22 Aug 2017
Meet the newest member of the Site Safe team, Sarah McDonald. The award-winning health and safety advisor joined the Wellington team in August, shortly after being awarded Health and Safety Practitioner of the Year for her work on the $630 million Mackays to Peka Peka expressway. Sarah brings with her 11 years’ construction experience, a passion for helping people, a flair for Italian, and a love of softball.
We talked to Sarah about her approach to health and safety and how respect and empathy have been a key part of her success.
What do you love about health and safety?
I love the construction world. There’s some amazing people out there and I really enjoy the industry. I guess for me, it’s all about being involved and engaged with our contractors and seeing them get better, grow and learn; seeing them go home safe at night.
With the young ones, I love seeing their attitudes change. People are willing to change, and that’s how you engage with them. I love giving them the courage to look after themselves and their workmates.
Is it true you can speak Italian?
Yes! When I was a teenager I was really into sports and I went over there to play professional softball in their National Women’s League. And those were the days before Google, so it was a pretty big deal! I was over there for five years, based out of Verona, Palma, Rome and Torino but travelling all around the country every second weekend for away games. The people were amazing; so caring. It was a once in a lifetime experience. I can also speak Maori and Samoan.
How do you get people to take health and safety seriously?
I think making them see that safety doesn’t have to be bigger than Ben Hur. I try to tap into their strengths and give them information, support and guidance so they feel comfortable speaking up, because at the end of the day you only have one life – whether it’s on site or on your weekend, nothing is guaranteed. It’s about making sure that we appreciate every day, because you can’t take anything for granted.
How did you get in to health and safety?
I was looking into getting back into the workforce after having my children and I took a part-time role working in admin and health and safety for a contractor. We started to realise there were gaps in what we needed to know and they were like ‘Sarah, you’ve got to go to uni’, so I did my Grad Dip in OSH extramurally over four years. But I guess it runs in the family, we have a lot of ‘carers’: doctors, nurses or caregivers, so I was following in their footsteps, really.
Is it hard being a woman on site?
As long as you respect people, they will respect you back. I’ve never felt out of place and a part of that is how you hold yourself, and respecting others. At the end of the day, you’ve got to learn that the contractors are the specialists and you’ve got to walk beside them and try to help - not try to tell them how to do their job, because they are the experts. I think as a woman, I have a lot of empathy, which helps, although sometimes that can be a challenge because it’s easy to give too much and be totally exhausted by the time you get home!
Why join Site Safe?
I wanted a broader range to share my message, and Site Safe gives me a bigger influence as part of a wider national group which specialises in changing the culture in construction and upskilling everybody out there.
What’s New Zealand’s biggest health and safety challenge?
Changing the mindset that health and safety isn’t that hard – that it can be incorporated into your daily routine. It’s about using those communication tools that you already have in place to share information, not adding more steps on top. People really need a clearer explanation of what it means to engage, whether that’s with workers or other contractors.
Once you’ve got that buy-in from the guys on the ground, health and safety can be really awesome. The ultimate goal is to have your guys owning it and bringing in their knowledge and ideas to feed the ideas going back up to the top. On Mackays to Peka Peka (M2PP) we created a shared way of talking about safety and shared goals, across all three of our different work zones. We also did regular surveys to see what we could improve, making sure to implement what we could as quickly as we could, and then to keep people updated on the longer-term stuff. People need to see that you are taking their advice seriously, and not waiting months to implement things. Sometimes when I’m on a site in Wellington, I’ll hear people using the phrases we coined on M2PP, and I still get a real buzz.
What needs to change?
We’ve still got improvements to make but it’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come. I think our attitudes are changing and we are getting better. But rather than concentrating on how things used to be, we really need to focus on where we are going and how we are going to get there. And that’s exactly what Site Safe is doing - walking the talk.