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Collaborating for PPE that actually fits women

November 30, 2023
Photo: A woman wearing an orange safety vest and a hard hat is walking to the left of the frame. Behind her you can see part of a large heavy equipment truck used in mining.

Supporting women’s health and safety

Sharen Brownson is a heavy-equipment operator doing surface work for Impala Canada’s Lac des Iles (LDI) palladium mine, about 85 km northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont. She started working for Impala Canada about six years ago, becoming a Steward as soon as she was hired, as the union was keen to involve women members in the union. She was elected President of USW Local 9422 in 2021.

One of Brownson’s passions is creating a more accessible workplace for women in traditionally male-dominated environments. Her favourite approach to this? Collaboration.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have incredible support from members, my co-workers and from Impala Canada’s leadership team. When I started flagging opportunities for improvement I was not met with resistance, I was met with enthusiasm,” Brownson explained.

Initially, Brownson worked closely with Erin Satterthwaite, Chief Corporate Officer for Impala Canada, on implementing small actions – like ensuring female washrooms were stocked with period products. As they developed a solid working partnership, they moved on to bigger efforts, like building and installing heated washrooms around the mine site to increase both accessibility and comfort for women on shift who, before these bathrooms existed, had to travel far distances to often frigid washrooms.

“We needed somewhere clean, where a woman can change a tampon, wash her hands, take off coveralls and put them back on, and not be freezing or disgusted,” said Brownson.

The conversation about coveralls continued, and the success of LDI’s heated washrooms initiative took Brownson and Satterthwaite down yet another path: female-specific PPE (personal protective equipment), specifically one-piece coveralls. “The standard at LDI is a one-piece coverall, but there is a huge gap in the marketplace for well-fitting coveralls for women. When PPE fits properly, it does its job. When to doesn’t, well, we need an alternative.”

Brownson had heard about a Sudbury, Ontario-based company called Covergalls, started by a woman named Alicia Woods. Covergalls’ philosophy is that woman are not scaled down versions of men – women need and deserve PPE designed with their bodies and needs in mind.

“Erin and I decided we should test Covergalls’ product, so we ordered a variety of sizes for our women to try. But we hit a bump in the road. There were elements of the garment that just didn’t work for any of us. We didn’t feel like it was a solution we could pursue, and we weren’t sure what to do. Until Alicia from Covergalls called to check in on our test.”

Turns out, Covergalls shares Brownson’s passion for making things better for women working in heavy industry. 

“Alicia was not just open but keen to hear our feedback. In fact, she was even open to a suggestion that I solicit ideas from women at the USW National Policy Conference!”

Brownson said that conference delegates were enthusiastic – some men even got involved, connecting Brownson with women from their workplaces. Suggestions included stretchier fabric and adding a hidden pocket for tampons.

Satterthwaite, Brownson, and Woods met a few times in late summer and early fall ’23 to talk about the next iteration of Covergalls’ one-piece coverall – launching in late Fall 2023.

“It really is incredible what can happen when people work together. I firmly believe we are all stronger when we pull together, and my experience with Impala Canada and Covergalls is a perfect example of that. This has been a rewarding effort, and I couldn’t have done it alone,” said Brownson.

At the time of writing, Brownson was looking forward to testing out the next iteration of Covergalls’ products for women in industry. She is optimistic that it’s possible to have women’s PPE that is functional, comfortable to wear and looks good on all body types.

Stay tuned!

Learn more about the USW’s campaign Raising the Bar on Women’s Health and Safety here.

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