NZ Outdoor Guiding Industry Failing To Manage Risks Properly

A reporter writing for the New Zealand Herald newspaper has used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a report into the death of Anton Wopereis on New Year’s Day 2008.

Mr Wopereis, aged 54, was an an internationally qualified guide contracted to Aspiring Guides. He died after falling from the Summit Rocks of Mt Cook when a slab of snow and ice collapsed. He and his client were attached by a 60m rope to an anchor fixed to the mountainside.

For an unknown reason he chose to climb above the anchor without asking his client to belay him, if he had have done this he wouldn’t have fallen for the full 60 metre rope length before coming to rest below his client. The absence of work safety assessment detailing where and where there was a need to belay seemed to be central to the criticism made in the report. According to Martin Jonston’s article in the Herald:

“the report says, the likelihood of serious harm is “factored in” by the industry as part of an approach based on risk management. This “tacit failure” to fully comply with the Health and Safety in Employment Act is a “lost opportunity” for the industry.

But guides say eliminating all the hazards would kill the industry.
“There needs to be recognition that there is inherent risk in adventure tourism, and managing those risks as opposed to trying to eliminate them,” said Aspiring Guides’ chief guide, Whitney Thurlow.
“It’s easy to eliminate them totally and not go. But we choose to go; we choose to put ourselves in harm’s way

The report … highlights the conflict between the requirement for employers and the self-employed to take all practicable steps to prevent harm – and the risks that are part of the attraction of adventure activities such as mountaineering.
A department spokesman said this issue would be covered by the review of adventure and outdoor tourism ordered by Prime Minister John Key and scheduled to report by March 31.”

Our readers will remember that this report has already been pushed back by two months because of what looked like a lack of ‘buy-in’ by the adventure tourism industry, most of whom appear to be incredibly resistant to change, despite 7 prosecutions being brought during 2009 for deaths and injuries within the industry. As far as we are aware every company that has been prosecuted has ‘escaped’ with a fine and all are still trading, some have even announced expansion plans. No-one has yet served time for corporate manslaughter.

Why should they change? the money is still rolling in even though people are being killed and injured.

And so long as the present regulatory system persists we forecast that the situation will not change. Adventure tourism brings billions of dollars into the New Zealand economy every year and no-one wants to risk upsetting that applecart. But nobody seems to be asking will more visitors will come if the industry is considered to be safer?. There is an lost opportunity here for NZ to lead the world in safe and exciting adventure tourism.

Three outcomes we’d like to see from the report are

  • Better protection of employees and the public through by more comprehensive and well managed risk control strategies, bench marked against international standards. These procedures should  be reviewed regularly to ensure they’re effective.
  • Less reliance on ACC to pick up the tab and more muscle exerted by insurance companies on higher risk activities
  • Heavier penalities for operators who fail to manage risks properly, including closing down operators who are considered to be unsafe and imposing manslaughter charges where applicable. Revenue raised through fines should be returned to the industry to further improve safety standards.

See also:
Emily Jordans father writes to John Key: Safety regulations are ‘third world’
Alpine dangers easy to overlook – Mount Cook’s death toll well over 200 climbers and trampers (Feb 2007)

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One thought on “NZ Outdoor Guiding Industry Failing To Manage Risks Properly

  1. I find this article disturbing, as it overlooks the key points made in the assertions it is trying to refute. Risks in mountaineering, as in the majority of outdoor pursuits, are both inseparable from the rewards those pursuits offer, and immune to management.

    Any alpine guide or mountaineer knows why Anton didn’t request a belay from his client. Alpine climbing frequently puts one in the position of taking steps which reduce one set of hazards at the expense of increasing the exposure to another set of risks. At the end of the day, we can eliminate all risks from outdoor activities by staying home, or, we can take risks and explore the world and ourselves. The choice is that stark.

    No legislation, compliance with codes, or even extreme competence, can eliminate the hazards to which anyone – guide, client or amateur – is exposed to in an attempt to ascend Mt Cook. Of the desired outcomes listed above, 1) is already in place; 2) opens up a Pandora’s box; and the framework for 3) has been in place for many years, and hasn’t been deemed appropriate to apply yet.

    Let’s acknowledge that the great outdoors offers challenges, risks and consequences, and allow that it is, and should be, allowable for individuals to accept those risks, either as a professional, amateur or client. There are many ways of throwing one’s life away; dying is only one.

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