Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Karl du Fresne: WorkSafe lets itself off the hook

It intrigues me that WorkSafe has apparently let itself off the hook with its decision to prosecute those it holds responsible for the Whakaari-White Island tragedy.

Surely WorkSafe, as the government’s workplace safety regulator, must bear some responsibility for the accident? It must have known tourists were visiting an active volcano. I mean, it was hardly a secret. So why is it prosecuting GNS Science and Civil Defence, among others, while ignoring its own apparent culpability?

According to its website, WorkSafe’s roles include “targeting critical risks at all levels (sector and system-wide) using intelligence” (whatever that might mean) and “delivering targeted interventions to address harm drivers”.

Notwithstanding the predictably flatulent bureaucrat-speak, I would have thought that broad brief included scanning the landscape for possible risks – such as a smouldering volcanic island where boat-loads of unprotected tourists wander among sulphurous steam vents – and taking action to mitigate them.

As WorkSafe CEO Phil Parkes said yesterday, “This deeply tragic event was unexpected, but that does not mean it was unforeseeable”. Exactly. So should we assume WorkSafe regards its function as to be wise after the event rather than pro-active in promoting safety and managing risk?

Admittedly there’s a much bigger issue here. New Zealand is full of potentially hazardous tourist experiences, and there would rightly be an outcry if the government tried to shut them down or even limit access. The Tongariro Crossing (through a volcanic landscape subject to extreme weather) and the trip to Cape Kidnappers (beneath unstable cliffs) are two where the risks seem to be understated. Those just happen to be ones I’m particularly aware of because I’ve done both of them relatively recently, but of course New Zealand is full of tourist attractions where the risk is part of the appeal.

Perhaps the answer is for adventure tourism operators to be much more up-front about potential hazards so that their customers can make a properly informed decision on whether they want to take the risk. If they give fully informed consent, that must surely remove some of the onus from the operators (while obviously not removing their obligation to take sensible precautions). But I suspect that familiarity breeds contempt. If an operator has been running incident-free tours for years, as at Whakaari, you can understand them growing blasé.

Perhaps that should be part of WorkSafe’s role: monitoring risky tourism ventures to ensure that they tell their customers exactly what risks they’re taking. At that point individual choice and responsibility should kick in. But for the government agency to conveniently absolve itself of any responsibility for what happened at Whakaari seems fundamentally unfair, and a bit gutless.

Footnote: Immediately after posting this blog, I played a Morning Report interview with Nigel Hampton QC in which he seemed to express much the same view. To paraphrase my late former colleague Frank Haden, he agrees with me so we must both be right.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist and former editor of The Dominion newspaper, blogs at


Ray S said...

I thought the same at first, then the spectre of more nanny state changed my mind. A proper regime of risk assessment and minimising by operators and clients need not involve a government agency.

DeeM said...

I think the reality of the situation when dealing with natural dangers like volcanoes and earthquakes is that we may like to pretend that we can predict them with our scientific instruments but the sad truth is that we really cant. This was barely an eruption - more of a volcanic burp. Even something that small is deadly to relatively fragile lifeforms like ourselves.
I visited White Island about a year before the tragedy and we were assured that GNS had multiple probes that gave prior warning of imminent eruptions so it was safe to go out there. No tourists had been killed before so you assume everything works as promised. The truth is that the volcano erupts only occasionally over a human lifespan so it was probably down to luck rather than scientific expertise that previous events have been avoided.
I agree with Karl on the partial responsibility of WorkSafe but this is typical of a government body which points the blame with a scatter gun when something goes wrong on their watch. I don't quite understand why Civil Defence are being prosecuted. Are they not there to assist after natural disasters, which they did. I wasn't aware they were supposed to prevent them before they happened.

Unknown said...

T0tally agree with both comments. Being a beurocrATIC ENTITY THEY ARE JUST COVERING THEIR ARSES