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The 2023 COS Top Women in Safety awards recognize 66 female safety leaders who are shattering glass ceilings.
According to Canadian government data, in 2022, men were overwhelmingly represented in risk professions, accounting for:
That’s why the Top Women in Safety winners deserve even more plaudits for making their mark. They are also leading by example, which is vital, as 78% of survey respondents stated there’s a lack of female role models in the industry.
Jacqueline Abel, director of the Women in Occupational Health & Safety Society, expands on this.
“Many industries that are considered high risk for injury tend to be male dominated,” she says. “So, women really have to go above and beyond to prove their credibility in order to be at the table where they can be seen as leaders in these industries.”
Top Woman in Safety winner Jacquelyn Oduro explains that higher-risk industries tend to foster toughness and risk-taking.
“Being safe can be seen as a weakness or a lack of skill, leading to stigmatization or ostracization from their peers,” she says.
Oduro posits that having female safety leaders can help undo some of these stigmas. She sees many challenges in the current culture that the COS Top Women in Safety winners are battling:
Top Woman in Safety winner Paula Cabral was kicked off a job site because the foreman said her pink helmet and safety gear were distracting for the male workforce.
Ironically, Paula was almost a Paul. When her parents were expecting, they thought they were going to have a boy, and the longstanding joke in her family would start impacting her career as a corporate business development and execution manager of safety products for Weber Supply, where she is one of only three women.
“At least six to eight times a week, I get a response to an email: ‘Hi, Paul. Just following up...’” explains Cabral.
The inability to read her email signature line has led to some awkward moments. Recently, she won a contract and visited the client’s job site. Expecting a Paul, at first they were wondering what a woman was doing on a construction site, then she proceeded to demonstrate a safety device by transcending a 100-foot-high wall of safety mesh.
The site foreman was stunned. “‘Do you know I had six men come here and they absolutely refused to do that?,’” recounts Cabral. “And I said, ‘So you assumed that because I was a female that I wouldn’t do it?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Shame on me.’”
Another winner, Aimee Arsenault, is a trailblazer in a field where only 23% of senior safety management positions are held by women. As founder of Transmit Safety, a boutique health and safety consulting firm based in Edmonton targeting SMEs, she sees the main challenge of being a woman in the industry as not being seen as a woman.
“The most difficult thing about being in a room with fellow coworkers is not to be seen as an other,” says Arsenault. “It is to be seen as an equal... The most difficult thing is to still maintain your femininity while at the same time being considered equal to everybody else in the room.”
Among other things, Arsenault is amazed that she’ll visit sites that still lack washing rooms for women. It’s a topic she’s covered in recent podcasts.
Oduro is the safety program director at the Sales and Service Safety Association (S2SA), which has a diverse staff that is 70% women. She grew up in Saskatchewan, where her family had a mid-size business and where she experienced loss due to improper safety management.
A mother of three, Oduro didn’t pursue a career until she was nearly 30.
“Balancing the demands of an expanding career while raising what is now considered a relatively large family in our modern world has presented its challenges,” she says. “My career was able to thrive due to the early opportunities provided by industry leaders.”
Oduro owns a real estate business with her husband, The Hinterlands Creative Suites, and for the past 10 years has also been a consultant for businesses in Manitoba.
To stand out as a female safety leader, Abel argues the importance of demonstrating an area of expertise.
“You’re demonstrating your knowledge and, in some way, providing opportunities to others as a means of giving back,” she says. “The top women in health and safety should really take to heart that the work we do has impacts for the individual, their families and our communities – it’s a holistic view.”
Meanwhile, Arsenault says, “I’m a big proponent of being a coach, mentor or sponsor for other people who identify as female within the health and safety industry.”
And she continues, “I have a very strong and cultivated professional network that I’m able to tap into and provide advocacy for other people within my network.”
Cabral adds, “I go out of my way to offer wisdom and advice, and I speak whenever possible at conferences and trade shows. I had a very strong female mentor when I came into this industry, and I want to pay it forward wherever I can.”
What are some recommendations for those following in their footsteps?
“I would just say remember to work hard and be consistent,” says Abel. “Be accountable, but also collaborate and be a good listener.”
Cabral advises young women to not let gender biases play a factor in their career paths.
“You will always be challenged because of your gender, and you should never let that lead you astray,” she says. “Your voice is necessary, and you can use it to help lift women to new heights in this industry.”
Adds Arsenault, “My advice for women interested in being a Top Woman in Safety is to be authentically themselves. Don’t feel like you have to give up or give away anything. Just be authentically yourself and know that you have insights.”
Meanwhile, Oduro encourages young women to go for it – even if it’s a sector historically overrepresented by men.
“In my experience, having worked in so many different industries, my viewpoints were respected and heard once I built relationships with my team and stakeholders,” she says. “No matter who you are, respect and trust are not rights – they are earned. Once you have earned it as a safety professional, you can positively impact an organization, which is the most rewarding aspect of this career.”
As part of our editorial process, Key Media’s researchers interviewed the subject matter expert below for an independent analysis of this report and its findings.
Director of the Women in Occupational Health & Safety Society
Canadian Occupational Safety invited OHS professionals from across the country to nominate exceptional female leaders for the third annual Top Women in Safety list. Nominees had to be working in a role that related to, interacted with, or in some way influenced the health and safety sector. They must also have demonstrated a commitment to their profession.
Nominators were asked to describe the nominee’s standout professional achievements over the past 12 months, the initiatives and innovations, and contributions to the OHS industry.
To narrow down the list to the final 66 Top Women in Safety, the COS team reviewed all nominations, examining how each individual had made a meaningful contribution to the industry.
The Top Women in Safety 2023 report is proudly supported by the Manufacturing Safety Alliance of BC and Workplace Safety North.
Who we are
The Manufacturing Safety Alliance of BC is the industry-driven, not-for-profit health and safety association for manufacturers and food processors in British Columbia. We exist to provide confidential, professional support to manufacturing and food processing companies to help them improve their health and safety performance by building effective systems to prevent workplace injuries.
Our goal is to assist members and clients in enhancing their health and safety management systems, safeguarding workers and reducing related costs.
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We work hand in hand with your organization to help you build an effective and sustainable health and safety management system. If you do not have an occupational health and safety (OHS) resource or program in place, we can work with your team to help you build one.
We offer a number of training, tools, resources and professional advisory services to help your business become healthier and safer places to work. Whether in a classroom or on your shop floor, we go the extra mile so you can achieve your objectives.
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We offer confidential health and safety assessments, professional advisory services and training through a combination of convenient platforms.
Choose traditional classroom training at regularly scheduled times and locations. Train your team online: our selection of online training options is expanding all the time. We can even present our training courses at your place of business, at your convenience.
A blended approach provides a dynamic learning environment to support your specific learning needs. We deliver the latest information, in the most professional and convenient form possible, so you can rely on us to have the information for you when you need it.
An independent not-for-profit, Workplace Safety North (WSN) is one of four sector-based health and safety associations in Ontario. Headquartered in northern Ontario, WSN provides government-approved province-wide workplace health and safety training and services for the mining and forest products industries. Its vision is ‘Every worker, home safe and healthy.’
With health and safety specialists located across the province, WSN and its legacy organizations have been helping make Ontario workplaces safer for more than 100 years. As a leading provider of health and safety training and consulting, businesses call upon WSN for expert advice and information.
Services include the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) Health and Safety Excellence program, the Safe Workplace Ontario safety certification program, and online and on-site health and safety consulting and training.
Virtual, in-person, and on-site training includes the following government-approved courses: Joint Health and Safety Committee Certification, Working at Heights Safety Training, and mining and forestry common core mandatory skills training. Related courses include Competent Supervisor, Workplace Mental Health Series, and Mine Rescue.
A proud partner in Ontario’s occupational health and safety system, WSN is recognized by the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, and WSIB as a designated trainer and service provider.