An employee who was seriously injured falling through an open hatch on passenger vessel, The Spirit of Queenstown, has led to tourism company, Southern Discoveries Limited, being fined $160,000, and ordered to pay costs by the Queenstown District Court.

The Court also ordered Southern Discoveries to pay approximately $35,000 in reparations for emotional harm and consequential loss to the employee.

Southern Discoveries pleaded guilty to one charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 of exposing an individual to a risk of death or serious injury.

Southern Discoveries conducts tourism activities in Queenstown and the Milford Sounds. The Spirit of Queenstown is one of two passenger vessels that operates scenic cruises across Lake Wakatipu, between St Omer Wharf and Mt Nicholas Farm.

The incident occurred on 27 February 2020 when the employee was cleaning the main saloon of the vessel. While moving from one area to another, they stepped back and fell directly through an open hatch, landing on their back, at the bottom of the hold, 2.1 metres below. They suffered a back injury. The hatch had been left open by a colleague the night before and had failed to be closed during morning preparations.

Maritime NZ’s investigation highlighted a series of failures that led to the incident.

Southern Discoveries had identified the hatches as hazards in its Hazard Register and induction training was in place regarding their safe use. However, while Southern Discoveries employees working at Mt Nicholas Farm received a health and safety induction for the farm, they were not inducted on safe ways of working on The Spirit of Queenstown.

Moreover, while there were orange safety cones on the vessel, these were only used to signal the hatches were open when contractors (such as electricians) were working on board and the hatchways were in use. In addition, the employee was not aware, or told by their colleagues, that the hatch was open. 

Southern Discoveries has since changed its practices to address the issues identified by Maritime NZ.

Maritime NZ Southern Compliance Manager, Domonic Venz, said the risk of falling from height through open hatches is a well-known issue on ships. 

To protect those on board, hatches need to be securely closed when not in use.  When hatches are open, there needs to be appropriate safety procedures to manage that risk, including the use of physical barriers and effective communication to others to ensure they are aware that the hatch is open.  

“We encourage all businesses to proactively protect their workers and passengers from harm so that they return home unhurt,” Mr Venz said.

Mr Venz said the incident had severe consequences for the employee and there were many actions Southern Discoveries could have taken to prevent harm.

“This is a powerful example of New Zealand employers’ responsibilities to provide good workplace training and safe work practices so that their employees can work safely in any part of the business,” Mr Venz said.

Source: Maritime New Zealand