Women in Power: Sara Olsen’s Fiery Career as a Woman in the AR / FR Clothing Industry

Though women comprise just 22% of the utility workforce compared to 47% in other industries, we’re spotlighting the power of each individual spark to ignite change. Follow along with our Women in Power series as we celebrate and empower women leading the way in a wide range of careers where AR/FR clothing plays a role.

Sara Olsen has worked in the personal protective equipment (PPE) industry for over 15 years, but it isn’t a career she set out to do. What started as an interest in knitting, fibers, and fabrics turned into an M.Sc. degree in textile and apparel science from the University of Alberta. This led to a job at the University’s Protective Clothing and Equipment Research Facility, which was one of three facilities with a manikin system for testing the performance of arc-rated flame resistant (AR / FR) fabrics. Sara performed over 1,500 flash fire tests while working at the research facility.

Learn more about Sara’s combustive role in the protective clothing industry as she shares her story:

As the video shows, flash fire testing is anything but dull. Sara was introduced to the protective clothing industry by a leading professor in the field at the University of Alberta. She welcomed the idea of a career that coupled her love of textiles with the excitement of burning things for a living. Sara recalls her work in the lab with Harry Burns, an aptly named manikin with 110 sensors covering his body that mimic skin and detect how it absorbs heat. She explains, “We would dress him in a coverall or protective garment, stand him in a ring of a dozen torches, and light them up for three seconds. Then we would measure how much heat was transferred through the garment, which predicted second- and third-degree body burns.”

Sara eventually moved on from her work in laboratory testing and PPE research to the retail research and development side of the industry when she took a job with one of Canada’s largest workwear distributors. Working with end-users who wear the FR clothing gave Sara the insight to help companies develop their PPE programs. Soon she began serving on the standards committees that govern protective clothing, such as ASTM F18.65, CGSB 155.20, ASTM D13, ASTM E54, and ASTM F18.

PPE challenges faced by women

When asked if women are well-represented on these committees, Sara replied, “We’re nowhere near 50/50 on these committees, but also we’re nowhere near 50/50 in the field.” End-users represent a substantial portion of these committees, and there are far fewer women end-users of protective clothing. Sara predicts that as the end-user demographics change, the demographics of the committees will likewise change. But she also believes that committees representing a range of body types can be helpful to identify issues faced by women in the field. A case in point: Sara once laid out reflective trim on one of her own t-shirts to investigate the minimum amount required by CSA Z96, the Canadian standard for high-visibility safety apparel. She realized that the requisite did not take different body sizes into account, stating, “For someone of my size, you’d need to practically wrap me in reflective trim in order to meet the minimum.”

Sara has a keen interest in the PPE challenges women face in the field. She shared, “I actually did my master’s project on this, and none of the women I interviewed were particularly happy with PPE selection.” Sara feels that what initially seems like sexism is actually more of a financial issue since FR clothing is a niche market and women currently make up a small percentage of FR users. “We have different body types, so it’s not one size fits all,” she added.

Sara feels hopeful that change is on the horizon since more women are entering various industries using FR clothing. “I think there are a lot more options for women now. I see companies especially advocating for their female workers and requiring appropriate PPE that fits female bodies, and I think that’s creating a really positive change in the industry.”

Sara’s future burns brightly

As a thought-leader in the protective clothing industry – particularly regarding applicable Canadian and North American safety standards, Sara is now a consultant and serves as a technical advisor to support Tyndale’s business expansion into Canada. She is valued for her diverse experience and expertise in the field, as well as her understanding of the challenges faced by women who work in careers requiring the use of PPE and protective clothing.


Share your story with us – please email MarketingInfo@TyndaleUSA.com with your name and preferred contact information, your role and the name of your company, and the best days/times for us to reach you.


Series: Women in Power

Follow along with this interview-style series to hear directly from women fueling careers in the energy sector on why they chose their occupation, what they like about it, their hopes for the future, their vision for the evolution of PPE, how we can help pave the way for other women, and more:

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