24 Sep 2021

Government proposes tougher safety rules for adventure activity operators

12:11 pm on 24 September 2021

The government wants to bring in tougher safety rules for adventure activity operators, in response to the deadly 2019 Whakaari / White Island eruption.

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Whakaari erupted on 9 December 2019 killing 22 people. Photo: Michael Schade

There were 47 people on the island - most of them tourists - when it erupted. Twenty-two people were killed and many others were seriously injured.

It prompted a review of the adventure activity regulations and Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood has today unveiled a set of proposals to tighten them up.

At the moment, the regulatory regime does not explicitly address the risks that come from natural hazards like rockfalls, water surges, flooding, eruptions and avalanches.

That means there is not enough assurance that all operators are managing these risks well, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) proposal document said.

"There is a high rate of harm in adventure activities from natural hazard events, and this rate does not appear to be decreasing over time," it said.

"On average, six people die in adventure activities per year, four of these are caused by natural hazard events."

Catastrophic events related to natural hazards - with more than five deaths - occur at least every 10 years in the sector, MBIE said.

Currently, neither the adventure activities regulations nor the safety audit standard have specific requirements that operators have clear, pre-set policies and processes in place for when activities will be cancelled due to conditions being too risky.

That means it is left up to each operator to work out what the appropriate systems are for their particular situation, MBIE said.

To address that, the government wants to introduce explicit requirements to ensure operators do all that is reasonably practical to assess and manage natural hazard risks that may affect their activities. Additionally, it wants to ensure operators have clear policies and processes in place to consider when risks may be unacceptable and call activities off.

Tougher rules for landowners

There will also be tougher rules for landowners who allow access to adventure activity operators.

"In some cases, land owners will be better placed than operators to be aware of and get information about certain hazards - for instance, if there is a part of the land that often has landslides or is flood-prone," MBIE said.

"We have heard some land owners and managers take a hands-off approach to the management of natural hazards and regard the management of risks as largely the responsibility of operators."

Under the proposals, landowners will have to be involved in the management of natural hazards, providing information to operators, or assessing and managing risks.

In many cases, MBIE said the owners or managers of the land would be the Department of Conservation or local councils.

However, it would also cover private land owners who permit adventure activity operators to use their land.

The government also wants to bring in a risk classification system, which would set how often operators would need to be audited.

Additionally, it wants to improve the disclosure of risks to participants, with detailed requirements for how and when risk disclosures should be made and what they should include.

"We have heard that participants do not always feel that the information they are given by operators provides them a good understanding of the risks involved in adventure activities," MBIE said.

WorkSafe's role

Changes to strengthen the role of WorkSafe are also being proposed.

WorkSafe is prosecuting 13 individuals and organisations over alleged health and safety breaches in the lead-up to the Whakaari eruption.

Those charged were: the island's owner Whakaari Management Limited and its directors Andrew, James and Peter Buttle; GNS Science; the National Emergency Management Agency; White Island Tours Limited; Volcanic Air Safaris Limited; Aerius Limited; Kahu NZ Limited; Inflite Charters Limited; I D Tours New Zealand Limited; and Tauranga Tourism Services Limited.

The charges do not relate to events on the day of the eruption, or the rescue efforts.

All 13 parties have pleaded not guilty.

A separate independent review of WorkSafe's handling of Whakaari before the eruption is months overdue.

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