Tuesday, December 1, 2020

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.


Anonymous said...

There has been some suggestion that WorkSafe dropped the ball – for example, with respect to its safety audits. More needs to come out about this – are the suggestions founded? What did WorkSafe do or not do? There hasn't been much detail on this to date, just suggestions.

I’m not too sure why the announcement of the prosecution required a press conference. It seemed a press release would have been sufficient given Worksafe wasn’t willing to address the who question – who did what, when did they do it, how they did it or why they did it. If you can’t answer the who what when how questions issue a press release – not a media conference.

I got the impression the CE was all a bit charged, emotional, excited about the announcement. Found this a bit unsettling.

Brendan McNeill said...

Perhaps there is litigation in the wind, and 'WorkSafe' felt it necessary to engage in preemptive self absolution. But we know that any investigation of a government department by another government department would find systemic failure, precluding the apportionment of blame and individual responsibility.

Private enterprise, however, that's another matter entirely.

Gabriel said...

Perhaps WorkSafe didn't know where Whakaari is. They may have been concentrating on White Island.