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Outfitting our women to succeed in the trades

Woman wearing hard hat and safety clothing stands in snowy field as crew climb hydro poles in the background.

Manitoba Hydro’s first female power line technician trainee, Monique Molgat, talks about how things have changed since she started.

Enlarge image: Woman wearing hard hat and safety clothing stands in snowy field as crew climb hydro poles in the background.

“I had always had outdoor construction jobs and as soon as I learned about the line trades, I wanted to try that,” said Monique who began her career with Manitoba Hydro in 1987 doing drafting.

Applicants to the power line technician trainee program had to write a series of aptitude tests in order to secure a trainee spot.

“I had the highest score they’d ever seen on a mechanical aptitude test,” said Monique. “They had no choice but to consider me.”

The interview wasn’t the greatest.

“The long-since retired individual offered to give me the job if I could beat him in an arm wrestle,” said Monique. “But in the end, he did me a service. He suggested I try a labourer job on a ground crew for six months just to see how it was to work on a line crew and what the job fully entailed. No woman at Manitoba Hydro had ever done that.”

Monique figures he put her in that role because he thought physical demands would scare her off.

“The people on the crew I worked with were so awesome and helpful,” said Monique. “We were building a 230-KV line with huge wood poles. My role was to hoist cast aluminum dollies up the pole to the power line technician. It really built up my upper body strength.”

It was because that crew was so amazing, that Monique pursued her goal and in 1988 became the first woman at Manitoba Hydro to begin training in the line trades.

“The guys were great. It was an excellent group and I worked hard to pull my weight, so they respected me,” said Monique. “But it was also the ’80s and one person in particular was really horrible.”

Monique credits the fantastic support from her supervisor as putting an end to that poor behaviour directed at her.

While Monique worked as a power line technician trainee for three years, an unfortunate skiing accident where she tore her ACL put an end to that path. Instead she went on to work as a line patroller and then became a power electrician. She now works as a corporate safety officer.

Her roles in the field have been very helpful now that she works in Safety.

“When people are explaining certain situations, I know from my field experience what they are talking about.”

Free falling

A man uses a crane to lift electrical equipment up to two people working on a transformer.

In 2007, power electricians Monique Molgat (far right) and Brad Honke replace bushings on a transformer with help from a digger operator colleague.

Enlarge image: A man uses a crane to lift electrical equipment up to two people working on a transformer.

And Monique has definitely had her share of experiences – including a 30-foot (nine-metre) fall off a Hydro pole.

“Back then we free climbed,” said Monique. “We didn’t have the fall protection we do now. My spur hit a knot in the pole and suddenly I was falling. The thought that I was falling went through my head twice before I hit the ground. But I’m extremely lucky. The pole was in a ditch, and it had been raining a lot, so I had a softer muddy landing.”

It’s fitting that Monique now oversees Manitoba Hydro’s fall protection program.

“Because fall protection is required now, you shouldn’t fall more than a foot or two,” said Monique. “Hydro is a much safer place to work these days – there have been so many improvements in training and knowledge. I’m not taking the credit for that – I’m just one cog in the wheel.”

Monique is also involved in Manitoba Hydro’s safe driving program and plays a role in incident investigations.

“Reporting incidents gives us a chance to investigate them and find solutions to prevent them from happening again,” said Monique.

One size does not fit all: PPE designed for me

One of the improvements for women working in field roles here is that Monique and her coworker Nicole Sigvaldason are responsible for outfitting our female employees with safety PPE designed for them.

“Our power electricians and our power line trades wear special rubber gloves,” said Monique. “Rubber gloves are hard enough to work in at the best of times, but gloves that are too big make things far more difficult and this is a safety issue.”

Just in the last year, Manitoba Hydro has added even smaller sizes of specialty insulated high-voltage and low-voltage rubber gloves to its inventory.

Creating a safer workplace by offering properly fitting safety gear

“We have a small-framed trades person who has been working here for many years. She was continually rolling up her sleeves and constantly wearing clothes that didn’t fit,” said Monique. “It’s nice to see companies that actually care about getting the right stuff for different sized workers.”

Finding the right gear is a slow process

“It’s been 10 years and we’re still looking for the right bra,” laughed Monique. “It has to be fire resistant. Anything with an underwire can heat up and can act as an electrical conduct. Spandex and neoprene would melt in an arc flash. What our field workers wear under their arc-rated and fire-resistant clothing is just as important as what is worn on the outer layers. Not that these incidents happen often, but if it does it can be catastrophic. It can’t just be the right size; it still has to have all the safety ratings we require.”

Inspiring other women

“Even though there are a lot more women in trades now, the majority are still men. That can be intimidating,” said Monique.

But her advice is that if you like physical work and being outside – don’t be afraid to try it.

“Hydro has been amazing. I’ve had so many opportunities and so much training. Just because you’re the only female does not mean you’re not going to have friends,” said Monique. “Of all my jobs at Hydro I’d say the line trades was my favourite. I found it satisfying to build and fix things – seeing those immediate results. I worked with such an excellent group and they made work so much fun.”