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Whakaari Island eruption: Lessons from the WHS prosecution

12 March 2024

2 min read

#Workplace Relations & Safety

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Whakaari Island eruption: Lessons from the WHS prosecution

A significant work health and safety prosecution in New Zealand, which arose from the catastrophic volcanic euption on Whakaari Island, sends a strong message to all landowners who licence access to tour operators regarding their duty of care under safety laws, as well as those persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) that operate tours in high-risk environments.

The eruption in 2019, which resulted in the deaths of 22 people, occurred when more than 40 tourists and guides were on the island managed by Whakaari Management. It followed on from a similar eruption in 2016.

Whakaari Management was charged with being a PCBU with management and control of a workplace. The company argued unsuccessfully that it did not have control over any relevant workplace on the island. By contrast, the Court found that Whakaari Management, in licensing access to tour operators and obtaining advice from the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd (GNS) as to risks from the volcano, could and did exercise practical control over the tour operator’s workplaces, even if it did not direct or influence the activities of the staff and customers of those tour operators.

The Court found that Whakaari Management breached its duty of care by relying solely on the information from GNS without assessing its relevance. The information, which was related to GNS scientific staff and not tourists, was also found by the Court to have been passed to Whakaari Management in an “ad hoc, infrequent, unstructured, informal and incomplete” manner. Further, it was apparent that no review of Whakaari Management’s risk assessment of the island took place after the 2016 eruption.

Whakaari Management was fined NZ$1,045,000 and ordered to pay a total of NZ$4.88 million in reparations to the families of the deceased and to injured victims.

Tour operators were also convicted and fined, including:

  • White Island Tours, which was fined NZ$517,000 and ordered to pay NZ$5 million in reparations
  • Volcanic Air Safaris, which was fined NZ$506,000 and ordered to NZ$330,000 in reparations
  • Aerius, which was fined NZ$290,000
  • Kahu New Zealand, which was fined NZ$196,000.

GNS was also convicted after pleading guilty, and ordered to pay a fine of NZ$54,000. Although scientists employed by GNS who were taken to the island were aware of the risks of eruption and mandatory exclusion zones, this information was not adequately communicated to the helicopter contractors who flew the scientists to the island. No scientists or helicopter contractors were on the island on the day of the initial eruption, although some visited in the week following.

If you have any questions regarding this article, please get in touch with a member of our team below.

The information in this article is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavour to provide accurate and timely information, we do not guarantee that the information in this article is accurate at the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future.

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