Working at the site of the largest landslide in history ignited Tania Harris’ lifelong passion for, and business in health and safety. Abi Kibble explains.
IN THE EARLY 1980S, Tania Harris and her husband lived in Washington state, USA, and owned a helicopter business operating in forestry, mining, construction, infrastructure and tourism.
Following the eruption of Mt St Helens, they won a four-year contract to transport construction workers and the Army Corp of Engineers into the mountain’s Red Zone, to construct a large dam.
As well as learning to fly helicopters, Tania gained broad knowledge about construction and infrastructure.
“I really enjoyed being around heavy machinery and on a construction site that had significant challenges,” she recalls.
“Very quickly, I became aware of the importance of health and safety on the ground.”
Later in the 1980s, Tania moved back to New Zealand permanently and joined the West Auckland Civil Defence team, where she qualified, and contributed as a rescue team instructor for six years.
Her consultancy career also took off, and she worked in tourism, construction and infrastructure, branching out into health and safety in the early 2000s.
Tania set up her own company, Pure Health and Safety, in 2013 with the aim of demystifying health and safety and making it both accessible and affordable. As part of her service, Tania works with businesses to identify their health and safety gaps and provide actions to close those gaps.
Breaking down barriers
The number one health and safety challenge facing businesses is the commonly-held belief that ‘it won’t happen to me,’ says Tania.
“It may not necessarily be you that causes an accident, it may be someone next to or near you. So, we all have a responsibility to keep ourselves and those around us safe and be part of the health and safety solution.”
The cost of compliance is another significant barrier, she adds, with 97 percent of our businesses classed as SMEs and where tight health and safety budgets are commonplace.
The infrastructure sector faces the added complication of the tender for works process. “Unfortunately, it appears that some tender evaluators are still awarding contracts solely on cost. This can be extremely disheartening and makes it challenging for businesses to continue to build in health and safety costs when they keep losing out to lower bids.
“Evaluators need to consistently consider the quality of health and safety practices in each tender, as the lowest bid isn’t always the best!”
To address some cost challenges, Tania offers her customers the option to ‘rent’ a safety advisor from a panel of experts, rather than employing someone full-time.
“This enables our customers to get the added support they need, without overspending. They still have the overarching responsibility to maintain their day-to-day health and safety, but we are able to give them real peace of mind, by overseeing their efforts and helping them to identify and close gaps – it’s simple and effective.”
While health and safety can be daunting, especially since the Health and Safety at Work Act (2015) came into effect, Tania believes that effective health and safety is an achievable goal for all businesses if you keep it simple.
Creating a strong safety culture is a crucial part of this, she says.
“It starts from the top and works its way down, requiring employers to lead by example. There’s not much point expecting your workers to do something if you aren’t prepared to do it yourself. “Engagement is a vital part of keeping your workplace safe – we believe it is important to recognise and reward workers who do well in health and safety, and also their manager for being an important link in the health and safety chain.”
Tania likens health and safety to a car registration or warrant of fitness – not something we necessarily want to have to do, but which has to be done.
“You can take the risk and not do it, but if anything goes wrong, a price is paid. The only difference is, if it goes wrong with health and safety the price can go well beyond a fine. It can cost someone their life, and a family someone they love.”
Thanking three mentors
Tania credits the success of her business to the many people she has met along the way and says her business journey has been cemented by three main mentors: Johnny Edmonds – a New Zealand CEO and director for the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance (WINTA); Dr Hamid Bugo – a Malaysian CEO with experience spanning industries including construction, oil and gas, shipping and tourism; and David Mace – current chair of the Freemasons Roskill Foundation.
“Each of my mentors impart a common philosophy – the importance of working in mutually beneficial relationships and treating everyone as a respected customer.
“This has provided the foundation for my career and has been key to building our business relationships, both internally and externally.”
Outside of the industry Tania is also passionate about using her skills and knowledge to benefit a number of causes close to her heart.
She is currently contributing to the Child Safety Handbook, a free publication that is distributed to Year Eight students at schools nationwide.
Tania is also working with Lung Foundation NZ to lobby government to get the cancer drug Keytruda on to the Pharmac list. The drug is not currently funded by the state agency, but has been proven to significantly extend life expectancy for lung cancer sufferers.
“I want to leave something enduring and of value, beyond just money,” she says about the future. “The business will
be something my adult sons can continue to run, if they choose but, when my last ‘summer’ arrives I want to know that I did my best and made a difference to those I met along the way.”