By Craig Carlyle, Maintenance Transformations Ltd

For many of us, the announcement from WorkSafe that they were taking multiple defendants to court for alleged health and safety failings relating to the White Island eruption seemed like an insensitive over-reach. How could the defendants, some who were valiant parts of the rescue efforts, be prosecuted over a natural event? However, as we learn more from WorkSafe’s prospective, the alleged failings in the chain of responsibility, the case serves as a tragic reminder of the interaction between organisations PCBUs (persons conducting a business or undertaking) when it comes to health and safety.

The responsibilities of PCBUs extend beyond ensuring the health and safety of their own workers. Businesses are often interacting with other companies, as contractors, sub-contractors, service providers, leasee’s or, as in the case of White Island, downstream business arrangements. In events like the White Island eruption in New Zealand, where multiple layers of PCBUs were involved, understanding your interactive responsibilities becomes crucial.

PCBUs must collaborate and coordinate their efforts to ensure the health and safety of workers and others affected. This includes ensuring risk assessments and control measures are undertaken. The tragic eruption of White Island in December 2019 serves as a stark reminder of the significance of interactive responsibilities among PCBUs. In this incident, landowners, tour operators, aviation companies, scientific services, and other entities were involved. The lessons learned highlight the need for ensuring health and safety responsibilities are met right through the chain.In industry the same requirements apply. As a simple industrial example, let’s say you engage a crane company to lift equipment above your factory. Even though you are not expected to know how to operate the crane, you cannot disengage your responsibilities for the safe operation of the crane, and should the worst occur, your involvement will be tested. In this example your relationship with the crane company includes knowing what hazards and controls the crane company brings to your site, and what hazards and controls exist on your site that the crane company workers need to be aware of. The resulting controls for the lifting operation may include (for instance) ensuring nothing is lifted above your workers. In this example you must hold the crane company accountable for meeting its health and safety obligations while on your site.

At no stage is the approach of hiding your head in the sand defensible. The acid test is ‘You are as responsible for as far as you have the ability to influence’.

The White Island eruption serves as a tragic reminder of the interactive responsibilities of PCBUs during shared activities or workspaces; we cannot contract out our responsibilities. Your own situation may be a variant on this theme, but the test in court is just the same.