Safe Pair of Hands

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-By John Boley

Safety is something that can neither be understated nor undersold. At Protector Alsafe, there is a culture that the safety message begins at home, and all its own staff receive regular and ongoing training in safety matters for such a diverse range of industries and hazards that it would take the full space of this article to list them. But if we just mention that the headgear range alone encompasses not just the regular series of hard hats, brow guards, face visors but beanies, straw hats, sun-hats and a rather fetching Drover’s hat, you will be able to gauge that the company likes to leave nothing at all to chance.

Certainly the attitude is proving correct. Protector Alsafe is in expansion mode and growth is the order of the day. What is good to hear is that Australians everywhere are taking their personal and corporate safety seriously. So says Chris Jones. For the last five years he has been General Manager of the company, which was formed when Australia’s two leading safety suppliers joined forces in 2002 – Protector Safety Supply and Alsafe. Together, they form a specialist safety supplier with locations throughout Australia, offering industry the best ranges of high quality safety and protection products, backed up with technical support, product training and a network of knowledgeable product specialists whose business is to make every workplace safe.

Chris told us: “My prime role is ensuring that we have great plans in place and that we have enough resources and infrastructure capability to meet the demands of our growing customers.” A major factor in that capability is focused around having the right people. “It’s a big people challenge as everyone is aware. Within our own business, we certainly have a strong learning and development agenda. We have recently appointed three internal full-time learning and development managers.” This development is intended to ensure that staff are product experts in their own right within the business. “That way we can deliver more value back to our customers, providing the right product for the right task. A lot of my focus is on making sure we have the right people in place and ensuring retention of those people is strongly supported by development opportunities.”

Chris said that the company is growing at a measured pace, explaining that as a public company, it prefers not to issue specific expectations of expansion. Protector Alsafe is careful to ensure it has enough of its own resources to properly service the resources industries – “the fast growing oil and gas sector and the construction industry, as well as supporting our traditional manufacturing customer base, many of whom are also finding things difficult, particularly around the strength of the Australian dollar. Certainly, as exporters they are finding it tough and also competing against imported products in that context.” The company is well positioned for growth “because of the mining and the oil and gas sectors, but we are making sure we’re supporting the manufacturing sector and understanding the challenges they have in front of them.”

Rather than using independent distributors, Protector Alsafe uses its own countrywide network. “Everything goes direct; we have distribution centres in each capital city. We have a network of 40 locations around the country that we service either straight from our manufacturers or supporting out of our distribution centres.”

The company is not a manufacturer in its own right but features a number of its own ranges developed with its team in Shanghai which sources products of appropriate quality from throughout the world. Major customers in particular sometimes have special requirements and it is the job of Protector Alsafe to meet those demands. “We have a team of key account managers throughout the country who work closely with the HSE and purchasing teams of our customers to ensure the range of products is relevant to what that customer needs. Customers see value in that because otherwise you could have anybody coming in and supplying something that might not be suitable. If there’s no control on that through the end user, then potentially there could be inferior or incorrect products that could get onto a work site.” And that sort of carelessness could cost lives.

It’s not just about selling products to customers, Chris explained, but about having the right product and/or systems to offer the optimum protection for employees. “In some cases it may mean there is a new development or product in some area, where our volumes might drop because it’s a far superior product and the client is going to use less of it. But that’s the sort of relationship we need to provide. It’s all about a partnership.”

Product developments are driven by technology improvements and particularly around customer demand, more so than by changes in legislation which tend to follow those improvements. One current trend, Chris said, was towards more lightweight and more comfortable, wearable protective clothing for staff, “as the mining companies put more and more people into remote areas of Australia where particularly there are heat related issues,” and questions about ventilation and UV resistance.

Companies in Australia are very good at identifying and specifying quality protective gear, said Chris, who praised his customers for not being tempted to cut corners on safety. “Australian customers are very good at identifying that they will always use quality. Across the wide range of industries and customers that we deal with, they are always focusing on quality product that’s going to meet the requirements. In addition, some of our larger customers continue to push the envelope in terms of wanting more developments in products.”

Chris said one of those areas was hearing. Earplugs are used across a very wide range of industries and applications but “when people actually put ear plugs in, they are very often not put in consistently, or they do not fit correctly, in which case they [the earplugs, not the employees] are not doing the job. Our customers are getting smarter in that area, but the first option is trying to engineer out the problem rather than just using more protection” – that is, remove the source of the noise – “and then after you’ve engineered out as much as you can of the noise by using better technology, ensure that staff are equipped with earplugs that fit correctly.” It is a training issue as well, as “the earplugs are only effective if the people know how to fit them properly.”

Training is a key area of development within Protector Alsafe. “We have more than 40 courses now, 22 full time instructors around the country and a number of part time instructors and certainly we’re delivering a quality training product. We saw the opportunity to be for our customers a national provider of training, particularly in the areas of working at height and confined space.” Chris said the emerging industry of wind farming has a specific need for solutions in working at heights. “We’re doing a lot more with fire warden training, priority and emergency evacuation, emergency response training; we have a lot of expertise in that area.”

Mining is a huge industry and “all of our customers require accredited training of some type.” Partnership opportunities are increasingly arising – “conducting risk assessments with their own people at their sites, then writing the procedures and training staff to make sure they’ve got the right knowledge and the right equipment. It’s a growing area in the industry and certainly it’s well recognised by the government.”

The limitation is finding enough top-grade staff to do more training. “We could grow the business tenfold in the next six months if we wanted to. However, we’re going to make sure we have quality people who form the base of our instructor team and that they are adequately trained and refreshing their training on an ongoing basis. Our growth in this area is just limited by the number of quality instructors that we can get in as part of the team. We’re very keen to continue to work with the mining sector, particularly around developing training courses and products that are specific to that industry. We have a number of product and training experts within our business now who are very passionate about that. It’s about working with them to develop training programmes and continuous product improvement to ensure that the users in the field are comfortable and not restricted in their day to day activities. We recognise that we have to move from being a sales organisation to a solution based business, where it’s not just about selling more product but about actually working with our customers in a partnership, helping them solve problems and improve the comfort of their own employees as well as about productivity.”

Summing up, Chris agreed that it is important to stress the cost-effectiveness of good safety practices. “It’s a message that sometimes gets lost because everyone across Australia is so busy, especially in mining and resources. But good safety makes sound financial sense too. “It’s about looking around and seeing what we can do better.”

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

May 29, 2020, 5:09 PM AEST