Finding joy in keeping people safe
We all know the caricature of the earnest workplace safety professional: Clad with a clipboard and often wearing a hi-vis cagoule and a furrowed brow, they immediately jump to action when the rules are bent.
Even now, in an age when the awareness of occupational health, safety and environment (OHSE) is on the rise, this unflattering trope persists.
“Unfortunately, the health and safety field is the butt of many jokes,” says Dr Trajce Cvetkovski, a senior lecturer and leader of the Managing People and Organisations discipline at ACU’s Peter Faber Business School.
“People often see OHSE as a bit of a box-ticking exercise, and certain TV shows don’t do us any favours. They tend to encourage the popular perception that professionals in this field are bit are like ‘Mr or Mrs Safety’, walking around with a clipboard and a concerned look on their face.”
Negative and outdated stereotypes aside, there is no doubt that people and organisations regularly benefit from the work these professionals do.
“When it comes down to it, there are steps that organisations need to take to ensure that mums, dads, children and everybody else gets home from work safely, and these are the people doing that important work,” says Dr Cvetkovski, a lawyer who specialises in OHSE compliance and regulation.
“When people are passionate about OHSE, they spend time thinking about employee safety and wellbeing, about mental health and psychosocial development and things like bullying and harassment and fatigue. These are hot-button issues in society, and it’s important that we have passionate and skilled people within organisations who are thinking about these issues.”
Born for the job
Mathew Allen’s journey towards a career in health and safety began way back in his childhood.
“I grew up a pretty good kid,” says Mr Allen, who now has more than 20 years of experience in the industry. “I didn’t get myself into trouble and I always preferred to do the right thing rather than go outside the boundaries of the law. It’s always been in my nature.”
Early on in his career, Mathew was a civil engineer. But the loss of a close friend to a workplace accident led him to turn his focus to health and safety.
“My friend was a pilot and he lost his life at work,” he says. “He was following the maps while flying at night, adhering to workplace practices, and he flew into a mountain. But the organisation was quick to blame the individual for the accident.”
Matthew Allen in China.
Having witnessed the torment of his friend’s family, Mathew started to spend his spare time studying the way organisations interact with their staff members. He quickly realised that he wanted to be part of that process, and soon found himself in his first of many jobs in OHSE.
Over the following two decades, Mathew worked in various senior health and safety roles in the Middle East and Asia, including on the Chuandongbei Sour Gas Plant in China, run by global energy giant Chevron.
“That’s still one of my proudest achievements,” says Mathew, who worked on the project for seven years.
Fast forward to 2021, and Mathew has completed his Master of Occupational Health, Safety and Environmental Management at ACU.
He’s also back home in Australia, landing his dream job offshore in the Bass Strait as a safety, health and environmental advisor for ExxonMobil.
“I’ve always seen offshore as the peak of the mountain as far as OHSE roles go,” he says.
“You need to be a certain type of individual to do the job, because there’s a very small margin of error on a platform. It requires great operational discipline and good process safety, and they’re the two main facets you must bring to this sort of role.”
There’s also one other thing that doesn’t go astray: a passion for the job.
“You’ll always perform better if you’re passionate about what you do,” Mathew says.
“It’s about having the attitude to engage people in a human way, the character to want to do the right thing, and the pride in doing a good job. I guess that’s just how I’m wired.”
A people-centric profession
Another ACU graduate with a passion for health and safety is James McGuire.
Growing up with a father who worked as a bricklayer, Mr McGuire was introduced to the importance of workplace safety from a young age.
“My dad worked very hard but he had a minimal understanding of onsite safety,” says James, who was raised in Adelaide.
“He ended up having three or four operations on his back because he didn’t implement good safety principles, and I think I’ve always been aware of that.”
Years later, while working onsite in the construction industry, James came face-to-face with the importance of the processes that keep people safe.
“People weren’t always following standard operating procedures, and for me, the bottom line was that idea of people arriving home from work in the same shape they were when they left in the morning,” he says.
“This people-centric element really underpins my approach to health and safety – the realisation that the measures you put in place actually help to prevent incidents from occurring. It’s what originally attracted me to the field, and to this day, it’s still what attracts me.”
After seven years in the construction industry, where the main safety hazards related to falls, slips and trips, James moved to Alice Springs to manage OSHE for Central Australian Health Services.
The move into healthcare gave him exposure to a greater diversity of risk.
“A hospital is a complex and demanding working environment, and it can pose significant risks to staff safety,” says James, who commenced his Master of Occupational Health, Safety and Environmental Management at ACU while living and working central Australia.
“We’d have patients coming in and being violent and aggressive, and mental health-related risks to staff, and it opened up a new world for me and gave me a greater appreciation for my role.”
In recent years, having left Alice Springs and moved to Sydney, James has been working for ISN, a US-based software firm that is a world leader in contractor and supplier information management. The company works closely with large global energy, manufacturing, pharmaceutical and construction firms, helping them to manage their contractor workforce.
This high-stakes environment is one of James’ major attractions to his job.
“Health and safety professionals have a task to do everything possible to protect people, and there can be a lot of misunderstanding around that, but it comes back to the idea of being people-centric,” he says.
“If nothing bad happens, some people think OSHE is pointless, but that’s the actual point. It’s why we exist.”
As for the persistence of the outdated ‘clipboard and cagoule’ caricature, most health and safety professionals seem to take it in their stride.
“I guess you could say that the jokes and memes about people working in OHSE are just a bit of fun, and we need to be able to laugh at ourselves,” says ACU’s Dr Trajce Cvetkovski.
“But the truth is that fully invested health and safety practitioners go well beyond the box-ticking … they invest their heart and soul into their work, and put passion, conviction and a human touch into the task of ensuring people are safe. If you ask me, that’s something to be celebrated.”
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