A fulfilling career: Q&A with the BC Forest Safety Council’s Cherie Whelan
By Ellen Cools
For the past three decades, Cherie Whelan has worked in the health and safety sector across multiple industries. In 2016, Cherie joined the BC Forest Safety Council (BCFSC) as the director of Safe Companies and is responsible for the SAFE Companies certification program for the B.C. forest industry. She has also been involved in multiple safety initiatives in the wood pellet and wood products manufacturing sector, working closely with the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC) and is passionate about the industry’s sustainability story.
Canadian Biomass: What led you to become involved in the safety side of the forest industry?
Initially I was looking for a role in B.C. that would fit my experience and dedication to health and safety. The position as director of SAFE Companies with the BCFSC was a great fit. The forest industry in B.C. is one of the largest industries in the province, and its tendrils are everywhere. We provide support for almost every part of forestry from cut block planning to harvesting, log hauling to wood pellet and sawmills, and even silviculture.
Over the course of my career, I’ve been involved with other health and safety roles in different industries across the country but I’ve always leaned towards resource-based roles where workers are close to the land. I find there’s a lot of passion and commitment from everyone involved in resource-based industries. When I moved to B.C. and started working with the forestry industry, I was amazed by how much pride there is in this particular industry. I think it was because you can see what a tree can become and there are so many components and touchpoints involved right from the beginning of the seedling to the manufacturing of the harvested products. Whether it’s generating electricity or building houses …you can see the fruits of your labour transported all over the world to support infrastructure in many areas.
Canadian Biomass: What other industries were you involved in before?
Before the BCFSC, I worked in various roles across Canada. I have worked for two workers compensation boards as an auditor in Newfoundland for almost 10 years and then in Alberta as an account manager for nine years. I also worked with Occupational Health and Safety in Alberta as an occupational health and safety officer and lead investigator. I then transitioned to industry working in the petrochemical sector at Suncor Energy and then electrical utility generation with TransAlta Energy before I made the move to the B.C. forest industry.
Canadian Biomass: What is your role now and what do you like most about it?
I am the director of SAFE Companies for the BCFSC. Safety Accord Forestry Enterprise (SAFE) is a certification program for forestry employers in B.C. It was developed as a pre-qualification safety requirement for contractors to bid on forestry work in B.C. to ensure there is a minimum standard of safety in all forestry work places. The majority of the employers that we certify are smaller employers that have less than 20 workers. Being able to help these smaller organizations build, implement and sustain safety management systems is very fulfilling for me. I work with a great team of dedicated people who are committed to helping these smaller employers who typically lack time, resources, expertise or personnel to research and implement crucial safety programs. Through our SAFE Companies certification program, we’re able to help them to develop safety management systems faster than if they had to do it all from scratch. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of people who go home safely because of the work we support. It’s really rewarding work and I’m proud to be part of it.
Canadian Biomass: Were there particular people who encouraged, supported or mentored you?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve had some very good leaders provide me with valuable guidance and insight that has made me grow not only in my career but as a person. One of the projects I’m currently working on supports wood products manufacturing in B.C. We are developing a leadership training course that will help wood products manufacturing supervisors to better support their crews. The first two components focus on the fundamental requirements of leadership and communication. I know first-hand the importance of these skills. I had some excellent leaders over the course of my career that were willing to make time for me on a weekly or biweekly basis. They would make a habit of checking in to ensure I had what I needed to do my job and that I knew what I was doing but without micromanaging me. That is a special skill to empower someone in this way.
I am very grateful to all those people who took a chance on me and made a concerted effort to support me. I remember one particular instance in one role I had where I absolutely did not have the background for it. My leader at the time, Gary Woods at TransAlta, assured me that I had the skillset to do the job and gave me the confidence in his trust that I could apply my skills and learn what was needed to fill the gaps. It was incredibly valuable to have someone who was willing to look at transferable skills and give me the encouragement I needed to succeed in the role.
Canadian Biomass: Do you find there are particular challenges for women in the industry?
While the industry has come a long way, there are still very few women in this industry in any role from entry level to senior management. For instance, there are very few female log truck drivers and even fewer certified female fallers through BCFSC. While we are seeing growth in some areas such as silviculture, women mostly remain in administrative roles. Many senior leadership roles within organizations lack diversity and gender balance.
Unfortunately, our reality as women is that we still face workplace challenges. I believe there are still many forestry organizations where there is a “bro-culture” where women’s knowledge and/or expertise are doubted. Statistically, resource-based industries are predominantly male-dominated so there are many who are not used to working with women as a peer, let alone a boss. I’ve witnessed instances where there are women who question something in a meeting and are considered combative. But when the same question is asked by a male peer exhibiting the exact same “combative” behaviour, the question becomes a topic of interest for the group and the male counterpart is given credit as a leader. That’s an old-school mentality, but, unfortunately, it still exists.
I think in order to break through that ceiling, women have to continue to share insights and question things when it adds value, obviously in a respectful way. But, we also have to be okay knowing there’s likely going to be someone with that outdated perspective that is still going to consider us as combative! In this industry though, you have to empower yourself to speak up because it could save someone’s life.
Something I have personally struggled with is the transition from being a high-performing worker into a leadership role. I think many women aren’t used to delegating their old tasks when they move into leadership roles and they take on too much in the transition. Often females in leadership positions are not provided administrative support that male counterparts are provided because there’s an assumption that we can do it all. For example, in my previous role as an investigator, I honed my organizational, planning and note-taking skills since these particular skills were important to the success of my work. When I transitioned to a leadership role, I found these skills have become a challenge in meetings where I am the only female in the room. It is often assumed that I should be the one to take notes or minutes and I should be the one to schedule the follow-up meetings with the group. There still seems to be that stigma attached where the woman takes on the administrative duties no matter what her title. I must admit though, I am getting much better at making a point at the beginning of a meeting to ask, “Who is taking notes and sending them out to the group?” I think women need to get better at saying “no” and requesting support to free our time up for strategic planning and leadership management. Just because we can do it all, doesn’t mean we should!
I’m very lucky right now to work for an organization with a supportive leader and a senior management team that has more women than men!
Canadian Biomass: Building off of that, do you have any advice for women interested in a career in health and safety in the industry?
Women excel in safety roles. Not only does a health and safety role require a jack-of-all-trades, but you have to be able to juggle many things at one time keeping other’s safety top of mind. You’ve got to be able to build programs, implement them and pull all the safety information together to ensure everyone can access it and understand it. There’s a lot of organizational skills required for a successful safety program but also a nurturing aspect to it as well. For a lot of women looking at getting into safety, I would recommend embracing your caring, supportive and nurturing side.
I think that being vulnerable is also really important in health and safety. And this applies to everyone. As a safety leader, your vulnerability and owning up to mistakes makes you approachable. Reporting near-misses or close calls is how safety is improved and can save someone’s life. You want people to trust you, to know you have their best interest at heart and are doing your best to make their workplace safe. It is inevitable there will be a close call or near miss when someone maybe didn’t follow a procedure, or a supervisor didn’t provide support or adequate training. It’s those nuggets of information we really need to investigate, learn from and share those learnings in a supportive environment. As a safety leader, being vulnerable and having your team see that it’s okay to own your mistakes is a huge step towards creating a culture based on safety. Vulnerability is a fundamental trait of an effective leader no matter who you are.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry, #IWD2022 and #BreakTheBias.
Remember to join us for the Women in Forestry Virtual Summit on Mar. 8 at 11 am ET/8 am PT! It’s FREE to register. Sign up now!