North of England's only female emergency gas engineer carries flame for Women in Engineering Day
As the North of England’s only female emergency gas engineer, Sarah Wilkinson is carrying the flame for female empowerment on International Women in Engineering Day tomorrow (June 23).
Sarah, from Pickering, is an Operational Response Engineer Northern Gas Networks – the North of England’s gas distributor.
If a customer smells gas, Sarah is first on the scene.
Using hi-tech equipment such as a Gascoseeker, Sarah is responsible for detecting and fixing gas leaks, to keep customers safe.
She works across North Yorkshire, responding to domestic and business customers.
“When I first started, I was quite nervous, as I think everyone is," she said.
"You are given your training, but nothing can quite prepare you for that first call-out in the middle of the night, when it is just you, on your own, responsible for keeping the customer safe.
"You’re going into a potentially explosive or poisonous atmosphere, so it’s a big responsibility.
“I remember a colleague advising me that if I felt out of my depth at any point, to just tell the customer that I was going to get something from the van.
"That way, I could take a few deep breaths, recompose myself and go back in.
“These days, although I have a lot more experience, I still feel a nervous energy when I arrive at a job. But I think that’s a good thing as it keeps you sharp.”
Sarah, who is 43 and a former RAF aerospace systems operator, has made a career out of smashing female stereotypes - such as a fear of spiders.
“In our job, you are always working in little nooks and crannies, full of all sorts of insects. Luckily, I don’t have a problem with spiders. Unfortunately, one of my male colleagues, who started at the same time as me, is terrified of them. It always used to make me laugh to see this big burly bloke run away shrieking.
“Being a woman in this role can sometimes be an advantage. When you are dealing with an elderly, female customer for example, I think it can be easier for me to quickly build a rapport, because the customer feels more at ease."
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way Sarah and her colleagues approach jobs.
If a customer has suspected COVID-19 symptoms, or is shielding, Sarah is required to wear full PPE, which is then bagged and disposed of following the job.
Having a good bedside manner, and being able to get along with people, is a crucial aspect of Sarah’s role.
“You’ve also got to be prepared for just about anything," she added.
"Only last week, I found myself trying to free a live pigeon that had got stuck in a customer’s chimney. Thankfully, it escaped safe and sound.”
The role remains male-dominated, reflective of the fact that just 11% of all engineering jobs in the UK are occupied by women.
However, Sarah has had nothing but encouragement from her male counterparts since she took up the job five years ago.