Breastfeeding and mining belong together

Women and gender-diverse people who operate heavy equipment need safe and sanitary places to express breast milk at work. It’s not a big ask, and this workplace took it in stride.

Melanie McConnell is Chair of Local 7619’s Women of Steel Committee.

She said women and gender-diverse people returning to work from maternity leave can request to have a safe place to pump breast milk. The setup has been available on a case-by-case basis for at least eight years, as long as McConnell has worked at Teck’s Highland Valley Copper mine (HVC), near Logan’s Lake, B.C.

McConnell, a labourer, is also a Trustee on the local’s executive.

Currently, women make up 11% of the almost 1,100-strong workforce at HVC. That’s up from 5% women when McConnell began taking stock six years ago.

McConnell said any breastfeeding location is a safe, private, sanitary place where breastfeeding parents can pump and store breastmilk, use the toilet and wash their hands.

“The space has a fridge and freezer, comfortable chair and is totally private. The expressed milk is either refrigerated or frozen, depending on what time during the shift it was expressed,” said McConnell. 

There’s a privacy curtain and the space is cleaned regularly by janitorial staff and kept stocked with cleaning supplies.

McConnell notes that since maternity and parental leave provisions improved in Canada, with up to 78 weeks’ leave available, not as many women are still breastfeeding when they return to work. However, some parents return early, or breastfeed longer after the birth of a child.

All she did was ask

The latest request for a breastfeeding location came through the Health and Safety Committee in the spring of 2021 and was passed along to the Women’s Committee. McConnell took the initiative from there.

Chad Lindsey, Chair of the Health and Safety Committee, with Melanie McConnell, Chair of the Women of Steel Committee, at USW Local 7619 in Logan’s Lake, B.C.

Photo: Chad Lindsey, Chair of the Health and Safety Committee, with Melanie McConnell, Chair of the Women of Steel Committee, at USW Local 7619 in Logan’s Lake, B.C.

As in the past, the employer was amenable to the suggestion and worked to provide the safe and sanitary breastfeeding location. To date, the initiative gets activated at the request of the worker who is breastfeeding and returning to work.

To McConnell, it shows that women and gender-diverse people are cared about and that their needs matter.

How are men in the workplace reacting?

“Many men are open to having conversations about accommodations like this. If we are able to have conversations, people come to a greater understanding,” said McConnell.  

“There is always a little pushback against accommodations that women require to be successful in the workplace – like extra bathroom breaks or extra facilities, so if you are working on the haul truck and it’s “that time of the month” you can clean up properly. There is less ill feeling if we are able to explain it and break it down,” she added.

Raising the Bar is a USW campaign to increase awareness of women’s health and safety issues, increase women’s participation in health and safety activism and increase respect and space for women’s voices and ideas in workplaces and our union.

While the breastfeeding locations at Highland Valley Copper were around prior to the USW’s Raising the Bar campaign, the initiative is a great example of what the campaign is about.

“We’re great people to work with! Women do very well in all of our mining situations; we just require some different accommodations because we are not the same as men. Once we can have those conversations, it goes over pretty well,” said McConnell.

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