There’s no doubt that workplace health and safety (WHS) impacts many people’s lives across a variety of sectors and industries. For some the daily risks are greater and safety is the key objective in ensuring everyone is safe. It’s a serious business.
In an exclusive interview with ohs.com.au, Hunter Safety Awards founder and safety consultant Sarah-Jane Dunford discusses how we often only see the negative side of WHS, rather than the positive, and why its important to acknowledge companies that are taking the initiative to implement best practice in their workplace.
What are the Hunter Safety Awards and how did they come about?
The Hunter Safety Awards was an idea that kept popping up in my mind, because I kept seeing all these fantastic WHS initiatives within business that I thought more people should know about. As a safety consultant, I get to see the good, the bad and the ugly and of course, it’s always the negative that is seen in the media. But on a weekly basis I was seeing the positive side of WHS, with organisations implementing some amazing things, some of them incremental changes, some of them wide-scale, some to do with software and policy, some to do with culture, some to do with product creation. But they all shared the same concept, which was to look at WHS as a positive element of their business, not a legislative requirement.
The other side of things is that many smaller businesses think that state awards are out of their reach, so I wanted to create an awards ceremony that was seemingly more accessible, to give them confidence to look at the state and national awards.
How diverse is the range of industries that are involved in the awards?
We have a very diverse range of applicants, finalists, winners and sponsors, really running the entire gamut.
For example the winners have been a landscaping company, recruitment company, conveyor company, mobile water blasting business, aged care facility, air conditioning business and RTO – to name just a few!
It really shows that WHS is vital in every business and there are wonderful things that can be done, no matter your product or service.
Why is it important to acknowledge companies who implement constructive WHS policies?
I really believe that shifting the mindset of business owners, managers and employees to embracing WHS from a cultural perspective, rather than a legislative perspective is key to ensuring everyone goes home safe every day. Safety and wellbeing shouldn’t be about ticking a box or creating a set and forget procedure or policy it needs to be about creating a workplace where people are thinking and working smart.
Why is it important to have WHS policies that look after the welfare of workers?
No longer can businesses get the best people by offering the highest salary. It really is about all the intangible elements such as culture. And a business with a positive culture goes a long way to making a business an employer of choice. I know that if I was to be employed somewhere I would want it to be somewhere that values my contribution, and me and considers it vital that I am happy and healthy in the workplace.
How did you become involved in the WHS sector?
I’m young, female, blonde and I work as a safety consultant, primarily in male-dominated industries and I thrive on it! But it hasn’t always been easy.
Fifteen years ago, I was reading a safety book called ‘Lessons from Longford’ by Andrew Hopkins and surprisingly finding what he was saying was resonating for me. Then in a short space of time four of my friends received permanent disabilities, all caused by preventable workplace injuries. At the time I was working in a manufacturing plant in the HR department, and realised that in my workplace no one was managing safety, so I took it on and embraced safety wholeheartedly.
Since then I have been a passionate advocate for safety, health and wellness in workplaces and as safety goes hand-in-hand with blue collar industries (which tend to be male dominated), and men are twice as likely to injure themselves as women, the majority of the time men are my target market.
How progressive is Australia when it comes to WHS and what areas are we excelling in and where do we need to improve?
I’m sure we’ve all experienced a dogmatic safety officer in a workplace. This type of approach puts people off, makes them stop listening and just get frustrated.
This is the old way of doing things, which has always seemed to me to be very authoritarian and top heavy. But the workplace safety industry has undergone quite a transformation in recent years. Unfortunately a lot of the old perceptions still exist, due to past experiences.
If you break it down to its simplest terms, work, health and safety is about finding the best way to undertake a task, with the least amount of risk. It’s also been a welcome change in the last decade to see that WHS embraces all elements of the worker, not just the physical. So these days, we also look at things such as stress and mental wellbeing in order to reduce the risk of all activities that affect the health and safety of workers.
And at the end of the day it comes back to the aim that everyone should be able to go home safely from work.