Russell Blackstock

Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Dead tourists' families plead for stiffer rules

200 international families plead for stiffer New Zealand rules after damning inquest

Families are concerned at the number of young tourists dying or getting injured in workplaces, farms, and in adventure tourism. Inset: Quadbike crash victim Tom Sewell. Photo / Thinkstock
Families are concerned at the number of young tourists dying or getting injured in workplaces, farms, and in adventure tourism. Inset: Quadbike crash victim Tom Sewell. Photo / Thinkstock

When 19-year-old Tom Sewell slung his leg over a quad bike on the first day of his working holiday in New Zealand, he had no helmet, no supervision and no instructions on how to ride the bike.

As he drove across the Katikati kiwifruit orchard, he turned too sharply, overcorrected, and ran the bike into a tree. He was thrown forward into the tree with force, and died in hospital from head injuries.

Now, after a damning UK coroner's finding, Sewell has become the new face of international concern about New Zealand's perceived disregard for safety.

Sewell's parents, who live on the outskirts of London, have publicly pleaded for New Zealand to tighten up safety regulations. "We are not having a go at the people of New Zealand," his mother Linda said last night. "We have been there and it is a wonderful country. But people going there should be aware that there are not as robust health and safety rules as there are in countries like Britain."

About 200 families from around the world have written to PM John Key demanding better control, monitoring and regulation of the tourism industry.

They are concerned at the numbers of young visitors to New Zealand who are being killed and injured in our workplaces and farms, on our roads and in our much-vaunted adventure tourism industry.

The Government has already set up an Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, which is expected to report back next month with wide-ranging recommendations for improving New Zealand's workplace fatalities and serious injury record.

And new Minister of Labour Simon Bridges said New Zealand's reputation as a safe country to visit and work in was very important. A separate Crown Agency is to be set up by the start of December, to focus solely on health and safety in the workplace. The new agency was prompted by the Pike River mining disaster, but will encompass many of the working holiday and adventure tourism operations that are increasingly damaging New Zealand's reputation overseas.

Though a spokeswoman, Key said: "Visitors to New Zealand can be assured that we take safety extremely seriously. New Zealand is renowned for its adventure tourism activities and, while we will always try to mitigate this risk, it can never be eliminated."

In a ruling reported last month, English Coroner Richard Travers found Tom Sewell died in a Polaris 4WD quadbike crash in 2008. He found the death was accidental, caused by a blunt head trauma - but he also found there were no written instructions and no crash helmets, indicating problems with health and safety.

His findings reiterated those of New Zealand Coroner Wallace Bain, who made nine recommendations stemming from Sewell's death. He recommended rural employers have a clear written policy on the use of farm vehicles, making helmets compulsory, having orchard workers supervised and given a health and safety induction. Nearly five years after Sewell's death, the Government has not enforced change.

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment health and safety operations manager Ona De Rooy said the ministry had set in place a national programme and supported the coroner's recommendations.

That's not enough for parents who have rallied to draw the world's attention to the perceived laxity.

Speaking from her home in Surrey, Linda Sewell said she wanted other parents to be aware of the "poor" health and safety measures in New Zealand.

"I last spoke to Tom two days before he died. He called us to say he was on a bus and had found a bit of casual work on an orchard in the Bay of Plenty, and he sounded really happy. I thought, 'How lovely'.

"I never imagined that an orchard could be such a dangerous place."

Her former MP, Sir Humfrey Malins, had written to the NZ High Commissioner in London two years ago on the family's behalf expressing concern - but had not received a response.

Linda said that silence was "very disappointing". The family would now be writing to Key, asking him to adopt the UK Coroner's safety recommendations.

The international letter-writing campaign to draw attention to New Zealand health and safety problems is spearheaded by two other British dads: Chris Coker, who lost his son Brad in the Fox Glacier plane crash, and Chris Jordan, who lost his daughter Emily Jordan in a riverboarding tragedy. Chris Coker has set up a website to warn people about the risks in New Zealand.

Brad would have turned 27 tomorrow. "I couldn't go to work for nearly a year and now I go to work and see an empty chair," he said. "Why is it my job as a grieving parent to fight the terrible injustice of my son's death because it was preventable?"

He is calling for changes to ACC. "It will not even cover the cost of bringing a body home."

- Herald on Sunday

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