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Twenty-twenty was a uniquely difficult year for health and safety professionals. It has been said before, but it bears mentioning again given the industry-changing ramifications of the pandemic.
“It’s definitely been an interesting time. I do think that the value of the [OHS] professional has gone up significantly in 2021. There has been increasing focus on professionalizing the role,” says Denise Howitt, manager, EHS Systems and Compliance, University of Calgary. “And I think COVID has increased awareness of the value of what a health and safety professional brings to an organization in terms of protecting their employees, not only from COVID and other illness-related issues, but just generally in terms of anticipating other issues that might come up.”
The health and safety sector is not new to change by any means. By the very nature of what OHS entails, it’s a sector that is in constant flux due to the ever-evolving nature of workplace dangers in Canada. Occupational safety is a profession that is inherently built to evolve.
Nevertheless, it is also a profession that has for many years been quite male-dominated. But this is something that is, thankfully, starting to change.
“Being a woman in safety in 2021 has become very rewarding. The challenges I faced at the beginning of my career have since faded and become fewer and far between. I feel the workplace climate as far as gender roles has changed, allowing women to showcase their talents... This has been true for me,” says Mary Strazzeri, president, Safety First Consulting.
Allowing for more women to enter the profession does not mean that there need to be fewer men. It means that women need to be empowered with the right tools that will allow them to do their jobs to the best of their abilities — and this is something that still needs to improve.
“I’d like to feel that things are changing ... I’d like to think that gender plays no role. It can; however, I have been able to navigate a career in health and safety where my gender didn’t seem to play much of a role. People want to be listened to, understood and helped,” says Jillian Pacheco, Regional EHS manager, Canadian Service Operations, Eaton Electrical Sector.
“I think people are progressing as a society. There [are fewer] gender barriers than there were when I first started, and it’s nice to see that we are treated as equals ... I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” says Amandeep Beesla, director of Safety Insight & Innovation, Salus Technologies.
In March, Canadian Occupational Safety hosted its second annual Women in Safety summit. The first edition was held in March 2020 in Calgary (just before the start of the pandemic). Due to physical distancing guidelines, this year’s edition went virtual. That didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits however! We saw record attendance, with more than 600 men and women flocking to insightful panel sessions and keynote speeches.
Most participants at the summit were hopeful about the place of women in OHS and noted that there had been a lot of progress in recent years.
But they also pointed to a number of issues that are still plaguing women in the field today.
Access to properly fitting PPE is still a huge issue because not only is it unfair but it is also incredibly dangerous! For many years, manufacturers thought that the solution to making PPE for women was simply making the same model but in pink. Luckily, new sizes and innovative materials are helping usher in an era of more equitable PPE.
Another huge part of pushing for equality is mentorship. One of our event partners, the Women in Occupational Health & Safety Society (WOHSS), offers a mentorship program that any woman wishing to start out in health and safety should look into. But, more broadly, mentorship is a wonderful way to support emerging female leadership and is beneficial for both parties: Mentees gain access to expert advice and mentors get to spread their legacy.
“Being a woman in construction in this day and age is very liberating and empowering ... I feel like we’re making a difference. We’re making a change. I always promote the trades, I always promote women in construction safety and I try and coach and mentor and do whatever I possibly can,” says Beesla.
Networking is also a key interest for OHS professionals and, although nothing can replace in-person connection, the virtual summit boasted a nifty feature that allowed conference-goers to network through a speed chat function.
For the first time ever, and prompted by the success of our Women in Safety summit, we are proud to intro-duce our Top Women in Safety 2021. The 40 winners on this list are all women who are at the top of their game. Some of these women have decades of experience and are thought leaders in the field. Some of these women may have less experience, but through their talent and determination, they are already making waves.
We’re happy to report that the response to this award has been overwhelmingly positive!
“To me this award means I have at least made a small impact somewhere to someone. That means more to me than any award,” says Pacheco.
“It feels really good to be recognized; I work very hard. I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years ... I love helping people ... It is really aligned with my personal beliefs as well,” says Beesla.
“For the last 12 years, I’ve spent many sleepless nights between running my business and raising my children as a single mother,” says Pushpalatha Mathanalingam, health and safety consultant, Ontario Health and Safety Consultants Corp. “Being presented with an honour such as this one truly makes me feel like all the sacrifices were worth it.”
“Being on the list of the Top Women in Safety means a great deal to me and my company ... Being recognized by Canadian Occupational Safety is a wonderful achievement and I am truly humbled to be on a list with a dynamic group of women in safety,” says Strazzeri.
And our winners were keen to highlight how important it is for women to support other women to make a lasting change.
“I’m honored to be included with a cohort of talented, dedicated women paving the way in Canada toward a healthier and safer workplace,” says Mieke Leonard, chief nursing officer, CEO, Hummingbird Mobile Health. “It’s important for women to work together in raising awareness as a collective rather than perpetuating a dog-eat-dog attitude that has for so long kept women in positions where they were unable to make change. The change starts with us.”
OHS professionals are used to working behind the scenes to ensure that workers can go home to their loved ones at the end of each day.
“I think that for women in [OHS], there’s still work to do in terms of making sure that there is equal opportunity at all levels and in all roles within the profession. But I think that we are aware, continuing forward and having some great conversations,” says Howitt.
With this new award, we shine a light on some very deserving safety heroes.
At the start of the research period, Canadian Occupational Safety sent out a call via email and through our website asking OHS professionals to nominate the top women in the health and safety sector. The process was also open to self-nominations. We received hundreds of nominations from across Canada. Over the last few months, our researchers have carefully pored over each nomination to determine a shortlist of nominees.
Nominators were asked: why they thought the person that they nominated was a woman of influence; how the nominee has contributed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the health and safety sector; and any additional details on why this person should be considered for the distinction.
Various teams across Key Media and COS then collaborated to whittle down the shortlist to our final list of winners. Each nominee was thoroughly vetted to make sure that they met our rigorous criteria. Based on the expert insights of our readers (many of whom are stalwarts of the OHS industry) and the hard work of our dedicated research team, these are who we believe to be the top women in safety in Canada.