This week’s interview is with Amy Cook, one of Perlo’s Field Safety Coordinators. Amy began her construction career as a carpenter in the field and has a fascinating story to tell. Read on to learn more about her winding path into construction, the lessons she’s learned from it and the changes she’s seeing in the industry.
How did you get started in Construction?
I had been travelling and playing music for most of my twenties, and I was ready to settle down and find something more financially stable to do. I was an art curator, too, but those jobs were few and far between. I was approached by a friend that told me I should join the union and I thought being a carpenter would be a good job to retire in. At the time I was living in Hawaii and had a dream to build my own house there. That’s still a dream of mine, one day.
Anyway, my first job in construction was with a subcontracting firm and was the worst introduction a new participant could have. They put me on a 25’ staircase in a parking garage and was told ‘strip it’. I’d never even heard that term.
Additionally, no one talked to me about fall protection. Nothing was protecting me from the leading edge. My belt was on backwards and my tools were in the wrong pockets. Nobody wanted me on their jobsite. Nobody said anything to me. For three days, and I was trying to take wood off with the wrong tools. I thought ‘this is just a dangerous job’. The supervision was terrible, and the foreman wasn’t even around. The crews just did their own thing. And I didn’t know any better because I didn’t have any frame of reference about what it should be.
I wandered around that project and found the scaffold guys and they taught me a lot. I was there for about two months and then I moved to a different company to do rough framing and roofing. There was more training at that company. It was the first time anyone showed me anything about fall protection, ergonomics, etc. I didn’t go through any formal training at that time – I was waiting for the union to get me into their training program, so I was still a ‘carpenter helper’. But once I got on that project with that company, people seemed to really help me and care about me.
What kept you going in this career with that kind of an introduction?
At that second company, there was an old-timer that I followed around. He told me that if it had been 5 years sooner, he would have told me to get off his jobsite because I was a woman, but he told me he’d seen several women on jobsites and that they worked just as hard as the men. He showed me a lot of things about how to properly swing a hammer to be more efficient, etc. I really liked that.
Honestly, I really loved the work. I was in my late twenties and heading into my thirties. A lot of the guys around me had been doing it for 20+ years. I was excited to be learning something new and getting a consistent paycheck. I had a good attitude and sometimes brought treats. I wanted to bond with my coworkers. I loved getting paid to work out every day. That’s how I saw it. I loved the physical aspect of it and was in much better shape then. I did Taikwondo as a kid, and so I liked the physicality of it. I also had that dream of the house in Hawaii and that kept me going.
How has your career progressed from being a carpenter in the field?
I started with Perlo as a carpenter in the summer of 2019. In January 2020 I was interviewed for a position in the safety department as a Field Safety Coordinator. Honestly, I don’t know how I got this position! I went into that interview against some really experienced safety professionals. I decided my intention was to make them smile and laugh in the interview, and that is what I did. I had nothing to lose in that interview, because I loved what I was already doing as a carpenter. I did a mock safety audit and I just joked the whole time. I figured that if I just made everyone laugh, they would at least remember me!
So, how I got this role, I don’t know, but I so appreciate the opportunity. I couldn’t be working with a more supportive team and supervisor. I’m lucky to have gotten this position, with Perlo and the immediate team.
What are the differences between being a carpenter and the safety side of construction?
For most of the jobs I had as a carpenter, before Perlo, safety wasn’t a big priority. It wasn’t something that was held in high regard. We just did what we needed to do to get the job done. No one was really talking about safety until I moved over to Perlo.
Working on the safety side has been a totally different world. Just being in the office part time is different. I’m out in the field but also working from a computer about half the time. I appreciate the quality of life that this position has given me. My body isn’t totally dead at the end of the day – that work was so tiring. If someone’s been a carpenter for 25 years, they should get their pension – it’s a physically demanding job even if you use perfect ergonomics. But that’s why there’s good benefits: it’s hard work!
What do you do as Field Safety Coordinator?
I try to bridge the gap between safety and field personnel. It’s not about regurgitating OSHA standards and regulations – it’s about reminding each and every employee that they matter, and that going home in one piece is what safety is about. We want each person to go home safe and sound to their family. We are protecting the individuals and their families with our safety work.
So I help keep people safe. Some of what I do is to look people in the eye and ask how they’re doing before they step into the field, and make sure they are present and in good health before they go to work. At my current jobsite where I’m stationed each day, I’m doing a ‘move well’ program each morning, so I really do get the chance to be face to face with each worker in the mornings and help keep them safe.
Prior to my current role, I was roving from project to project. Each safety team member has a certain geographical jurisdiction. I did a lot of Portland and everything north of there. Sometimes we mix it up and ‘trade’ projects or walk projects together just to get fresh eyes on things. And we perform safety audits at each site. My credentials were minimal at first, so I spent time building relationships with people and asking questions, talking through any issues.
If an incident, close call or violation occurs, I always want to know how we got to a problem and then how to prevent that in the future. I don’t want to just solve the symptom; I want to find the root cause and then solve that.
We also organize our safety equipment, organize documents and data to track our progress. I’ve gotten massive support from Dennis (Safety Manager) and the rest of the team. You know, you can learn to speak Spanish from Rosetta Stone or you can move to Mexico and become fluent much faster. And that’s how I feel like I’ve learned about Safety, but with a huge support net.
Do you feel like you’ve been treated differently because you are a woman in construction?
In carpentry, I was absolutely treated differently. To some extent, anyways. It’s not as hard for me as it might be for others. I feel like I got in at a really good time, but I also think that the West Coast is way more forward-thinking and accepting than other states. For the most part, I see the industry course correcting and participating in the shift to improve safety and attitudes – even the old timers. Which makes those who don’t want to participate stand out even more.
When the guys were ‘messing’ with me, I actually felt like I was accepted. That said, there’s a line between jovial and harassment, but I did have to report a couple of people for harassment. No one touched me or anything, but there was some weird behavior that I had to report. But I learned from that – I’m still a female in this industry and need to make sure I’m not putting myself in a position where I’m alone on a jobsite. I mean, I wouldn’t put a man alone on a jobsite, either. That’s just not safe. If there’s an accident, someone needs to be able to call 9-1-1.
Because I’m a safety professional, I do talk to women on jobsites and act as an advocate for them. I check into their scope of work, and let them know that we have zero tolerance for any kind of bullying, hazing, harassment, etc. There’s kind of an alliance because there’s so few women onsite. We see each other and support each other.
The sisterhood in the brotherhood union is crucial. I’m still involved in meetings with the union and attending the Tradeswomen ‘Build Nations’ event. I’ve learned a lot through the women onsite. There are real stories from women we need to capture to be sure we can mitigate hazards before they happen, and find ways to educate men onsite, too. Because of what I saw as a union carpenter, I feel guided to protect minorities no matter their gender. I feel deeply guided to do my due diligence.
Is it correct to assume you’re seeing a structural behavior change in terms of safety and how people treated onsite?
Yes. Absolutely. I haven’t been in this industry as long as many, but there’s a huge effort underway to improve behavior on jobsites. If I see harassment, I’m going to do something about it. All of the safety professionals play a role in preventing poor behavior. Some ‘old timers’ don’t like the idea of safety, but you know what? They don’t have a choice. I am here to be a resource for people and build relationships.
For the most part, everyone has been incredibly welcoming. The superintendents are on board, and we truly do work together, which is a really special relationship. No one learns from being criticized all day long. We’re here to learn and improve and keep people safe and whole.
How would you recommend people get started in this industry?
Becoming a carpenter is sort of like running through burning hoops – you have to find a job first and then join the union. But if possible, I’d try to find a way to join the union first and then get to work.
I wouldn’t recommend getting a safety position if you have zero experience working in the field. Even though you can memorize rules and regulations, the experience you get from working onsite is not replaceable with book learning. The biggest advantage I have as a safety professional is that I know what the folks in the field are experiencing. I know what it’s like to be in a muddy ditch or dealing with snow/rain, etc. It’s hard work and I don’t need to be barking at people. If someone forgets their hardhat, I go grab it and give it to them. You know – you don’t have to yell.
I recommend being motivated – you have to find that within yourself. If you’re in high school, there are Career Technical Education (CTE) programs that you can get involved in, so take those, and learn about the trades. There are also organizations like Girls Build, where younger girls can gain experience with STEM careers. Just get involved with your community – get to know the people in it, ask questions. There are apprenticeships for most trades, and the classes that are offered through those are priceless. Welding, carpentry, laborers, etc. Get involved and start caring about your future.
Do you still have your Hawaii dream?
I do, but it’s slow-paced living out there and it’s nice to have a steady paycheck for now. I’ve broadened my horizons a bit. I would like to find a way to teach martial arts to kids and do exhibitions, etc. My dream would be to have land somewhere and have all the local kids come out, be safe, learn, play. I want them to learn how to protect themselves. I couldn’t afford a lot when I was a kid, so I want kids to be able to have better opportunities and not have to pay for them.
Amy, thank you for sharing your story with us. We are proud to have you on our team! If you’re looking for new career opportunities, check out our Careers page now.