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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Editorial—Disruptive times

Having Helen Kelly present at this year’s NZ Workplace Health & Safety Awards to receive her lifetime achievement award electrified the more than 500 people present in the room.

The moment MC Nadine Chalmers-Ross mentioned her name there was spontaneous applause, and the standing ovation when she made her way to the podium was long, loud and emotional.

“I am not retired,” she told the crowd, to cheers and more applause. But she is unwell, and she cannot go on forever fighting for a better deal for workers. Who among us will carry on the struggle to speak truth to power?

There are multiple strands to this quest. We all know that if you see something unsafe you speak up about it. Same if you have concerns about workers being exposed to things that could make them unwell.

But what if you are worried that your organisation – or your client – is headed in the wrong direction? Or your entire industry sector, or your professional body? That takes a bit more courage.

Earlier in the day Drew Rae had offered an interesting perspective on power. Speaking at the Safeguard conference he said it was time for health and safety practitioners to give away their power to the workers and trust them to do the right thing.

The pendulum keeps swinging, he said, between focusing on H&S systems and on worker behaviour. Either way it boils down to autocratic managerialism and is long out of date.

He also posed an excellent question: how do we get health and safety people engaged in their organisation’s work, rather than how do we engage workers in health and safety? That way H&S people become more influential because more industry-competent. They no longer need formal power.

This is disruptive thinking at its best, and led to some discussion about which kind of person you would short-list for a H&S role: a traditional “professional”, an “inspirer”, or a “disruptor”? Not for nothing was the conference billed under the heading Brave New World. Times are a-changing, and we must all keep up.

Which leads me back to the awards night, and the remarks by Laurie Collins as he accepted his award as most influential employee. A union man to his boots with the courage to be a disruptor when necessary, he issued a challenge to the chief executives in the room: do not be afraid of unions, he said, as they offer a way to connect workers with the executive.

Sad to say there are some health and safety practitioners who all but roll their eyes whenever unions are mentioned. They forget two things: that health and safety began with the unions in the 19th century; and that we are all stronger when we work collectively for the common good.

“Unfortunately we live in a world with not enough Helen Kellys,” said Collins.

Hear, hear. She is a proven courageous campaigner. Let us all be inspired by her example and carry on her work to embrace disruptive thinking and never accept the status quo.

PETER BATEMAN @safeguardnz

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