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Fury over outdoor ed audit lapse

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 18/05/2014

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High-profile outdoor education operators - including the centre where seven people died in a canyoning accident - are furious a government agency misrepresented their safety status.

According to a public register, Outward Bound and the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre were last week operating with expired safety certificates. Both provided paperwork to the Sunday Star-Times showing they had passed audits and demanded changes to the register, administered by WorkSafe NZ, which amended the register late Friday.

Stuart White, programme director adventure activities, said the organisation "regrets any confusion that may have arisen". He said the register relied on information provided by the relevant audit and certification body and "there has been a shortage of organisations available to carry out audits in 2014".

Skills Active, which recently purchased the adventure tourism safety audit programme OutdoorsMark from Outdoors NZ, said last week it was dealing with a backlog of about 400 applications. Operators were rushing to beat a November 1 deadline after which it would be illegal to be unregistered. However, some operators, including OPC and Outward Bound, had been undergoing voluntary safety audits for years.

Graham Seatter, chief executive of the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre which offers courses on Great Barrier Island and Tongariro (site of the 2008 Mangatepopo canyoning tragedy), said he was "very disappointed" at the misrepresentation of OPC's situation. "To say safety is paramount in our minds is an understatement."

He said the Mangatepopo tragedy, where six year 12 students and a teacher were killed in 2008, was ever present. "You're always thinking of it. It just makes you realise how bad things can happen and you need to make sure they don't."

While the WorkSafe NZ register last week showed OPC's registrations had expired in December last year (Great Barrier Island) and on May 3 (Tongariro), the former had in fact been certified until December this year, and the latter was audited on April 14. "We were found to be compliant in all 77 areas of the audit."

Outward Bound school director Rob MacLean was "extremely disappointed" at the situation. "Safety is incredibly important . . . this very, very unfairly represents the risk management systems at not just Outward Bound, but a number of very reputable organisations in our industry and I just don't think it's acceptable. I think we're being tarred with the same brush as operators who haven't got organised and haven't got proactive.

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"Our audit is good for three years, but in order to maintain that we need to submit a statement every year to say we conform to the best of our knowledge." He said requests for the necessary paperwork had proved fruitless. "What we've got here is a system that's actually broken and it's sending false information - it's a reputational risk for us."

The registration status of 11 operators was listed as expired last week, prior to the Star-Times queries to WorkSafe NZ.

Dave Watson, Marlborough Sounds Adventure company director, said his organisation had requested an audit from Outdoors NZ, but was still waiting. He said the public didn't appear to take that much notice of an operator's audit status. "Their perception is if the doors are open, it's business as usual . . . eventually we'll get the right outcome, we all want the right thing, but how they're going to manage it? That's the biggie."

- Sunday Star Times

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