Latest news and insights from Australia’s airports


North Queensland Airports (NQA) health and safety advisor Janice van der Zwaan started her working life a long way from the airfield.

She spent over 10 years as a zookeeper in New Zealand and Australia and acknowledges it was “a bit of a journey” from there to a life in aviation.

But on closer inspection, Janice’s “zoo life” was a formative part of her later career as a health and safety expert.

“I even got paid danger money back then because it was expected that you would get hurt,” she says.

Drawing on her background working with wildlife, Janice van der Zwaan had her first taste of the aviation world working for Customs in Perth.

A later promotion to a role in Cairns prompted the start of her health and safety career, with Janice completing some of her training on a voluntary basis.

“Like most people, I don’t like getting hurt,” she says.

“There was an offer for a number of people to train as health and safety representatives – I thought that was interesting. I found so much of what I’d done in my zoo life – just life skills I guess – did actually translate.”

“I worked a lot with members of the public, I worked a lot in situations where you couldn’t necessarily control things around you and so you had to learn how to risk manage. The only thing back then was I never knew it was called risk management.”

While there is no such thing as a typical day for Janice, she says the dynamic operating environment of the airport is part of the appeal of being part of the NQA team.

She has worked for North Queensland Airports since it came into existence in 2008 but been directly involved in health and safety since the mid-1990s.

Since that time, she’s seen the transformation of the health and safety industry from it having a low profile to being a valued part of the organisation that takes a whole-of-business approach.

“It’s the realisation that so many smart companies have had that good health and safety practices isn’t about spending money, like this will cost me, but viewing it as investment,” she says.

There is a justifiable community expectation that we look after them and we take that responsibility very, very seriously and I’d say the movement into that space has been quite significant.”

Recounting a time as a zookeeper when a manager said “who the hell does she think she is , she’s just a woman”, she says a great deal has changed since she started her career in the late 1970s.

“I just saw people like that as roadblocks and I found a way around them,” she says.

“In the zoo world at that time it wasn’t a glass ceiling, it was about three feet of concrete.

“You knew you weren’t going to punch through it so you opened the door and left the building and entered a new building .”

And her advice to women just beginning their careers in aviation?

“The Good Lord gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason and while you need to be true to yourself and be prepared to stand your ground, it is essential that you listen twice as much as you speak,” she says.

“I have always been surrounded by some amazingly talented people and you will only learn and grow if you take on board what they say – even if initially you might not see their point of view.

“Don’t give up. Do what you want to do and don’t be influenced by the negative nellies around you.”


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