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WorkSafe files charges against 13 parties in wake of Whakaari/White Island tragedy

WorkSafe has filed charges against 13 parties as part of its investigation into last December’s White Island eruption, which killed 22 people. 

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It comes as 10 organisations and three individuals face charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act Source: 1 NEWS

Ten parties are facing criminal charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act and are facing a maximum fine of $1.5 million.

Three individuals are also being criminally charged as directors or individuals who were required to exercise due diligence to ensure the company met its health and safety obligations.

These charges each carry a maximum fine of $300,000.

On December 9, 2019, just after 2pm, 47 people were on White Island/Whakaari when it erupted.

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Chief operating officer Phil Parkes rejected Breakfast host John Campbell's questions over conflict of interest. Source: Breakfast

Twenty-two people lost their lives and a further 22 were seriously injured.

At a press conference today, Worksafe's chief operating Officer, Phil Parkes, said the "deeply tragic event was unexpected, but that does not mean it was unforseeable".

He said the victims, both workers and visitors alike all had "a reasonable expectation that they could go to the island, knowing that those organisations involved had done all they were required to do, to look after their health and safetly".

"But had they?" he asked. 

"That's the question Worksafe was mandated to investigate," Parkes said. 

He said the 10 organisations are each charged that "they failed to do what was reasonablly practicable to ensure the health and safety of workers and in this case, visitors". 

"The three individuals each face a single charge that as officers of the company, they failed to excercise due diligence in ensuring that the organisation was meeting it's health and safety oblications," Parkes said. 

In total, 28 people were directly involved in the investigation which Parkes said was "significantly larger and more complex than any investigation we have undertaken before".

“We have never stood up a team this big for any investigation before.”

He said the focus was on events leading up to the tragedy, not rescue and recovery efforts.

Victims were told early this morning that charges were being laid, Parkes said.

Charged parties will appear in the Auckland District Court on December 15. Details of the charges cannot be revealed because they are before the court. 

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Cellphone video taken by one of the 21 people who died was aired on Australia’s 60 Minutes programme. Source: 1 NEWS

WorkSafe did not name those charged as they may seek suppression on their first appearance in court, the agency said in a letter sent to victims and their families, however Volcanic Air confirmed to 1 NEWS today that it is one of the parties charged. 

Volcanic Air is a Rotorua-based company and run tours to White Island. At the time of the eruption, there was a Volcanic Air helicopter on the island with one pilot and four passengers.

When the alarm was raised, two Volcanic Air helicopters joined two choppers from Kahu Helicopters in Whakatane to bring 12 people back from the island.

A statement from Volcanic Air said the details of the charges "was not immediately available".

"We will take some time to consider the charges before making any comment."

In addition, Jacinda Ardern today confirmed at her post-Cabinet press conference that GNS Science and National Emergency Management (NEMA) had been charged.

Ardern said those agencies were not seeking name suppression and were being "fully transparent amongst those charged".

GNS said in a statement that they have not yet been advised of the nature of the charges.

White Island Tours Ltd also confirmed in a statement that they had been charged with two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act. 

"No employees or directors of the company have been charged," Paul Quinn, chairman of White Island Tours Limited, said.

Following the Whakaari/White Island eruption, the Workplace Relations and Safety Minister directed the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to undertake a targeted review the adventure activities regulatory regime.

In his comments today, Parkes appealed to businesses and workplaces to make improvements to the "way your work is done in order to avoid "another tragedy of this magnitude". 

"It would be an appropriate legacy for the 22 people who lost their lives on Whakaari if we could make this happen."