CJ Manjarres-Wahlberg’s time in the Navy set him up for a career in high-risk safety and environmental management and instilled in him a long-standing dedication to service.
CJ knows he’s luckier than most – not everyone finds their direction at 17 that lasts a lifetime.
“I was in the Navy for 11 years, straight from high school, and I loved it,” he said. “The best part was when we were based in Sydney and I’d be living on a ship berthed at fleet base east in the harbour, having a morning coffee from the bridge wing looking over at the Opera House and Lady Macquarie’s Chair. It was a beautiful way to start your day.
“But really, I’m so thankful to the Navy for giving me life skills I still use today; things like making your bed which taught me discipline, organisation, planning, leadership, teamwork, and respecting people. And mostly just how to get along with everyone from diverse backgrounds. It was the best thing I could have done.”
After leaving the Navy, CJ built a career in maritime oil, gas and mining that took him all over the Asia Pacific and down to the Southern Ocean, including Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Malaysia. Needless to say, CJ is a born adventurer and traveller who says the fly-in fly-out (FIFO) life has always suited him.
“It’s exciting, every few weeks you’re on a plane heading somewhere. With the Navy I was always on a ship going somewhere new, so it was a familiar life to me.”
A safe surprise
CJ is now a chartered risk manager, a certified safety professional, and a work health, safety and environmental manager for a drilling company, as well as a part-time ships officer and a not-for-profit board member.
Yet CJ says having a career in safety still comes as somewhat of a surprise to him.
“Ha! If you said to me 20 years ago I’d be working in safety, I’d have thought no, what could be more boring? But it feels like everything with my career evolved naturally.
"Safety has been ingrained in everything I’ve done, right from my Navy days, so it’s been a natural progression. These days, there’s so many things you can do in risk, safety and environmental management.
“It was part of my old life at sea, and when I was working in mining in Papua New Guinea, in integrated oil and gas in Malaysia, and when I was offshore on oil and gas platforms. Safety is married to everything, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of different aspects of it. Now, I love it.”
By the seaside
The famous Sydney harbourside Barangaroo project has been one of CJ’s most recent challenges.
“I work for a company who completed a major part of the drilling for the new buildings there. However, before the buildings went up there was a lot of contaminants in the area and a lot of HAZMAT from the old gas works. We had to develop a contamination management plan for everything that was coming out of the ground.
“In the past, I’d learnt the hard way about the importance of putting certain safety things in place before other things can happen, which applied here. It turned out to be a massive job as this sludgy, black, sticky substance (coal tar) had been leeching into the ground for years and by this point was well below the embedded surface.
“So, when I started the job my first thought was I need to see the contamination management plan to understand what the risks were so we could implement robust controls.
"There was a massive amount of exposure and risk. And drilling into rock can create friction, which in turn can create heat and an explosive atmosphere when hydrocarbons are involved – needless to say, we worked hard to ensure everyone’s safety.
“We conducted some significant monitoring and ran about 400 separate tests to sample the atmosphere to try to pinpoint the risk factors from the HAZMAT in the ground. It was really complex but worth every second.
“Another expensive issue that came up was with PPE. Because of the hazards, workers had to wear full HAZMAT suits and respirators to do their job. In the summer heat the guys could only do about 15 to 20 minutes of work at a time before they had to get in an air-conditioned space so they could rest and hydrate. This increased the PPE cost significantly, as well the manning required.
“But now there’s a beautiful harbourside park where there was once just a wasteland full of contamination.”
While tackling such a large-scale project was a lot to take on, CJ said he came prepared.
“The only reason I was able to take on such a big job was due to my studies at ACU which gave me a solid grounding in environmental safety.”
Back to uni
To advance his career in safety management, CJ completed a Graduate Certificate in Occupational, Health, Safety and Environmental Management.
“The more I looked into it, the more the course appealed to me. I wanted something that was going to give me a really good grounding in safety, but also the environment side of things made it a perfect fit for me.”
As a non-school leaver who hadn’t studied for a while, CJ had a few stumbling blocks to overcome.
“The referencing side of essay writing was horrendous! That was a journey in itself, and so frustrating. But the lecturers were great in helping me build my confidence in my own academic abilities.
“Getting into study mode when you’ve been away for a while was challenging too. I was working multiple jobs at the time, including a FIFO role, so it was a lot of late nights. But I’m a night owl, so between 10pm and 1am I was in the zone.”
Now that’s graduated, CJ says he wouldn’t have the job he has today without completing the course.
“Having a postgraduate qualification like this is becoming highly desirable for large construction, maritime, mining and offshore companies. It shows you have the skills and ability to manage safety and environment on large projects with tier one companies,” he said.
Laying the foundation for the future
While his enjoyment of postgraduate study is ongoing, CJ’s love for the sea has never left him, and this passion led to a role as co-director on the board for the Sea Heritage Foundation.
The foundation’s mission is to maintain the former lighthouse tender vessel, the MV Cape Don, which is now a floating museum ship. Additionally, a strategic plan has been developed to provide a unique learning environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to work in the maritime industry.
Their aim is to close the gap in Indigenous employment and create trainee pathways that lead to social and economic change.
“It’s such an exciting project,” CJ said. “The MV Cape Don is permanently berthed at the old coal loader terminal in Sydney’s north. The ship served the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service from 1963 until 1990, and she was responsible for all the lighthouses and navigational aids between Darwin and the Southern Ocean.
“The plan is for the ship to become the platform for the Indigenous maritime training program we’re developing with our partner RTO here in Sydney. We’re doing this because of the 18,000 people employed in the maritime industry, just 400 are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. For an island nation dependent on the sea for our import and export this isn’t good enough and needs to change.
“Most importantly, our plan is to work with the local cultural heritage elements – it’s not just about getting people to come onto a boat to learn about boat things! There are these incredible Indigenous carvings that predate Captain Cook where the ship’s berthed, and there’s so much history in that area.
"We want to work with the local Indigenous people so they’re a part of the course as well – the program isn’t enough; we want to create real training pathways to employment with industry partners.
"We hope that by supporting Indigenous people in this way we’ll be giving them opportunity, new skills, improved access to education, a career and a bright future.”
A life of service
Taking on big projects at work and using his spare time to give back is who CJ is to the core.
“I’ve been this way my whole life – 100 miles an hour and I can’t sit still.
“My philosophy is there’s no greater gift than the gift of service.
"My life has always been about helping people. First, in the military and serving my country, and now I continue to serve by helping people in the community – this is where the Navy kicks in again for me.
“It gave me more than just a job, it gave me a sense of purpose, and they teach you that every person is important; it doesn't matter what you do. As a team you can achieve anything.”
Discover where a degree in occupational, health, safety and environmental management could lead, and learn more about CJ’s work with the Sea Heritage Foundation.