The fitting of propeller guards and other safety measures were among practicable steps a commercial dolphin watching operator failed to take prior to a potentially fatal accident involving a passenger, Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) says.
Picton-based tourism operator Dolphin Watch and Nature Eco Tours Limited was today convicted and fined $55,000 in the Blenheim District Court after pleading guilty last month to two charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act (HSEA). It was also ordered to pay reparation of $80,000 to the victim of the accident, Australian Doctor Catherine Carlyle, and legal fees and court costs of $2278. The combined penalties total $137,278.
The company was charged under (sections 15 and 50(1)(a) of the HSEA), with failure to take all practicable steps to ensure that no action or inaction of any employee while at work harms any other person; and under (sections 6 and 50(1)(a) of the HSEA) for failure to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of employees while at work. Each charge carried a maximum fine of $250,000.
MNZ Manager of Maritime Investigations, Steve van der Splinter, said the charges were laid following a detailed investigation into the 10 December 2010 accident during a commercial dolphin swimming trip in Ruakaka Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound. Ms Carlyle, an Australian doctor, suffered potentially life-threatening injuries after becoming entangled in the propeller of the Dolphin Watch vessel Delphinus while entering the water to swim with the dolphins.
"The master of Delphinus put the vessel in neutral and signalled it was safe for the passengers to hop in the water by sounding the horn. The guide then instructed passengers to enter the water. But when Ms Carlyle entered the water, the port propeller was still turning and her legs became entangled.”
Mr van der Splinter said Ms Carlyle’s legs were severely lacerated in the accident, with her right femoral artery cut, causing major blood loss – a potentially life-threatening injury. She suffered multiple fractures and cut ligaments, and had needed multiple surgeries and skin grafts.
“MNZ’s subsequent investigation revealed there were a number of practicable steps that the company could have taken to ensure Ms Carlyle, employees and other passengers weren’t put at risk. Despite already identifying the propellers as a risk in their hazard register, they hadn’t taken any measures to determine how long the propellers would continue to turn once the vessel was placed in neutral.
"Furthermore, despite identifying the hazard, the company took no practicable steps to control it. These steps could have included placing ‘prop-guards’ around the propellers, or having a locked barrier to prevent swimmers from entering the water while the propellers were still turning. Fitting a brake to stop the propellers turning once the vessel was in neutral or shutting down the engines before people got in the water were other practical measures that could have been taken.”
Mr van der Splinter said the company told investigators they had inherited the safety system from the previous owners and assumed that it was adequate.
It’s an important reminder to operators that they need to continually check and refine their safety systems to make sure they are up to date and that all hazards are identified and mitigated. It’s not enough to ‘assume’ things are safe just because someone else says they are.”
He said MNZ had since been in contact other similar commercial operators promoting the use of propeller guards and other safety measures to protect swimmers.