An independent review of the Whakaari / White Island WorkSafe handling that led to the deadly eruption is months overdue.
The December 2019 explosion claimed 22 lives.
Shortly after WorkSafe’s Whakaari investigation team filed charges against 13 parties last year, Labor Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood announced that WorkSafe’s own conduct would be reviewed by David Laurenson QC.
This follows a separate earlier investigation of adventure activities, which indicated that WorkSafe did not have direct supervision of the tour operators, but relied on external auditors.
He also said that adventure activities had been a low priority and there was a lack of engagement with operators and law enforcement.
Now the post-review of WorkSafe is still being finalized, five months after the initial deadline.
When asked why, Minister Michael Wood gave a written statement to RNZ, saying: “I understand it is practically complete.”
“David Laurenson QC requested more time due to the complexity and volume of information that needed to be evaluated. Of course, I would have liked it to be done faster, but it is an independent review, so it is important to maintain that independence.”
Wood hoped the findings and recommendations would be made public once the government has considered them.
Attorney Stacey Shortall, co-author of the book New Zealand Occupational Health and Safety: Know the Law, hope there is a quick reply.
“MBIE [the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment] undertook the regulatory regime review for adventure activities and of course MBIE has the oversight role for WorkSafe. All these entities and agencies are interconnected, so I think the minister’s decision to commission an independent review is a very good step. “
He said WorkSafe was expected to regulate and crack down on industries, creating tension.
The Whakaari eruption has made it even more complex.
WorkSafe is pursuing the largest prosecution in its history – against seven tourism companies, the owners of Buttles Island, the National Emergency Management Agency and Crown researchers, GNS Science.
At the same time, WorkSafe’s own behavior before the eruption is being reviewed.
Some have argued that this criticism should be broader, but Shortall said, “That then leads directly to challenges with ongoing processing and coronary research that is also underway.”
“It gets very annoying in terms of how all these competing lines of work are handled at the same time.”
University of Otago Senior Lecturer Lesley Gray, who specializes in disaster-related health risks, hopes the findings will have far-reaching consequences.
“At the time of the Whakaari / White Island eruption, there were somewhere in the region of 300 operators in New Zealand on adventure activities,” he told RNZ.
“So there will be significant interest from many different operators.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment said its priority was to update victims and their families on the progress of the WorkSafe review, before saying anything publicly.
WorkSafe declined to comment.
Together, the two departments have budgeted more than $ 18 million over four years for their response to the eruption.
The WorkSafe investigation last year cost just $ 5.5 million and all defendants have pleaded not guilty.