while losing valuable medical and other benefits.”
In her current role Abby advocates for the next generation of female trades workers and safety professionals. “Many young women do not opt-in to trades careers because there are health issues specific to women, family and child care concerns, and discrimination and hostility towards women in workplace settings. As a female safety professional, I understand these issues and aim to make conditions better for women in the trades by working with unions, safety associations, employer associations, and safety equipment manufacturers to remove barriers to women entering and staying in these jobs.”
With young women looking to inspiring professionals like Abby as role models, she takes every opportunity she can to talk to younger kids, from her daughter’s age group (5 years old!) up to high schoolers who are beginning to think more seriously about their future. “Safety was a career path that had never crossed my mind until I worked for a contractor. It’s been an excellent career for me, and has developed into a completely different path than I could have ever anticipated or imagined,” says Abby.
Abby also shares her passion for safety, and inspires the next generation of safety professionals, through her YouTube Channel, where she makes safety topics – everything from snow shoveling to silica – relatable and accessible for her subscribers.
Abby’s biggest piece of advice? “If someone is interested in safety, I suggest finding a safety professional to mentor you. The mentoring could be as simple as phone calls or emails, or more involved with site visits so you can really learn what it’s like to be a safety professional.”
Mentoring may also be beneficial for women who are just starting out in their trades career as way to help women problem solve when they encounter discrimination. The UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences has been piloting one such mentoring program as part of the Safety and Health Empowerment for Women in Trades research project.
Abby’s passion for blazing trails and taking on challenges doesn’t stop with her success in the construction safety industry. Her company, The Ferri Group, was the first safety services company to join the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild in 2016. When she isn’t busy consulting, making safety videos, or speaking at conferences or webinars, you can find Abby serving on the planning board for the Fight for Air Climb with the Lung Association of Minnesota, or spending time with her daughter and watching her favorite team the Green Bay Packers (Abby is an owner!).