Pregnant women working in the skilled trades are still such a rarity that no one, not the workers themselves nor their doctors nor their employers, seems to know the safest and fairest ways to handle the situation.
That was one of the claims made during a recent Skills Ontario International Women’s Day panel discussion that featured five female tradeworkers, all mothers. The session was called Parents Fireside Chat.
The panellists talked of “clueless” family doctors who had no good advice to give when asked the best way to work and stay healthy during pregnancy, flummoxed supervisors who had never had to assign light duties to pregnant employees before and unprepared HR departments who had little advice to give on maternity processes.
Moderator Jenn Green, an apprenticeship youth adviser to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development as well as a licensed millwright and mother of two, suggested, “It’s a case of nobody’s had to deal with this before. I know when I first told my manager, I walked into HR and said, ‘I’m a pregnant millwright, what do I do?’ It’s just something that doesn’t come up.”
Courtney Chard, an Ontario-based pipe welder with U.A. Local 46, recalled the fear she felt as she began to research how the materials she used and fumes she inhaled as a welder might harm her unborn child. A co-worker told her if she got pregnant, the work could disable her child.
“That was something that I carried with me for a while,” said Chard. “And when I became pregnant, I kept having what he said to me play over and over in my head. I was very fearful because I had no reference. Nobody knew what the risks were.”
Chard was finally told about a study out of the University of Alberta that for the first time outlined many new risks. Professor Nicola Cherry launched the study, titled Women’s Health in Alberta Trades: Metalworking and Electricians, in 2011 and with Bob Blakely, then COO of Canada’s Building Trades Unions, presented its findings to a Senate sub-committee in 2018.
“I definitely had the fear, and I think first-time mothers are always worried for the health of their baby,” said Chard.
“But I got through it and Hayden is healthy, happy and she’s met all her milestones on time.”
Another panellist was Calgarian Jill Timushka, a Level 1 Welding Instructor, also a UA member and single mother of a 17-year-old son. The maternity support pregnant colleagues receive through her union was contrasted with that of Kristy Corbiere, an electrical engineering technologist from Ontario, who is non-union.
Just in the past couple of years UA in Canada has come out with a package of benefits for pregnant members that includes light-duty options and stay-at-home supports, said Timushka.
“It’s the first of its kind in Canada, which is fantastic,” she said.
Corbiere, a member of the Ojibwe nation, finally opted to start a family well into her career after years of struggling with the decision. She negotiated with her supervisors on whether she should be going up stairs and lifting 20-pound weights.
“There was no policy. I don’t come from a unionized work environment, and any of the research, I did it on my own time,” she explained. “I checked what other places did and different rulings legally in Canada, of what they were allowed to do. I guess I educated myself.”
Janine Lee, protection and control technologist at Hydro One in Ontario, described how when she became pregnant she tried to walk her doctor through her job, which involved wearing flame-retardant clothing that possibly gives off chemicals.
“My doctor, basically she’s like, ‘I don’t know what you do for a living, what restrictions do you want,’ ” said Lee, noting she had no idea the University of Alberta study on hazards existed. “That’s not comforting. You should be telling me. It was mind boggling.”
Co-workers are similarly unsure about how to deal with a pregnant colleague.
“Nobody knows what to do with you,” said Chard. “People would deliver parts and our material and they’d be pointing a finger and be like, is your welder pregnant? Like horrified.
“And one guy said, ‘Courtney, I’m not going to deliver this baby, when are you going to go on leave?’ ”
Timushka said it was evident that with the many issues raised, including poor child care options, the construction sector has a long way to go before it accommodates the needs of pregnant tradeworkers and the mothers they will become. The Skills Ontario panel should serve to launch further discussion, she urged.
“I think we’re still learning,” Timushka said. “I think we still have a long way to go.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.