WorkSafe's role in Whakaari eruption in spotlight as operators seek reduced culpability

New Zealand's workplace health and safety agency accused of giving mixed signals

WorkSafe's role in Whakaari eruption in spotlight as operators seek reduced culpability

WorkSafe New Zealand is being accused of misleading the helicopter tour operators involved in the deadly Whakaari / White Island eruption in 2019 over the safety risks of tours.

The lawyer of the three helicopter tour operators involved says WorkSafe NZ and government agencies said there was a "safe way to take tours to the island…. when plainly that was wrong, my clients were wrong, WorkSafe were wrong, other government agencies were wrong," said Fletcher Pilditch as quoted by Radio New Zealand.

"And of course they were operating in an environment where not only there was tacit acceptance of that risk by all, there was active encouragement that they should expand and take more visitors to the island."

Pilditch was representing Volcanic Air Safaris, Kahu NZ, and Aerius, which entered guilty pleas to health and safety failings last year.

They are each facing fines of up to $1.5 million and reparations, but their representatives said they are unable to pay potential fines due to their financial status.

In the case of Volcanic Air Safaris, the company has been in liquidation since 2022 and does not have enough cash and assets to meet creditors' claims, according to the RNZ report. It is offering, however, $300,000 in reparations.

White Island Tours safety

Meanwhile, another operator White Island Tours also pointed out WorkSafe's involvement over the tragedy as the company argued for less culpability and a reduction in fines.

"[WorkSafe] is in the awkward position of being a participant in events, of being an unprosecuted party which failed itself in spectacular fashion, the impact of this and other mitigating factors materially reduces White Island's culpability," said lawyer Richard Raymond as quoted by RNZ.

Raymond noted that WorkSafe's submission of $1.2 million as a starting point in fines also fails to recognise the "unusual circumstances" of the eruption.

He added that WIT also had no reason to believe that it had issues in the way it ran its tours as they were consistently passing audits as an adventure tourism operator.

WIT, which also previously pleaded guilty, is offering $5 million in reparations.

A representative from WorkSafe defended that they accept their own involvement in the case, but noted differences on how the matter should be weighed, as well as the mathematical assessment in culpability.

WorkSafe also underwent a review in 2021 in order to enhance its powers following the White Island disaster.

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