A recently released report into bushfires that tragically injured ultra-marathon competitors in the Kimberley last year provides a graphic reminder that event planners must manage risk or potentially face criminal negligence charges.
BY GRAEME KEMLO
Business events operators would do well to heed the warning of industry experts that not only reputations are at risk from tragedies such as the Kimberly ultra-marathon fire, but “a person conducting a business or undertaking”(PCBU) could face personal liability.
Whether business events are conducted indoors or out, on land or sea, it is deemed a workplace and falls under new legislation introduced this year in most states and known as the model Workplace Health and Safety Act.
Michael Kent is general manager of Avert/Assure – two companies involved in the risk management business: Avert Risk Management Services is a consultancy that provides risk management advice and assessment to businesses who provide services to the general public, while its sister company, Assure Event Safety Consultants, provides event safety services.
He says the Kimberley example was a human tragedy that is still fresh in everybody’s minds, and while large enterprises would be well aware of the harmonisation of differing statutes across the country, smaller players may not realise the implications of the new WHS Act.
Apart from the risk to a company’s public reputation, the new laws mean failure to exercise due diligence as a director, CEO, MD or GM of a “business or undertaking” could attract large fines. And, it is not just focused on a company’s employees. Employees of clients on a famil – a popular practice in the business event sector – need to be kept safe by all those who host them at the destination.
Avert/Assure is in the front line of managing the risks associated with public events. Mr Kent says one of the first obligations of those providing event services is to ensure they understand the risks by communicating early and often with emergency services and local authorities who know the area intimately.
His firm is doing just that right now as it has just been appointed to manage safety in a major public event scheduled for next May. It is an historic re-enactment of the first crossing of the Blue Mountains that not only involves about 50 people making the trek through bushland and on some public roads, but it is scheduled to include 20 children aged between 10 and 12 years.
“We will have to realistically consider whether it is safe to have children on the trek, some of which will be through rugged bush and across creeks, so we are navigating the route ourselves in four wheel drives as part of our assessment. We also need to know that we can manage traffic on public roads, and get people out of the bush in an emergency with special vehicles or ambulances.
“This is a pretty high profile event in terms of its scale… but we have a robust approach to this where we make a considered assessment of the realities of what can happen,” he says, indicating that it will take Avert/Assure a few months to put together the risk and safety plans.
At the coalface of action-based business events activities is Brett Hollis, owner of Big Stick Adventures, one of the busiest operators in corporate team-building and incentive experiences in Australia, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. His company was named a BRW magazine Fast Starter in 2009. Big Stick Adventures has customised reward and adventure activities for a veritable who’s who of local and international corporations. He has had CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, BDMs and plenty of ordinary people riding all manner of vehicles – from mountain bikes to rally cars to expensive sports vehicles to golf carts. He’s had them on land, sea and air, but he has always managed the risk.
Increasingly he says companies who entrust their team to outside organisations for motivation or reward demand full and detailed OH&S risk analysis plans.
“They want to know that we have analysed the risk of personal injury, fire, flood, wild weather… it is part of our permit process when we conduct events on public land and locally Parks Victoria are quite stringent.
“We have adventure activity standards that everyone needs to abide by, but we tend to go above and beyond, given that we often deal with quite high profile clients,” Mr Hollis says.
“In fire-risk areas we are on the fire alert system with the Department of Sustainability and Environment and the Country Fire Authority, so we get a phone call and email notifications of fire outbreaks, burn-offs or weather factors.”
While operating along the Great Ocean Road might suggest wild water adventures, his adrenalin adventures come in strictly measured doses – sea kayaks, often paddled by novices, operate in the relative calm of flat water, rivers and creeks, even though participants have completed a waiver form.
“We rely on participants to be 100 per cent honest with us about their abilities or their medical fitness,” he said.
But when there are 9400 participants, as there was on an international incentive for Amway China, all the risks multiply significantly.
Also quite recently, Mr Hollis and his team were asked to run a Sydney Harbour Bridge walk. This needed the bridge to be closed to all traffic for a period over four consecutive days.
“Suddenly our public liability insurance had to be increased from $10 million to $20 million, although we had never had a claim and no incidents,” he said, explaining that he had to complete a 150 page risk analysis and assessment before the relevant authorities would permit the event.
“We had to consult very widely – ambulance, police, fire brigade, the RTA, City of Sydney, City of North Sydney, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority – we had crowd control, traffic control, but we understood it was about understanding all the potential risks and mitigating them.”
Mr Hollis says some companies are very safety conscious, especially those that operate in high-risk industries such as mining, oil and gas or manufacturing. “They have a non-negotiable policy: no horse riding, no mountain bikes, no employee can get into a vehicle that’s not five- star ANCAP rated.”
But not every client operates their business with the same safety culture, and sometimes they will query the price of an activity.
“We have to explain that risk assessment and risk management is built into the price”. Then there’s the corporate who wanted Big Stick to motivate his team with a one-and-a-half km ocean swim off Lorne. Hollis bluntly said “no”.
As with many matters legal, ignorance of the new laws is no excuse. Fortunately industry bodies such as the Victorian Tourism Industry Council provide industry partners with access to business tools including a Crisis Essentials Guide indicating how to prepare for, respond to and recover from a crisis event as well as a list of contacts when preparing for or responding to a crisis.
VTIC with the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania and Queensland Tourism Industry Council have partnered with OAMPS to provide access to a comprehensive tourism and recreation business insurance product tailored to the sector covering public liability, professional indemnity, management liability, property, even B&Bs. They specify a range of activities covered, among them: sightseeing tours, snow activities, 4WD and bushwalking tours, canoeing and kayaking activities, surf schools, kiteboarding instruction, eco and nature based tours.
A parliamentary inquiry on the September 2011 Kimberley Ultramarathon in which a number of competitors were severely burned after being trapped by a bushfire has determined the race organisers did not take all reasonable steps to identify risks prior to the race.
It further found the organisers, Hong Kong-based RacingThePlanet, did not reduce risks or maintain the safety of competitors even though it knew a bushfire was burning nearby.
Two competitors suffered burns to 60 per cent of their bodies while two others received burns to 35 per cent of their bodies. One severely injured competitor, 25-year-old Turia Pitt from New South Wales, is reportedly seeking at least $10 million in damages.
The inquiry was also critical of Tourism WA and its sponsorship arm, Eventscorp, which signed a sponsorship agreement of more than $100,000 with race organisers allegedly without requesting or sighting the company’s risk management plan, and properly assessing the plan.