Q & A
Women in Forestry
Art of safety: Q&A with Northland health and safety co-ordinator Kim Norris
By Maria Church
Sawmilling is the family business for Kim Norris, who says she fell into her job as the health and safety co-ordinator for family-owned Northland Forest Products in Fort McMurray, Alta., in order to fill a need. An artist by training, Kim is self-taught in the health and safety field and has embraced her role. She encourages women to not let a lack of knowledge hold them back from a rewarding career in the forest sector.
CFI: What was your career path that led you to your health and safety role in the family business?
My mom and dad started Northland Forest Products shortly after I was born, almost 50 years ago. They actually started coming up to Fort McMurray in the ’60s, but the business wasn’t actually formed until the ’70s. My dad was working with Nelson Lumber timber cruising in the very beginning.
When the business was running, my brothers and I spent as much time in camp as we did in our own home. We spent our days playing in the sawdust and checking out the creeks and ponds wherever the camp was, or following my mom or dad through the mill yard. We learned the whole gambit of the business growing up; from customer service to operating equipment and machinery.
After high school, my education is as an artist. I did two years of college in Fort McMurray and then I went to the Ontario College of Art. From there I spent a year in Italy because they had an off campus. You had to put together a portfolio and be chosen for the spot. It was mostly painting and drawing – so fine art.
When I came back I moved home to Fort McMurray and I did work as an artist for a little while, but there was a need felt in our company for someone in the health and safety program. So, I filled the need and found my niche. That was in the ’90s.
And you know, I’m really quite slow as an artist! In order to keep money rolling in it was important to have another job on the side too, so the family business helped me as well!
[RELATED: Read CFI’s profile on Northland Forest Products]
CFI: What is it about the industry that you find appealing?
I’m not sure if it’s the same in other forest businesses, but here the job is dynamic. With the diverse population in Fort McMurray there are so many different cultures, nationalities and languages. But also it’s dynamic because of the jobs we are able to do here at Northland. I’ve been involved in the log haul, I’ve gone out and done scaling and tree surveying, and worked in the mill. The variety as well as the connection to the outdoors is very appealing.
My family cares about taking care of our forests, which we are surrounded by, and maintaining forest sustainability. Our industry does a good job of that. It makes me happy to be a part of something that will allow future generations to work, play and discover in the forests.
CFI: Were there particular people who encouraged, supported or mentored you?
So many! Of course, my parents, I wouldn’t be here without them, and then when my brothers took over, they have been very supportive as well.
One person that really stood out for me and made me look at this as a good place to be was Lloyd Harman. He was the AFPA’s [Alberta Forest Product Association] director of health, safety and loss management when I was getting started in the health and safety field. I considered him a mentor because he pointed me in the right direction and helped me get started as an auditor in the health and safety field. He was just very knowledgeable so I could ask him pretty much any question and he’d help me out.
CFI: Do you find there are particular challenges for women in the industry?
I can’t say that there have been huge hurdles for me. I haven’t felt a lot of discrimination, whether that’s because I’ve been part of a family business or that I’ve had the opportunities to basically try anything or do anything that I’ve wanted to do.
There has been probably more discrimination from the public than from inside the industry. I remember as a young girl working in the office, somebody making a barefoot and pregnant comment to me. Or somebody came in and wanted answers to some questions and just did not want to ask me – they were looking around me for the right gendered person to ask, but it was me.
At Northland, we have had women in all of the jobs. We’ve encouraged families to become involved. We’ve had mothers, daughters, sisters working for us in all aspects of the operation: saw filing, operating equipment, supervision, grading, stacking, woodlands, administration. I think it has to do with the family-owned aspect; the comfort level. We’re just very open to it.
When we’re hiring, gender doesn’t factor in. So many of our jobs we do on-the-job training for so it really doesn’t matter. And it’s nice to have women in there. Women bring something to the workplace: a respect. It can change the culture. There’s a little more motherly influence in there.
I think a lot of times when a woman is in the industry, pretty much any industry, and they can pull their weight, they get a little more respect too. I think it’s a natural thing in a male-dominated industry that women are respected for doing those jobs.
CFI: What advice do you have for women interested in a career in the forest industry?
I think if somebody finds a need they should definitely give it a go to fill that need. Don’t let your gender or your lack of knowledge hold you back. Lots of mills provide training on the job so be open to trying it. You don’t necessarily have to have the background in it.
Our industry is trying to do its part to increase the interest of women to enter the industry; our industry association, Alberta Forest Products Association, 2019 media campaigns were specifically targeted to women. It’s a good time to get involved.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry project celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow on social media with the hashtag #WomeninForestry, as well as #IWD2020 and #EachforEqual.