Balancing harbour access with wharf safety

It should be assumed Port Otago Ltd did not take the decision to close two Dunedin wharves, and review the status of a third, lightly.

The company has been responsible in its dealings with the public and supports community events and causes.

Nevertheless, the loss of access to the harbour is to be regretted and should be questioned.

The immediate assumption when Otago Salmon Anglers put up a notice saying its fishing contest was cancelled ``due to Port Otago rescinding access to all their wharves'' was that ``health and safety'' reasons were behind the closure. Sure enough, this was confirmed.

Given the importance of safety and the strengthening of health and safety laws - directors being liable and fines for failures having escalated - companies are correct to take the matter extremely seriously.

Potential risks and hazards need to be considered and decisions need to be made.

In this case, the public are told the wharves are sometimes used seven days a week. Members of the public moving among trucks unloading and staff working just was not acceptable.

That is hard to argue against. Safety is serious, and the public in the midst of a working wharf is risky. But just how much are the wharves used?

How much trouble would it be to close the wharves when ships were in, leaving them free for the public at other times.

The port company has for years managed access. At times the wharves are closed and at other times not.

What it is now doing is taking the easy way out. Close the wharves and its operations are simplified. But this at the cost of people able to fish across significant parts of the harbour basin, of fishers without boats being able to enjoy their sport.

Access to lake, river and sea front should be the public's right whenever possible. Clearly, this cannot take place inside Port Otago's Port Chalmers operations. And there will be times when harbour basin wharves need to be off-limits. But every effort should be made to safeguard longstanding practices.

Interestingly, almost all the port company's directors do not come from Dunedin. A sceptic could say they, therefore, have less invested in the rights of the Dunedin public than local directors might.

Perhaps, though, that is unfair. This sort of initiative is likely to come from staff. Closing wharves completely will be convenient for many of them.

There are, as well, too many occasions when landowners still cite the health and safety excuse to keep people off land.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 has not significantly changed the obligations farmers have to ensure the safety of recreational visitors to their land.

All that is necessary is that visitors given permission to enter are warned of any specific hazards they would not normally expect to encounter.

Examples include tree-felling, blasting, earthmoving machinery or pest shooting or poisoning. This applies only to the route or near the route the visitor will be using.

The farmer is not liable for all the usual farm hazards including electric fences, bluffs, wasps, nor is the farmer liable after unauthorised entry.

Similarly, there would be an obligation on the port company to warn visitors to its wharves when additional work is going on which might create a risk of harm. But if the wharves are empty, the sheds are shut and all is quiet, then the health and safety reason appears hollow.

Several fishers were on the wide and strong concrete T/U wharf in the pleasant sunshine of yesterday. Even without cones, there was clear separation between them and, at one stage, trucks being loaded by forklifts from the sheds on the other side of the wharf.

The public was not moving among loading trucks. No ship was in.

Companies do have social responsibilities, and all the more so when they are publicly owned, like Port Otago, and operate beside public areas like the harbour.

While it will take management, Port Otago should make the effort to balance its safety requirements with public access.


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