13 parties WorkSafe charged over Whakaari/White Island disaster 'didn't meet obligations' to health and safety - CEO

WorkSafe has confirmed none of the charges laid against 13 parties following an investigation into last year's Whakaari/White Island disaster relate to recovery or rescue efforts.

Forty-seven people were on the active volcano off the coast of Whakatāne when it erupted on December 9, 2019. Of those, 22 died and 25 others survived but suffered severe injuries.

On Monday morning, it was revealed WorkSafe, New Zealand's workplace health and safety regulator, had charged ten organisations and three individuals in relation to the tragedy.

The organisations face a maximum fine of $1.5 million for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act, while the individuals could be fined as much as $300,000 for failing to exercise due diligence to ensure their companies meet health and safety obligations.

In a press conference from Wellington on Monday afternoon, WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes confirmed that none of the parties charged were investigated over their actions in the aftermath of the natural disaster.

"I want to be really clear that our investigation did not consider the rescue and recovery of victims after the eruption, and so on these matters no enforcement action has been taken," he said.

Instead, the investigation centres solely on the health and safety measures in place in the lead-up to the eruption.

In an emotional statement to media, Parkes said while the deeply tragic event was unexpected, that doesn't mean it was unforeseeable.

"It's my hope that those connected to this terrible tragedy will take some comfort from knowing that those who we consider did not meet their obligations will have to account for their actions or inactions in court," he explained.

"The victims, both workers and visitors alike, all had a reasonable expectation that they could go to the island knowing that those organisations involved had done all they were required to do to look after their health and safety. But had they?

"That's the question WorkSafe was mandated to investigate. After the largest and most complex investigation WorkSafe has ever undertaken, we have concluded that 13 parties did not meet their obligations, and should face charges in court."

None of the charged parties are able to be named by WorkSafe, as they have right to seek name suppression at their first court appearance. However Volcanic Air, a scenic helicopter and floatplane airline, has revealed it is among the charged parties.

The company was informed on Monday morning that it was to be charged, but said it hadn't received any additional details.

"We will take some time to consider the charges before making any comment," it told Newshub.

A preliminary hearing will be held at Auckland District Court on December 15, 2020, with a second court hearing likely in 2021.

Later in the press conference, Parkes said the charges against the 13 parties should serve as a warning to businesses to make improvements to their health and safety protocols.

"It is only by improving the way we do our work where we avoid another tragedy of this magnitude," he said. "It would be an appropriate legacy for the 22 people who lost their lives on Whakaari if we could make this happen."

WorkSafe's findings come just nine days before the one-year anniversary of the disaster. A public memorial will be held at 11:30am on December 9 at the Mataatua Reserve in Whakatāne to commemorate those who lost their lives.