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Diane Smith-Gander at the 2017 Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists’ annual conference 2–6 December 2017.

I’m honoured to open the 2017 Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists’ annual conference.

Firstly, let me acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting and pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in attendance today.

As a non-executive director of large companies with industrial interests I am naturally interested in occupational hygiene. Without great attention to this topic companies like Wesfarmers and AGL Energy cannot be great companies. To be a great company you need to be productive and efficient, you need to provide safe work places for your people and you need to have a strong reputation with stakeholders outside your company. The issues you all work on, like control of chemical exposures, removing asbestos, and noise, vibration and heat management, have the potential, if badly managed, to destroy a company’s ability to be great.  Because these things strike to a company’s license to operate. Getting just one of those things really wrong can destroy trust and trust is a valuable commodity in short supply for businesses these days. So, thank you for your work and keep it up. You will always have my support.

I must say that I am impressed not only with the number of people here but also the number of people who have taken part in the continuing education sessions that have been run over the past two days.

It’s also exciting to see so many international leaders attending this conference – I’d like to extend a very warm welcome to:

  • Andrea Hiddinga, President of the International Occupational Hygiene Association
  • Deborah Nelson, President of the American Industrial Hygiene Association
  • Derek Miller, President of the New Zealand Occupational Hygiene Association
  • Norhazlina Mydin, President of the Malaysian Industrial Hygienist Association
  • Elsye As Safira, President of the Indonesian Industrial Hygiene Association
  • Lui Mario, Manager of Worker's Compensation Services in Fiji
  • Karen Bufton, President of the British Occupational Hygiene Society

And of course welcome to all our international guests. We know just how far it is to Australia, for some of you this conference may have been that longed for excuse to visit our great south land.

It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here and we know you will get as much from this conference as you bring to it. We hope you will enjoy seeing something of Australia and come back again.

The theme for this year is “Connect to prevent” and it’s about how you, as technical specialists, connect the occupational hygiene profession with industry, government, the media and the wider Australian community to prevent injuries, illness and disease.

I’ve seen some terrific scientific research here today, covering weighty issues like the re‑emergence of black lung in Australia and workplace exposure limits. Many in industry were surprised and shocked at the re-emergence of black lung and that cases were found outside of the underground mining industry. I doubt this was as surprising to many in this room. This is why “Connect to prevent” is such an important theme.

Collaborating and working across industries – manufacturing, construction, mining – will help solve the often complex and multifaceted problems tackled by occupational hygienists every day. We also need collaboration across the functions and levels in corporations. I am a far better informed and equipped non executive director due to my increasing exposure to your profession through Safe Work Australia and the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. 

The Ignite presentations will be tackling some interesting issues –

“Greetings from Switzerland and its piglets” by Ann Oppigler

Samantha Clarke’s What does ginger beer, a snail, fireworks, egg shells and a policeman's wife all have in common?,  and How to accidentally avoid being an occupational hygienist of 15 years by Dean Crouch – are bound to bring some perspectives and ideas that will enrich your own projects and initiatives.

All this superb work shows just how committed members of the allied occupational hygiene community are. It demonstrates your desire to be on the cutting edge of technology, to be at the vanguard of the most innovative and effective approaches to protecting the health and safety of Australian workers.

In Australia, we have laws and regulations that govern the minimum standards to achieve work health and safety compliance.

But today I want to talk about how the idea of best practice reaches far beyond mere compliance to ask ‘What’s the next challenge, what new things can we learn, how can we further innovate, what more can we do to protect workers?’ Because this is how we will build sustainable organisations for the future – trusted, agile and sought after employers.

Most importantly, best practice is not just about knowing the tactics, techniques, methods and measures used that impact work health and safety. Best practice is about how you lead. Where as a leader you choose to spend your time, the priorities you set.

Leaders have a vital role to play when it comes to making workplaces healthy and safe. And by “leader” I mean the leaders that exist at all levels of an organisation:

  • those we recognise right away as leaders – the board members, the executive and non-executive directors, the CEOs and chairs, and
  • everyone else in leadership roles – managers, supervisors, team leaders, organisers and administrators, health and safety representatives – and, of course, occupational hygienists.

Everyone in this room is a health and safety leader. Each and every one of you must see yourself at the forefront of imagining the workplace of the future improving workplace control strategies. You must acknowledge you have the capacity to enable the work health and safety community to go beyond mere compliance.

The reality is – work is changing and – as leaders – so must we.

  • It’s no secret that the nature of work is rapidly moving into a new era.  Last year, CSIRO published Tomorrow's Digitally Enabled Workforce, presenting plausible scenarios for the future for job and employment market in Australia over the coming 20 years.

The aging workforce, 3D printing, automation, the rise of artificial intelligence, remote surveillance, tele-health, global communication and the freelancer economy have all shown us that industries, markets and workforces can change with astonishing speed. 

Our work is now digitised, or relies heavily on digitised capability, many workforces are already fluid between professions, countries and skillsets, our population is ageing, and our technology is constantly evolving and being reinvented.

How work is done will involve more humans interacting with more machines and technology and this, without doubt, will bring new and unexpected challenges but also opportunities for improving health and safety outcomes.

In particular, we’re on the cusp of discovering exactly what impacts automation will bring to the occupational hygiene profession.

I imagine that automation will make analysis and reporting faster and more accurate, it will reduce paperwork and the impact of red tape, it will aid compliance. And it will definitely take over some of the more hazardous aspects of work processes…

But it would be naive to think that automation won’t bring new hazards and risks that we need to anticipate now. The CSIRO report makes it clear that new skills and mindsets are needed for the future.

There are other issues at play here – it’s no secret in the work health and safety community that safe workplaces are also more productive workplaces.

And this marries well with my own experience as a business leader – that the best business practices are the ones that are mutually beneficial for health and safety as well as productivity and sustainability.

Safe Work Australia’s research shows that investing in good work health and safety is most likely to improve business productivity and sustainability, but this is when the investment is complemented with leadership that supports high work health and safety performance, good human resource management, and excellent safety systems and practices.

In particular, our research highlights that poor employee psychological health is particularly expensive – costing Australian employers over 6 billion dollars per year. So, as I see it, there is a strong economic argument for organisations to improve the psychological health of their workforce by addressing psychosocial risk factors in their workplaces.

I believe that there is a role for occupational hygienists in this space. As professionals who are in and out of many workplaces, you have firsthand knowledge of the impact that behaviour has on making control strategies a success.

The influence of fatigue, stress and mental wellbeing on workers’ engagement with and perceptions of hazard and risk, can be just as important when designing processes and managing exposures as selecting the most effective equipment or implementing engineering interventions.

There is another thing you cannot underestimate. That is the impact of employees trusting that these factors are recognised, understood and managed in a way that is seeking continuous improvement. This is at the heart of positive employee engagement and recruits people to give the discretionary effort that gives companies a competitive edge.

While the current harmonised laws are robust enough to cope with these emerging issues – it is your safety solutions and control measures that must demonstrate a corresponding level of change, resilience and adaptation. You must be dynamic in your approaches to keep up with expectations of your people and with global competitive pressures.

Let’s face it - innovation is the key to meeting the safety challenges that confront us today… and those we’ll meet in the future.

I encourage you to do the research, gather the data, share your data, your approaches, your knowledge and experience with each other and with your international colleagues. Your leadership is the key to influence and inspiration, to protecting workers and the wider community – it’s the key to reaching beyond compliance and developing the work health and safety solutions of now and the future.

As the Chair of two government bodies that oversee critical and emerging issues relating to occupational hygiene – Safe Work Australia and the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Council – some of my own key priorities for this year and next are:

  • continuing Australia’s leadership in our region to aid near neighbours efforts to ban asbestos and so limit any importation of asbestos into Australia
  • build a research roadmap to identify critical gaps in asbestos disease related research – particularly focused on prevention, and
  • developing and establishing an effective and efficient framework for workplace exposure limits integrating both Australian and international data and information.

And who better to inform this work than occupational hygienists? …particularly when it comes to developing, researching, testing and refining best practice approaches for managing exposures to hazardous chemicals, dusts, asbestos, noise, vibration, heat and UV.

As a non-executive director of an energy company I am vitally interested in renewable energy, not only large solar and wind farms but also distributed energy capability that is behind the meter – energy that is generated by the consumer of the energy from solar panels or biowaste increasingly with battery storage incorporated. There is a whole new set of issues for you to consider – are these individuals workers? – no. Are they freelancers? – not exactly. But they are right there integrated into the operating model of your company; interacting with hazardous chemicals, heat, noise. You are going to need to be quite expansive in how you think about who you are taking care of. You’ll need to get this right to help us all keep our energy costs down.

I think it’s incredibly exciting. We’re connecting not just to prevent illness and injury, but to develop the ways people will live their lives in the future. I see the widest remit for your profession. I hope you do too.

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