Whakaari and lessons for change

By NZISM Secretary


Kia ora koutou to all members and supporters of NZISM.

The sentencing of five defendants draws a public line under the the Whakaari tragedy. For the victims and their families, the scars and the suffering will continue. Judge Evangelos Thomas issued record fines and reparations against the defendant companies, many of whom have no assets and therefore no ability to pay. What lessons can we draw from the tragedy?
There are many - but two that will resonate with NZISM members are the importance of:
  • proper risk assessment, and
  • adequate advice
particularly when dealing with potentially catastrophic harm. In assessing culpability, Judge Thomas commented at that:

properly assessing risk to tourists and employees caused by an eruption was blatantly fundamental. This was a unique operation, so there was little in the way of established practice for the defendants to turn to. None of the defendants had any volcanology expertise. They had to get risk assessments done by the appropriately qualified people. If necessary, they needed to get advice on understanding their own obligations in relation to that risk. That failure compromised everything else they did. That failure exposed others to the risk of serious injury and death.

Whakaari is an extreme case with tragic result but the failure to undertake adequate risk assessments and to seek the advice of appropriately qualified experts is all too common. Part of NZISM’s mission is to lift the standards for expert health and safety advice. By being NZISM members and particularly those of you progressing up the accreditation ladder, you are helping to address this.

The Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety, Hon Brooke van Velden, recently appeared before the Education and Workforce Select Committee to discuss WorkSafe’s performance. The Minister signaled a desire to engage widely on the Coalition Government’s commitment to “reform health and safety law and regulations” this term. The Minister also commented that “A lot of people are finding it really, really difficult to know how they can keep people healthy and safe at work because they’re finding it really difficult to follow the rules and regulations.”

I make two observations in relation to these potential changes. The first is that Whakaari demonstrates the need for a stronger signal to PCBUs around the need for competent advice and adequate risk assessments. My view is that we should borrow from the United Kingdom and enshrine these requirements more clearly in legislation. The system should also more strongly promote the use of qualified professionals such as our members. This may eventually be through regulation of professionals but at least there should be strong encouragement to PCBUs to use certified experts (such as those on the HASANZ register).

The second is that it will be important for Minister van Velden and her officials to hear from NZISM members about what is working and not working with the current Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 and regulations. NZISM members think every day about how to improve health and safety and work in every industry and from Kaitaia to Bluff. Your voices are crucial to this debate. NZISM will be looking to engage with you to understand your views on what needs to change. We plan to survey you this month to inform our conversations with the Minister and officials and we will be asking you to make your voices heard when consultation comes to your town.

Ngā mihi

Jeff Sissons