Francesca Rudkin: WorkSafe seems heavy-handed in White Island charges

The Sunday Session with Francesca Rudkin

05-12-2020 • 4 mins

On Monday, WorkSafe New Zealand filed charges against 13 parties in relation to the Whakaari/White Island eruption on December 9th last year, which tragically killed 22 people, and left 25 others with severe life altering injuries.
According to WorkSafe NZ, the charges conclude the most extensive and complex investigation they‘ve ever undertaken.
The investigation took a look at all organisations associated with taking tours to White Island, whether or not they were operating that day, to check that prior to that day they were meeting their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. It didn’t take in to consideration the rescue or recovery attempt. They concluded that 13 parties did not meet those obligations.
Worksafe has done a rigorous job, and that’s absolutely the right thing to do. We must learn from this tragedy, and do everything we can to make sure it never happens again.
But in some cases, their approach seems heavy handed.
Two parties who’ve publically acknowledged they’re among those charged were closely involved in rescue efforts immediately after the eruption.
Mark Law, owner of helicopter company Kahu Helicopters NZ, along with two other Kahu crews were among the first responders who flew to the island after it erupted, helping evacuate a number of survivors.
Also in the air that day, and another charged party, was Tim Barrow from Volcanic Air, who also contributed to the rescue effort.
Mark Law has been vocal about his response to the charges, none of which relate directly to the disaster itself, calling them “a bit wanting”. One of the charges relates to equipment not being properly maintained, another was that the company failed to implement an asbestos plan for a building on White Island that may or may not contain asbestos. He has been charged with not providing due care to passengers.
In light of what happened – important stuff.
But surely, as Mark Law was not conducting tours on White Island the day it erupted, a warning, a fine, and the opportunity to fix issues would have been an appropriate response? Suspend his operation even – if he still had one. Mark, like so many in Whakatane, has lost his livelihood since the tragedy.
It feels as if the whole adventure tourism industry has been put on watch by this investigation – and that’s not a bad thing.
But I wonder how much self-reflection has taken place at WorkSafe as well. According to Laws, he’d owned his helicopter company for 22 years and was only been visited by WorkSafe once during that time. A rather relaxed approach to a high risk industry.
I’m not the only one wondering if prosecuting these pilots is an overreaction –over 84,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org asking the Prime Minister to stop the prosecution of the pilots who saved lives on Whakaari / White Island.
The petition is asking for recognition of the extraordinary efforts of these men and others who flew with them, and throw out the charges.
On December 9th last year, Mark and two colleagues, and Tim, all commercial pilots who knew the area, made the decision to fly to White Island on a rescue mission. I know some people think their actions were reckless, foolish and against health and safety regulations - they probably were.
Weirdly, I would have thought it would be this action that was cause for a WorkSafety investigation, and yet, as I said earlier, this investigation did not look at the rescue or recovery operation.
But they did what needed to be done. They went above and beyond to help people desperately in need. I can remember being horrified at the time there was the possibility people were going to be left to suffer – knowing no one came to help them. That’s just not the Kiwi way.
We will have to wait until the preliminary hearing on December 15th to find out more about the charges laid, and whether they are in fact justified, but until then it’s important to...

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