Watching a Discovery Channel documentary about women operating heavy equipment in mines unearthed a whole new world for a 19-year-old Robin Hebbard in Deer Lake, Newfoundland.

“I knew that’s what I wanted to do so I hopped on a plane to Fort McMurray,” says Robin. “No woman in my family had ever left Newfoundland for work. They thought I had some pluck but figured, ‘she’ll be back.’ Sixteen years later, I’m still not back because I’ve found my dream job.”

That dream didn’t come without obstacles. Robin arrived into a very masculine environment at Syncrude’s Aurora Mine in 2007 as a heavy equipment operator with no experience.

“No one really took young women seriously at the time, there weren’t that many of us. You’d be lucky to find 15 females on a team of 80 employees and contractors,” she says. “We were the last to get things. We were not trusted. I never took offence to it, though. I saw it as a challenge. If a man can play in this sandbox, well, so can I.”

Robin’s quick mastery of the elephantine haul trucks earned her a full-time job at Syncrude in 2008. But she didn’t just confine her skills to the cabs of the massive iron hulks.

“I always took opportunities that came my way outside of working on heavy equipment. One of those was working as a backup team administrator,” she says. “And one of the tasks was doing audits of the lockers.”

Lockers are where occupational workers at Aurora start and end their shift. “There is a lot of gear we have to wear to protect ourselves, from hardhats to coveralls to steel-toed boots,” she says. “And most of us come to work on a coach bus and don’t want to dirty up the seats with our work clothes so you need a place to change our clothes and store our keys, phones and personal belongings.”

The increasing number of female workers at Aurora created locker shortages and congestion in the women’s locker room. “I started doing locker audits in 2015 and we freed up a bunch of lockers for our female employees and contractors. But it was much more difficult to free up space by 2018,” she says. “Part of that is good news. Women make up more than 30 per cent of our teams today thanks to initiatives such as Women Building Futures. But that created a problem in terms of locker space. We had females doubling or even tripling up in a single locker.”

Robin raised the concern with Eric Williams, Director – Aurora Mining, who consulted with leadership to find a solution. “David Balmer, one of our frontline team leaders, came up with the idea of switching the female locker room with a male locker room at our facility,” says Eric. “Given our female workforce numbers have increased, we had spare capacity in our male locker rooms. We did all the locker counts and collaborated with Facilities and concluded that this would be possible.”

Cal Swyers, a Shift Leader at Aurora Mining, was tasked with switching the locker rooms. The low-cost solution required buy-in from a lot of people.

“There’s some sentiment about lockers. Some people have had the same locker for many years. In some cases, sons have ‘inherited’ lockers from their fathers who worked here previously so moving wasn’t the necessarily the easiest thing,” says Cal, who has worked at Aurora for 15 years. “But our workforce deserves a lot of credit. We got started and explained why this was important, people were receptive and understood. They grasped the bigger picture.”

Cal clearly understood the problem as his wife Sunni worked at Aurora as a dispatcher, frontline supervisor and shift trainer prior to going on maternity leave.

“She described the situation as a ‘nightmare’ and the numbers bear that out. We had 175 women accessing 135 lockers,” says Cal. “With this change, we now have 312 lockers available so people are not sharing lockers and on top of each other in a cramped room.”

A female wearing a hard hat and a black Syncrude jacket with reflective stripes smiles as she stands in a locker room. She has one hand on her him and the other is pressed against the red lockers.
Heavy equipment operator Robin Hebbard stands in the new locker room for female employees at Aurora. An increasing number of female occupational employees prompted the facility to switch one of its locker rooms previously used by male employees. 

Robin sees the changes as #BreakingtheBias, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day (March 8). She also appreciates the support from male coworkers and leadership in helping usher an important change for females at Aurora.

“There’s a real small town feel at Aurora, it’s like a comfort blanket. I worked side by side with Cal and we’ve seen the culture change. We have female operators and leaders, which is great. It’s also fantastic to know to see the response from the men involved in this, from Eric, who listened and cared enough to find a solution, to David and Cal, who solved the problem with the women they work beside. That’s a big reason why this still is my dream job.”