August 17, 2017

Corporate Safety Director Mike Ferry

“My Days at O&G” profiles employees around the company working at unusual jobs every day.

Your immediate word association with “safety director” would probably not be “psychologist,” but what makes people tick is one of the first things Mike Ferry brings up as he talks about what he does. For him, the importance of reading people is a close second to the web of procedures that make for safe work places. Without understanding motivations and behaviors, workplace safety cannot happen as effectively as it should.

Back in 2004, with a fresh degree in occupational health and safety from Keene State College, Ferry took his first job in safety with a metro Boston construction company. He joined O&G in 2015. Long gone is the safety net a boss provided (“Hey you’ve got to help me here!” he laughs). He has become the authority on safety issues. Ferry is responsible for six safety managers assigned to the company’s construction jobs and production facilities.

Just as he and his team are passionate about construction safety, Ferry understands that the workers his team watches over are equally as passionate about what they do. “Understanding their challenges on the job first and then applying safety makes for a better outcome,” he says. Ferry is practical. No one, he knows, likes to be told what to do by someone who is abrasive or by someone they feel doesn’t have the construction know-how to speak with credibility (even though all O&G safety personnel are specialists with strong construction industry backgrounds).

The thick hide Ferry has developed helps when he bumps up against tough people in stressful situations. He also tries to see “through” those situations. “The influences you don’t think about,” he reflects, “are the things going on for people outside of work – their personal life, the person they love who’s sick or the kid they’re having issues with. When you correct someone you have to be aware of the things that could impact their state of mind.”

Great safety managers, he says, take everyone’s safety personally. “It’s for your well being” could be their motto. When he meets resistance as he tries to change someone’s habits and beliefs, it irks him. “I’m not doing it for me, it’s for their own safety. It’s about them going home at the end of the day. Don’t get me wrong. Worker injuries and losses greatly impact the safety professionals involved but the worker and loved ones will have to live every day with the fallout.”

Walking a building job recently, for instance, Ferry encounters two issues: someone tying off for fall protection in a manner that could snap the protective cable in the event of a fall; another, a man lift at maximum height with a worker straddling the lift’s side rails to reach the work overhead. He knows both are matters of practicality for the workers, not malicious choices, but he also knows the risks need to be addressed. He suggests a workaround to one (trade for a different lift with higher reach) and explains the tie-off risk to the other who corrects his method.

When Ferry visits a site, usually meeting the safety manager assigned there and the personnel running the job, they will resolve the easier safety issues and brainstorm approaches to the thornier matters that are less clear cut. They’ll discuss situations and Ferry will aim for a bottom-line assessment and a resolution that controls risk.

Unfortunately, he acknowledges, “things happen” and some days he spends his time stomping out fires. But the focus of the Safety Department under Ferry is to shift away from responding to issues and toward integrating safety into the plans of a job and core operations of a facility. “We want to get ahead of things. We want everyone planning with us. You can project the work and interject the safety. It’s preplanning so things go seamlessly with the schedule and the process,” he says. He’d rather not have his department oriented to compliance inspections – the old reactive mentality – but to know where a job is heading, know the challenges safety poses to constructability, and know the risks associated with the work coming up.

Visiting the Waterbury Bus Facility on a hot July morning, he, Safety Manager Brian Ohler and Project Superintendent Corey Morin talk about the crane that had just tipped over on the Tappan Zee Bridge. The boom had been caught by the wind, the crane fell and blocked the old bridge. No one was seriously hurt and it could have been much worse, they all agree. Then they talk about the cranes and picks of heavy iron girders coming up in Waterbury and talk about safety. Men, massive machinery and unexpected twists of fate – that’s the trio Ferry and his crew manage.

For Ferry, directing safety company-wide is like plowing the sea in this regard: his plans for the day routinely get bumped off the rails when a call comes in reporting an incident or an OSHA visit or requesting help to resolve an urgent situation. It’s triage Ferry performs, prioritizing the needs that are constantly flowing his way – this on top of his own writing, reporting and speaking duties and maintaining a healthy personal life as a husband and father. Mike Ferry’s days are very busy indeed.