Environmental Health graduate Helen Psarras is safeguarding the health of customers and workers in the tattoo and piercing industry.
In 2004, the burgeoning tattoo and body piercing industry still held an outlaw mystique – seeming to run by its own set of rules, which meant it was also very vulnerable to the spread of pathogens and bloodborne viruses.
But as the numbers of customers has surged in subsequent years, the energetic work of Environmental Health Officer Helen Psarras (BEnvHlth ’02), safeguarding the health of both customers and workers in this industry from infections and disease, has been highly successful.
A DEGREE OF CHALLENGE
After completing her Bachelor of Environmental Health at Flinders University, Helen was only 22 when she took a job at SA Health and was introduced to troubling public health issues facing the tattoo and body piercing industry.
She had been hoping to graduate into a job working as an environmental health officer for a metropolitan council, but the challenge of working in such a specialised area that needed immediate attention to improve contentious work practices both thrilled and energised her.
‘There were a lot of mavericks in the tattooing industry who didn’t like any type of law enforcement, but I asked them to educate me in what they did, and they agreed. Once I had that knowledge, we worked together to put the rules in place that would work,’ says Helen.
‘And because I had a science background, they trusted me and understood that what I recommended was going to benefit everyone.’
NEW SAFETY MEASURES
This crucial work to apply widespread health safety measures has not only averted possible deaths but prevented many people from getting sick, and has subsequently reduced the burden on nurses, doctors, ambulances and hospitals.
‘In 2004 it went from being an industry with a health danger risk level of 9 out of 10, to now being less than 2 out of 10,’ says Helen, whose safety measures continue to be enforced by environmental health officers, and have become an accepted standard within the tattooing and body piercing industry.
This work represents only part of Helen’s very diverse career in public health.
Her achievements range from introducing the Smokefree program to South Australia – which promoted no smoking policies that were adopted by powerful groups such as the Australian Hotels Association – through to emergency management of public health risks during the 2007 Kangaroo Island bushfires.
COVID-19 MANAGEMENT CONTROL
Helen has also been part of the COVID-19 management command team within the SA Health State Control Centre. Her directives ensured a seamless transition of restaurants and cafés from table service to takeaway foods, saw playgrounds get sanitised, advised businesses on infection control, and gave appropriate operational advice to small business owners in such specialised interactive fields as massage, hairdressing and nail salons.
When businesses were reopening, her advice ensured that air conditioning systems were free of legionella, premises were free of mould, and staff understood infection control.
‘My experience and knowledge of infection control through the tattoo and body piercing industry actually gave me the perfect management skills that could be applied to the first public health disaster of our lifetime,’ says Helen.
‘It enabled me to be responsible for teams setting up the state’s medi-hotels, through to unexpected tasks such as managing quarantine arrangements for the NASA pilots undertaking the Hayabusa2 mission in South Australia, and liaising with Tennis Australia to manage the operational oversight of the visiting players and officials for the Adelaide International Tennis Tournament.’
TAKING A LEADERSHIP ROLE
Helen’s steadfast belief in the importance of the work undertaken by environmental health officers has seen her take voluntary leadership roles as State President of Environmental Health Australia (South Australia) and as a National Director of the organisation.
She has been a long-term member of Flinders University’s Graduate Diploma of Environmental Health Practice Professional Advisory Committee, ensuring that graduates have the best current knowledge available across science, social science and law, and can address emerging issues that affect public health.
‘I have loved every job that I’ve had, and I can attribute it all to the degree I got at Flinders. It gave me the confidence and the diverse skill set to apply my knowledge broadly. After three years of studying Environmental Health at Flinders, I felt that I could do anything in the sector.’