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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Ceryse Rawson

Painful burns received in the Heinz Wattie’s plant in Hastings put her off work for five weeks, but PETER BATEMAN found this proved to be the catalyst for a career transformation into a health & safety role.

What was your experience at the plant?

I was employed by a labour hire company which had a contract at the plant. For three months I’d been what they call an aseptic tomato paste operator. I did well there so they moved me into an aseptic head operations role and started training me on how to prepare products in big vats. You add the ingredients into the vat, turn on the agitator to stir it, then turn on the hot steam to get it up to a specification temperature to make it food safe before you can send it through to the production lines.

What happened on that day in May 2017?

It was my fourth day on the job. Production ended up being cancelled for the day, so the trainer and I spent most of the day cleaning. In the last two hours we started preparing the brine for the next shift. Checking pH and sugar levels, the first test was out of specification. We adjusted but the second test was still out of spec. More adjustments. All the vats were now in spec except one. As I was approaching it I noticed the fluid level inside was increasing. I knew it would get out of the vat. I just had time to turn around and start to run away, but hot brine splashed out and got into my gumboots.

What injuries resulted?

I felt a sharp pain and knew it was bad. I ran over to the emergency showers and jumped into a skip that was full of water, thank goodness because the gumboots had vacuum sealed to my legs with the heat. I remember looking at the on-off switch and saw the temperature gauge said 102 degrees. Once in the water I heard the pressure release and was able to remove my gumboots. While I was flushing my legs I noticed the skin peeling back like a sausage skin. I kept my wits about me and flushed for 25 minutes. When help arrived they had film wrap to wrap my legs. I said get me out of here, I’ll walk. I was assessed by Hastings A&E and flown to the burns unit at Lower Hutt Hospital. My son came with me. We stayed there for two or three days. Then the injury was managed from home.

How was your family affected?

At the time it was devastating for everyone. Everyone was really emotional. I came home with these horrendously bandaged legs that needed to be treated and dressed every day. I got that treatment from home care professionals, but the family witnessed it all. They saw the pain and agony, the weaker side of me physically, and they’re not used to that. So for my children, they saw the potential for losing me. It was quite shattering for them.

How did your injury affect your mental health?

I was back working in five weeks. Now I know that was wrong. I didn’t give myself enough time to heal, emotionally or physically. I pushed myself to get back there and prove myself to be worthy – it sounds horrible but that was my mentality, because I felt I was a burden. Given what I know now, I’d give the opposite advice to anyone in the same situation: you matter, you need time and support, and you need to know we will be waiting for you. But when you’re in shock you don’t make good decisions.

What work did you do, post-injury?

I was doing light duties admin work for my employer, the labour hire company. Then I went back on assignment to Kraft Heinz as a document controller, then a shift supervisor, then back on the factory floor as before. I became shift manager but then they lost the contract, so in September 2018 I ended up leaving. It was a sad day. It was always my dream to work for Wattie’s.

What was your involvement in the legal process?

WorkSafe investigated and initially decided not to prosecute. Then someone else got injured in a related part of the plant and somehow I felt responsible, that I hadn’t done enough. So with the help of others I persuaded them to re-open the file. As part of that there was a restorative justice process, and I swear by that process now. I met the head of operations for ANZ. He and I got to know each other. We went through everything about the incident, and it was really positive for me. It humanized the organisation. I got real, genuine emotion from this man. It was a lovely way to give him my side of what happened, and for me to hear what information he had. We managed to join some dots and get some things changed.

Apart from that, how included in the process did you feel?

Excluded. There was no real engagement with the victim from WorkSafe. I went through this for two years and it was shattering. You feel very vulnerable. I didn’t know if I had a right to do anything or be part of anything. It was only two weeks before the court hearing that I found I could have used Victim Support, who were brilliant. WorkSafe should work with Victim Support and outline all the steps, the likely timelines, right down to how to write a victim impact statement. We talk in health and safety about the importance of worker engagement, but we don’t engage with the victim at all.

You’re now back at work in the plant. How did that happen?

In my discussions with the head of operations for ANZ he found out about my knowledge base, my work as document controller with SOPs, and my earlier studies on professional food at levels 3 and 4. He was shocked. He said I don’t know why we haven’t already employed you! Once the legal process was concluded it was decided I would go into a new H&S role to bridge the gap between management and staff.

What is the scope of your new role?

There are three pillars of the role: training, culture change, and staff engagement in H&S. We’ve had Hillary Bennett in to work with us. I’m really focused on the gap between work as imagined and work as done. I help our staff on the floor understand what this means, because they are integral in closing that gap. It’s wonderful to be part of this. Because of my experience on the floor I already knew some of the corners that were being cut. I talked to the staff and got the true accounts of what was happening and channeled that back to our management. They were shocked and are addressing training. Our new plant manager is committed to H&S and I feel we are moving in the right direction now. I guess it’s the culture of every industry to show the best side of how you operate, especially when the big managers are around. My job is to break down the walls and help people realise that the way to get effective support in their area – if there’s not enough staff, say, or if a process is too dangerous – is to show the truth every day. It gets us the support we need.

Where do you fit in the wider H&S team?

There are four of us: the EHS manager, the EHS coordinator, the occupational health nurse, and my role which is called senior H&S rep. They’ve never had that direct link from floor to management before. It’s created a communications channel between plant manager and floor staff. We have real engagement at our H&S committee meetings now. When I started there were no H&S reps at these meetings. Yet we have two reps per shift in all departments, and three shifts. Now we have all of them there, plus other volunteers who just come in and want to be part of it all. It’s brilliant.


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