Dr Anne Wyatt is an established occupational health and safety (OHS) professional with a particular interest in workplace psychological hazards. Some time ago she wrote Preventing Workplace Bullying with Dr Carlo Caponecchia.
Anne is the latest person to humanise OHS by providing an insight into her personal and professional thoughts to SafetyAtWorkBlog.
How did you get into Health & Safety?
It all happened very suddenly – in a matter of hours. In 1979 I was working as a nurse in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Tragically, one day we had a lovely young man die a horrible death as a result of a preventable workplace accident. I was very angry that we had seen yet another death from a workplace accident and I vented my feelings to a nearby anaesthetist. He looked me in the eye and told me that I did not belong in ICU, that he considered my real passion lay in prevention. He was right.
The next day the anaesthetist kindly took me to meet the late Professor David Ferguson at Sydney University. David (as he liked to be called) was at the time the Professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in the Medical Faculty. David indulged me in a long discussion and the upshot was that only weeks later I was undertaking, as a full-time student, a Master of Public Health program in Occupational Health.
Until the program began, I still wasn’t quite sure what the field of ‘Occupational Health and Safety’ (OHS) involved. That was quickly sorted out, because on the first day of the program, David introduced himself to the class and announced, ‘people should not be harmed by the work they are asked to do!’ Got it! I have never looked back from that moment. That was in early 1980 before NSW had Occupational Health and Safety Legislation, so I have been in the field for a while! I have seen change and I have seen lack of change in those forty years. As I near retirement age, I feel I have only just begun in OHS.
What drives you?
Injustice in all its forms.
What helps you slow down?
Swimming, music and compelling conversations with dear friends (with nice red wine!)
Any OHS Regrets?
That I could not have contributed more during my career. I wasted too much time on trivial stuff and too little time getting down into the boiler room. There is so much yet to do.
Favourite fiction writer?
What OHS trends are watching keenly?
Well, of course, it will be interesting to see what unfolds with COVID-19. (A shout out to all the health care workers treating and nursing sufferers).
The development of better preventive and treatment interventions for people regularly exposed to trauma in the workplace such as those who work in Emergency Services (such as Fire, Ambulance, Police).
The increasing uncovering of psychological and emotional abuse in the workplace, including when the workplace is based at home (for example through cyber-bullying).
The addressing of the issue of ‘vicarious trauma’ in the workplace which can occur as a result of people being exposed to information (in many forms) about traumatic occurrences but who were not present at the actual events. Examples of people exposed include forensic workers, court reporters, social workers and chaplains.
Person/s who you watch and take inspiration from in OHS that you think will have an increasing impact in the sector.
I am privileged to have Dr Carlo Caponecchia as a colleague. He is much younger than me and it has been wonderful to watch his development in the health and safety field over the past fifteen years or so since he first joined the School of Risk and Safety Science at UNSW. He has made some remarkable achievements in that time, including becoming the President of the International Association of Workplace Bullying and Harassment – a very prestigious office. Carlo has a long way to go and I would love to see what he achieves in the next twenty-five years.
What are you most excited about in our sector?
Nothing much excites me in the sector at the moment. There are many disappointments. I guess the slowly increasing awareness by employees that it is their right to have a safe and healthy workplace is vaguely exciting, but that’s an example of something that should have happened a long time ago.
What’s your favourite quote?
I am going to take the liberty of giving two quotes because I cannot choose between them.
“You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. You can only iron it flatter.”The late Professor Christopher Winder.
“When a doctor arrives to attend some patient of the working class…let him condescend to sit down…if not on a gilded chair…on a three-legged stool… He should question the patient carefully… So says Hippocrates in his work ‘Affections.’ I may venture to add one more question: What occupation does he follow?”Bernardino Ramazzini – (Source: De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (1713) Trans. by W.C. Wright in A.L. Birmingham, Classics of Medicine Library (1983). Quoted in Edward J. Huth and T. J. Murray. Medicine in Quotations: Views of Health and Disease Through the Ages (2006), 276.
Bernardino Ramazzini was an Italian physician who first noted connections between workers’ illnesses and their work environment. He is considered one of the founders of Occupational Medicine.
Biggest issue facing the OHS profession?
Having psycho-social health and safety issues taken up by employers such that they see the prevention of psychological injury in the workplace as a bloody good investment.
What do you wish you had understood about OHS sooner?
Just how very, very difficult it is to sell ‘prevention’.
What would you like to see to improve collaboration in OHS?
For employers (somehow) to realise that the ‘soft stuff’ is really the ‘hard stuff’ meaning that, for example, managing behaviours in the workplace affects the bottom line much more than bean counter penny-pinching.
What should you have been doing whilst you answered this?
Nothing else. I am perfectly happy sitting here, writing this. I have given up ‘shoulding’ myself.