Whakaari review findings: WorkSafe needs to ramp up its industry oversight

By Tess Brunton for RNZ

A review into adventure activities operating near natural hazards has found WorkSafe needs to ramp up its industry oversight and more safety improvements could be made.

On Friday Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood has announced the first review findings in the wake of the Whakaari / White Island eruption.

He said the regulator needs to improve monitoring and enforcement of adventure activities, and the current third party certification may need to be reconsidered in the long term.

Wood says the sector is performing reasonably well, but they will begin consulting on how to further improve safety next year.

The review noted improvement of safety after new adventure activity rules came in in 2014, that nearly all adventure activities involve natural hazard risks and operators could be better supported to identify and manage the risks through changing the safety audit standard and certification scheme, WorkSafe should play a more active role in the sector after prioritising other industries, and the current third party certification scheme may need to be reconsidered in the long term.

"We're committed to consulting on the report's findings to improve safety standards in the first half of 2021 and making the appropriate changes afterwards," Wood said.

"Post-eruption, WorkSafe evaluated its own role in the regime and is making changes to ensure that it's administering the adventure activities regime effectively. These include improving support for registration and compliance, improving operational systems, and developing a stakeholder engagement strategy."

There were 31 deaths between 2004 and 2009 under adventure activities that would be likely regulated today.

Twenty-two people lost their lives in the Whakaari explosion. There were eight other deaths after the 2014 adventure regime came in, during a decade where tourism grew by 55 percent.

Following the findings, WorkSafe will undergo an independent review to assess whether its response to the eruption was adequate and appropriate, and if further steps should have been taken.

"It will also identify whether any changes to WorkSafe's systems, processes and practices are necessary or desirable."

David Laurenson QC has been appointed to undertake the review with findings expected to be handed in in May.

Further policy work is expected to be carried out in two stages.

The first includes immediately looking at how to address the regulatory regime's limitations around natural hazard risk management and audit processes by changing how audits are undertaken, strengthening WorkSafe's leadership role and adding specific requirements to how safety audit standards consider natural hazard risks.

The second involves a first-principles review of the regime starting in 2023 which would examine the viability of the third-party certification.

"This review has found that risks from natural hazards are pervasive across the adventure activity sector. Significant groups of activities were identified as having a medium to high risk of catastrophic harm as a result of natural hazards. These findings suggest that further work is necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic harm caused by natural hazards," the review said.

"While the regime has improved safety standards in the sector since its implementation, this review has identified a number of areas for improvement to better mitigate the inherent risks associated with natural hazards and strengthen the regime more generally. Further policy work will need to be developed to support the implementation of any proposed changes."