Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Melissa Leyland on Being a Firefighter Paramedic, Facing Nightmares & Teaching Safety to Reduce Fire Injuries in the Locality
As we mark International Women’s Day, it’s crucial to acknowledge the remarkable achievements of women in diverse professional fields. Among these fields is safety management, where women have emerged as exemplary leaders, making a significant impact. Women have been instrumental in developing safety policies, enhancing organizational processes, and championing safety initiatives. Despite facing various challenges, these women have demonstrated immense resilience and tenacity, paving the way for future generations of women safety leaders.
In this article, we highlight the journey of one such remarkable safety leader, Melissa Leyland, Customer Service Manager at ComplianceQuest who is a retired first responder & medic with fire services. Every little girl dreams of becoming a firefighter at some point in their childhood, yet very few live that dream (or should we say nightmare?). In this blog, we get to understand a different perspective of a woman who has woken up every day for years and gone to a job where she knows she may face our worst nightmares. And yet, she has kept on.
What motivated you to get into the safety management industry?
It came naturally, I always knew I wanted to be in some type of safety role. I am still the mother hen of my siblings. My dream job was always being a firefighter paramedic. If I couldn’t be a firefighter paramedic, I was going to be a nurse.
Tell us about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your EHS career.
A lot of industries back then in the 80s and 90s didn’t have dedicated safety managers. So, my coworkers and I were certified for safety training. We taught safety in all the local industries within our community. One of these industries was TinyTykes which a lot of you may be familiar with. We had significantly less calls from them after our training which meant less fires and less injuries. The drop in the number of injuries was especially significant.
Do you feel you have sacrificed anything for your professional journey?
Never. I always made sure I had a good work life balance. I knew what I was getting into. Every day of fire duty we risk our life, we never know what we are walking into. Luckily, I had a team I trusted. They had my back and I had theirs. And I had a good support system at home.
It helped that I come from a large family. All my 6 brothers went into service. One of my little sisters was a firefighting paramedic for a while. My other sister is an admin in a nursing facility. So, we are all into professions that have to do with safety.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to women leadership in safety?
Firefighting has been a male dominated field for years. However, the stakes in this profession are much higher. The lives of a lot of people depend on us doing our job. And I have faced a lot of challenging situations. I still have nightmares of some of what we had to deal with. Each one of us has to be reliable and up to the challenge. That’s the main requirement. We can’t focus on the gender… just the capabilities.
When you go into a burning building you want your partner beside you, one that you know you can trust, not someone who would run away or not be able to carry necessary equipment.
Who was an inspiring woman leader to you growing up and who inspires you now?
My grandmother went back to school and finished her nursing degree at 60, and my mom got her nursing degree with 9 kids to raise.
Did you feel like you faced any gender discrimination throughout your career in the sector and if so, how did you address it?
I feel I have always been lucky not to experience discrimination. I always treated and respected my co-workers and knew my limitations. Firefighting situations are so challenging that we need to know our limitations. Our life and other people’s lives depend on us knowing our limitations.
We, firefighters, have to be in shape, we have to pass the agility tests and written tests. The department does not have any special requirements for women, nor do they give extra points for affirmative action. (Affirmative actions are government mandated activities to recruit and advance qualified minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and covered veterans.)
So, we all earned our position because we were up to doing the job.
Do you think the EHS industry has some catching up to do where women in leadership roles are concerned? What advice would you give to the next generation of women leaders?
I have grown up with a lot of brothers, I just wouldn’t stand for any discrimination – I would call people out for discriminating solely on the basis of gender. At the same time, I do not believe in giving women brownie points either solely on basis of their gender. I think people should be able to do the job.
Especially for women looking to excel in front line rigorous roles like firefighting, I would say, respect those around you, listen, and learn. Remember we are truly never done learning. Rewards are earned but not given.
How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
I see the big picture but take baby steps to achieve my goals. This makes it less overwhelming and achievable.
What is a key learning about EHS that you want to advocate to the next generation of safety leaders?
I am a firm believer that you need to know each position not just read about it in a book. And being on ground gives you the real feel of what it is your workforce is facing every day. This understanding won’t come simply by sitting in the management office or passing a few tests. Learn each position that is involved, remember we all started out at the bottom.
Melissa Leyland is one example of the numerous outstanding women safety leaders who have made significant contributions to the safety industry. Their achievements and dedication have been instrumental in creating safer work environments for people worldwide.
Together, we can continue to build on the achievements of women safety leaders and work towards a safer, healthier, and more sustainable world for all.