Topic: Rock House Blues by Debbie McCauley

Topic type:

In October 2012 a fall of 4 metres onto a concrete floor during a rock climbing exercise at The Rock House in Triton Avenue, Mount Maunganui, left my daughter with injuries constituting ‘severe harm’ resulting in her confinement to a wheelchair for four months as a result of the accident. This is our journey.

Looking strange? see an archived version here

The article can be found by clicking on this link: Rock House Blues.

My heart sank when my thirteen year old daughter announced that she was keen to do rock climbing on her forthcoming birthday in the school holidays. My children being anywhere near danger is an anathema to me. Having lost a sister at the age of twenty-one and being the partner of an above knee amputee brings the frailty of life home on quite a regular basis. Putting over-protective mother thoughts aside, I investigated how this could happen for her. She is an adventurous spirit and quite strong – at her previous school where wrestling was part of the curriculum she used to give her male teacher quite a run for his money!

In the ‘Yellow Pages’ I found an advertisement for Triton Avenue’s The Rock House at Mount Maunganui. I phoned and enquired apprehensively about how safe it was and when their least busy time of day was. The woman on the other end of the phone put my fears to rest, telling me how totally safe it was and that their busy time was between 10am and 1pm which included school holidays. Letting her know that we were a group for a birthday party, I also gave her the date and a time of 1pm when they would be quiet and I could be confident that there were enough staff to supervise our children. Checking out their website at work I was further assured by their slogan: ‘safe and fun for every one’.

10 October 2012 (Wednesday): The big day arrived. That morning was occupied trying to keep my hand steady whilst disguising a chocolate cake as requested into a beautifully plump pink pig with jelly snakes for hair, jube eyes and a curly green tail. This, as well as creating all the other requested food items.

At around 1pm we arrived at The Rock House, along with the entourage of birthday attendees in various stages of excitement. There were five thirteen year olds, along with three younger siblings aged ten. My friend and I were the only adults who stayed; she being part owner of an arborist business was confident dealing with climbing equipment whilst I had no experience whatsoever. We paid for entry at 1:19pm.

After being fitted with harnesses, the children were given a demonstration of how to use the equipment, belay each other and lower another person to the floor safely. The demonstrator even showed me the three system carabiner which he told me was ‘fail safe’. That did much to allay my concerns. He buddied up the children to belay each other as they climbed various walls as well as the suspended angled ladder in the middle of the floor which hangs near the entrance to The Rock House. My friend and I were busy belaying the younger children which was quite a nerve-wracking job in itself.

It was approximately 2:50pm and my daughter was climbing up the suspended angled ladder which she had done several times before whilst being belayed by her friend. I’d taken photographs of her on a previous climb and was now standing a few metres away watching her enjoy herself. Having made it to the very top of the ladder, approximately eight metres high, she let go in order to be lowered to the ground, the speed of descent slow and steady as determined by her belayer. Suddenly there was a ‘snapping’ sound. She plummeted four metres onto the bare concrete floor below, landing right foot and leg first. In absolute shock and disbelief, I rushed to her side.

Her descent had been completely silent. There was no scream, there were no tears. This is probably why staff were slow to respond. But surely it was also because two of their number were playing air hockey at the time and the person directly supervising our party of children was watching their game and therefore did not witness the accident.

Still in shock, I couldn’t be sure how serious her injuries were. If she was screaming in pain it would have been easier somehow, but it was like she was trying to ‘save face’. Staff wanted to move her to the nearby couch, most likely out of the way so another waiting climber could use the equipment. My daughter was strong enough to say an emphatic ‘No’. She just wanted to be left where she was and not moved. An ice pack appeared and was applied to her foot while an incident form was filled out. Staff suggested I put her in the car and take her to A & E to get checked out, but from her position on the concrete floor she declined more than once.

We noted that the rope with carabiner had risen to the ceiling and staff went to retrieve it and check the equipment. Noted in the later Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) report was ‘at the time of this accident the Rock House had five on duty, none of whom had the NZOIA (New Zealand Outdoor Instructor Association) Rock Wall Instructor Qualifications’ (p. 3/7). I also noted that the suspended angled ladder was situated near the main entrance and people were often strolling about in the danger zone underneath when climbers were scaling the ladder.

We were going nowhere fast, so using my phone, at 3:01pm my friend called the parent of one of the children in our party, who just happened to have worked as an A & E nurse.  Being only five minutes away, we decided that her assessment was critical. The rest of the children were milling around in shock, not sure what to do. At 3:09pm I briefly left my girl with said friend, went to the counter and bought the other children ice-creams to divert their attention. My daughter’s main concerns seemed to be that everyone was standing around looking at her and that under no circumstances did she want an ambulance.

Our wonderful nurse arrived and after a quick assessment talked to my daughter about the necessity for an ambulance. On hearing that I instantly took control of the decision, looked at the staff member nearest us and said ‘call an ambulance immediately’. After she had telephoned she came back to me and casually commented, ‘They usually only take five minutes to arrive’ - a casual comment which floored me – how many times has an ambulance had to visit here? She had also come back with a small bar and a voucher for a free rock climb which she gave to my daughter.

At this point back-up was sorely needed. Whilst our nurse kept reassuring my daughter I went outside with my friend to call my husband and let him know what had happened. He would need to borrow his mother’s car and come over to transport children. As I heard his voice the only word I could croak out was his name before the reality of the situation kicked in, tears overwhelmed me and I had to hand the phone over to my friend to fill in the details.

The long-awaited ambulance arrived and as they were assessing the stoically seated creature on the floor my husband arrived to take over the rest of our party. No one in our group had continued climbing since the accident. No sane person would!

The nurse’s son was my daughter’s friend and went in the ambulance with her whilst I followed. Speed being no object I actually arrived at the hospital first. After easily finding a park I hurried through the door in the ambulance bay to be by her side. I noticed her lip was bleeding. She had bitten through it because the ambulance ride had been so painful.

Through the busy hallways we were taken into an emergency room where eventually a doctor arrived to assess my daughter who was by this time starting to shake. As a young child she was diagnosed with a ‘lower limb malalignment with increased external tibial torsion and increased femoral neck anteversion’ as well as ‘generalised joint laxity’ and her Orthopaedic Specialist had commented previously that she has a high pain tolerance. When I told the doctor this her reply was ‘everyone says that’. How I was to be proved right. You don’t ask a child with a wonderfully vivid imagination to give a pain score from 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst pain she could ever imagine. She can imagine a lot and so didn’t give it the 10 that she perhaps should have.

From that point on the long wait began. Soon after arrival, at 3:38pm I sent a text to my team leader: ‘Not sure about tmorw. At a&e with ****** after 4m fall at rockhouse’. Next I was told she would need to go to x-ray. Then later we were told that x-ray were refusing to take her because, as she had started having periods, they required a pregnancy test first! I just wanted to get her through to x-ray and get her some pain medication; they could do whatever tests they jolly well wanted to get her there. At 4:04 I replied to my team leader’s text; ‘Not head or spine which is a relief! Waiting 4 xray on foot & hip + sore hand’. At 4:26 I phoned my husband and updated him, still thinking we could possibly be home at some stage soon with her ‘sprained’ ankle neatly bundled up in a bandage. He still had her group of friends there, eating all the party food except the cake. There seemed to be no-one around our isolated room and at 5:18 I phoned my husband again as we were still waiting.

The doctor finally came back: ‘haven’t you been to x-ray yet’ she said. No, we’ve been sitting in this room alone, waiting and trying to be patient. Eventually we made it to x-ray – no pregnancy test required for some reason. It was awful to watch my child quite obviously in pain being moved about so that good x-rays could be obtained. Then back to a different emergency department bed in a ward where a very obviously sick man behind the curtain in the next bed vomited almost continuously and very loudly.

A short time later it seemed like a switch had been thrown somewhere and it was action stations. We had doctors and nurses flying everywhere. They had finally seen her x-rays and discovered just how very damaged she was and that just maybe her mother was right with her pain tolerance level. Painkillers made her more comfortable and then the surgeon arrived and explained how incredibly serious her injuries were and my control crumbled for the second time as tears started to flow yet again. He said it was the worst possible type of break you can have in your hip, a ‘displaced right subcaptial neck of femur fracture’ and spent time ‘emphasising the significance of the injury’. They had to ring my husband, he had to come. She would be undergoing major surgery within the hour; many forms had to be signed and she needed a wee. That was very difficult but we had a kind and understanding nurse and between us we managed it. The anaesthetist turned up and moving into mother mode I asked how much experience he had. I also asked the surgeon how many of these operations he had performed. They were both reassuring and kind.

At 6:10pm I responded to a text from my friend who had been at The Rock House with us; ‘Broken hip. Having op in next hour. Foot broken 2 but not serious like hip so wil leave 4 now’. My husband turned up and then at 6:54 I send a similar message in response to one from my team leader. Thank goodness for an understanding employer who would make things easy for me over the next few weeks! At 8:17pm I phoned my mother-in-law who was kindly looking after our younger daughter to check things were okay there.

8:30pm and I walked beside her bed as she was wheeled into the daunting theatre where there seemed to be several staff. Her medical records state that ‘she was taken to theatre urgently’. I held her hand and talked to her whilst she was put under and then it was time to leave. I couldn’t sit; pacing back and forth probably drove my husband crazy but I just could not sit still whilst fear of what was taking place and images of her fall overwhelmed me. We had been told the operation should take 45 minutes.

At 8:37 I was texting people of significance in my daughter’s life whilst still pacing the corridors. It helped to keep moving and busy. I called another friend who was present at my daughter’s birth at 8:51pm. At 8:56 I phoned my father, barely keeping it together. He told me to hang up and then phoned me back: I was a mess. Another hour passed and then another, way past their deadline. We were taken to the children’s ward; I felt like a hollow shell. The longer it took the worse I feared. In the end she underwent three hours of surgery. Another wonderful friend of the past twenty-eight years offered to bring food to the hospital, but there is no way I could have kept anything down during that agonising wait.

At midnight she was finally out of surgery. Coincidentally the same timing as her birth. She took eighteen months to conceive and thirty hours of labour to bring into this world, it being precisely midnight when blue eyed baby and I made it into the ward. During surgery the doctors had focused on her hip but taken time to place a ‘well padded below knee back slab’ over her injured foot. Once reassured she was okay my husband went home get some rest.

There was no sleep that night as I kept vigil beside her, machines beeping and frequent checks by the staff on duty. A text in reply sent at 5:45am the following morning; ‘Not out of surgery til midnight. Ok nite. Has just had iceblock. Has morphine’ and ‘Was 2 put plate in hip as in danger of bone not surviving. He told us 45 minutes & the longer it was the more scary’.

Later that morning my husband arrived and, playing tag team, I was able to go home to have food, a shower and some seriously needed sleep. When I arrived home I telephoned The Rock House and told them just how serious her injuries actually were. I found it hard to sleep and felt that I had to get back to my daughter as soon as possible.

12 October 2012 (Friday): A CT scan on her foot reveals that she has ‘comminuted intra-articular fractures of the base of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th metatarsal bones, also an avulsion fracture at the lateral plantar aspect of medial cuneiform and avulsion fracture the  lateral aspect of the lateral cuneiform. This represents a potential Lisfranc injury, with likely avulsion of the plantar Lisfranc ligament’. These technical terms mean extensive and painful stuff. I wrote later that day on Facebook that she was ‘on morphine and is okay but uncomfortable’. Her determination not to use a bed pan again led to a nurse and myself managing to get her to the loo shuffling slowly along on one foot with the help of a walker. I also wrote that she ‘managed to eat a piece of toast and some grapes without throwing up like yesterday’.

That same day a work colleague who has been involved in Health and Safety advised me to report the accident to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) which I did via a telephone call. The MBIE then contacted The Rock House manager Sue Hair requesting a copy of the SH form and accident investigation form which they received by 17 October.

My friend from schooldays at Tauranga Girls’ College who I consider my sister brought a big bag of goodies into the hospital for us. I think I had mallow-puffs for breakfast, lunch and dinner a few times. Amazingly lovely people left food on our doorstep; I remember one particularly yummy stew!

13 October 2012 (Saturday). I commented on Facebook ‘she came off the morphine drip just before sleep last night which was fine until 6am when the pain in her foot became overwhelming’. This was the point when she finally learnt to swallow pills! This same day we were moved out of our cosy acute room and into a two bed ward room. We were still expecting an operation on her foot to be about ten days away at this point. Our chocolate supplies were good.

A very nice man put his head around the door on one of those days. Turns out he was the deputy principal of her school whose wife was in having an operation too. He called in quite a few times which was very kind of him. I’m sure her Dean called in also, but suffering from lack of sleep the stream of faces quickly turned into a blur.

14 October 2012 (Sunday): It’s shower time! My Facebook post records; ‘much brighter today, we even managed to get her up with a wheelchair, put plastic over her bandages and she gave herself a shower and washed her hair. Singing in the shower is always a good sign. Still haven’t talked to the doctor about what they will do with her foot, but will hopefully see him today’.

15 October 2012 (Monday): I was given a printout of her x-rays which reduced me to tears – yet again. Seeing the extent of the breaks and the huge plate and screws was chilling. My husband went back to work and my younger daughter back to school. I reported via Facebook; ‘They have decided not to operate on her foot as there is too much damage to rebuild it. As the five fractures and damaged ligament are lined up fairly well they have just reinforced her cast. Also told she will probably develop arthritis in that foot in the future so no high heels and sensible shoes forever’.

16 October 2012 (Tuesday): Take us home James and don’t spare the horses! After six nights sleeping on the fold out couch next to my daughter’s hospital bed we were finally granted release. That morning a doctor had told us he wanted her to stay in hospital for another couple of weeks, however our wonderful physiotherapist arrived and totally disagreed, talking him in to letting us go home, confident that we could cope. After being fitted out for a wheelchair we went home with our painkillers, wheelchair, crutches, shower stool and left over marshmallows. The wheelchair with it’s elevated leg rest would rule our lives for the next eight weeks during which she must remain non-weight bearing. In a house with steps that’s pretty difficult. One good note was that we already had a wet shower area because of my husband’s disability as well as hand rails around the toilet. I recorded on my Facebook page; ‘Not too bad a sleep last night but still a couple of poor sick babies crying in the rooms next to us. This afternoon we got the all clear and we finally came home at 3pm. Very exciting! Currently sorting out what is accessible by wheelchair and where crutches will be necessary. Foot is non-weight-bearing for next four months so that will be interesting’.

17 October 2012 (Wednesday): At 10am we underwent an interview with an accident investigator from the MBIE and I gave consent for the release of medical records. My Facebook post, ‘apparently there was another accident there two weeks ago when a guy broke his vertebrae. Not impressed! Went for a big walk with the wheelchair – very interesting to discover which places are accessible to wheelchairs and what is difficult’. My friend had heard from her chiropractor about her friend’s husband, a man named Mike who suffered an accident in the foam pit at The Rock House two weeks prior to my daughter’s accident. Apparently he was free climbing and fell, his head landing in a gap between two pieces of matting and resulting in a fractured vertebra. I managed to get hold of the chiropractor and she confirmed the information. I explained about the MBIE and accident reporting and gave her my number to pass on to her friend. To my knowledge this accident has never been reported to the MBIE so they cannot investigate.

18 October 2012 (Thursday): I posted on Facebook, ‘seemed quite tired, had a headache most of the day along with aches in her hip and knee. Her supposedly “good” ankle is still quite sore which is probably more bruising coming out’. Also the MBIE received an anonymous complaint from a parent: ‘concerns relating to the operation called Manic Room of The Rock House in Tauranga. She said her friend took his son to celebrate his birthday in the Manic Room. She said he was made to sign a waiver and the complainant recalls being asked herself to sign a waiver when she used the service, waiving all liabilities for injuries and injuries causing death’ (MBIE file).

I kept hearing indirect reports of other accidents at The Rock House but was unable to track down anyone directly regarding these. None were reported to the MBIE and there is no record of them at the facility who deny any other ambulances have been called to them, despite the staff member’s comment to me at the time of my daughter’s accident. As the accidents have not been reported they cannot be investigated and used as evidence to back up our case meaning that there is nothing that can be done to improve safety so that nobody else has to go through what we have been through.

23 October 2012: Discussion with Rachael Moore from the Tourism Industry Association (TIA) about the Indoor Rock Climbing Activity Safety Guidelines (ASGs) that have been commissioned and are currently being written developed with support from the MBIE. My daughter’s case will have an impact on the ASG’s and what they contain. An industry symposium will be held early next year in order to explain the ASG’s to operators and interested parties.

24 October 2012: To Orthopaedic’s for an assessment x-ray as indicated by her ‘traumatic fractures’. My daughter received a new ‘below knee fibreglass cast’, choosing a girly coloured camouflage design. The same day I received a telephone call from Kiri Gillespie of the Bay of Plenty Times who had heard of the accident. We arranged an interview time and the article appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and the New Zealand Herald on 29 October.

29 October 2013: My daughter’s first morning back at school and she coped well. She was on half days for the rest of the week. As many of her classes were upstairs the Northern Health School was called in to help. ACC covered the costs of a taxi to and from school as she was unable to take the bus, her usual form of transport.

1 November 2012: Sam Newton from the New Zealand Alpine Club commented in an email to myself that the Bay of Plenty Times article made for ‘harrowing reading’.

5 November 2012: Progress is made with my daughter’s first full day back at school. I was impressed that she managed to last the whole day. I was also very grateful that her school went out of their way to accommodate her needs.

11 November 2012: A day backwards with my daughter vomiting on and off all day. During this period we seemed to be constantly back and forth to the Fracture Clinic and physiotherapy appointments at the hospital. My search also continued as to the rules regarding Rock Climbing in New Zealand. There exists a great Standard for playground safety, but where was the rock climbing one? Something had obviously gone seriously wrong in order for my daughter’s accident to happen in the first place.

13 November 2012: I was told on this date that The Rock House had implemented one of my recommendations – a double carabineer system. Still no helmets or impact matting over the concrete. Surely no impact matting is totally illogical! Bare concrete is totally unacceptable in my opinion.

16 November 2012: The MBIE issued an ‘Improvement Notice’ to The Rock House under Section 13 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. The form details ‘inadequate supervision’ and gives steps to be taken to ‘ensure adequate supervision is in place whilst climbing activities are taking place’ to be complied with by 23 November. I believe The Rock House also failed under the Summary Offences Act (1981): 10B Leaving child without reasonable supervision and care ‘Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $2,000 who, being a parent or guardian or a person for the time being having the care of a child under the age of 14 years, leaves that child, without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child, for a time that is unreasonable or under conditions that are unreasonable having regard to all the circumstances’.

18 November 2012: We watched Harry Potter last night cuddled up on our bed which was nice. Today my daughter seemed quite tired, and was suffering from a headache most of the day along with aches in her hip and knee. Her supposedly ‘good’ ankle was still quite sore which is probably more bruising coming out and the fact that it was taking all her weight. Consequently I didn’t take her out anywhere, but the weather was terrible anyway with heavy rain one minute then sunshine. I even defrosted my ancient freezer and cleaned out the fridge which is almost unheard of. There were things living in there and the frost in the freezer was almost two inches thick! I had a major headache this afternoon, possibly in sympathy with my daughter’s but more likely the result of the unnatural activity of cleaning. Our ACC case manager phoned and she seems very helpful. My daughter had a friend visit this afternoon which was lovely, especially as she had made a scrummy chocolate cake. The rabbits were also let loose so had a good explore of everything. My other daughter is busy making invitations for her birthday on Monday. Needless to say, we will NOT be going rock climbing!

20 November 2012: I took my daughter to the Dentist. She was due for an appointment and I wanted her teeth checked just in case the accident had resulted in any damage. It was interesting negotiating a dentist’s office with a wheelchair. Given the all clear.  

23 November 2012 (Wednesday): We spent three hours at the Fracture Clinic at Tauranga Hospital and her cast finally come off after 6 weeks! Her leg and foot were not a pretty sight. After x-rays and more doctors she was wheeled carefully down to orthotics for a moon boot. We still didn’t get rid of the wheelchair – another four weeks of non-weight-bearing with her foot up before we come back to the fracture clinic for our next appointment. Wheelchair goes in the car; wheelchair goes out of the car. At this stage my back is giving me serious grief and the calcification which is already in both my shoulders is quite painful.

27 November 2012: Concerned about her discomfort, I took my daughter to a trusted osteopath to check everything was in alignment. A few things to adjust but the osteopath was pleasantly surprised at how well her alignment was.

19 December 2012: At the Fracture Clinic yet again but great excitement as we finally offloaded the wheelchair! She is now allowed to be on crutches. X-rays of her foot look good so far – her hip will be x-rayed at our next appointment. Physio says that we have a long road ahead but all signs are good. We are visiting the Greerton swimming pool as often as possible since she had the cast off to help strengthen everything back up with lots of walking up and down the lanes. We will need to use the moon-boot for a few weeks yet but no more lifting the wheelchair in and out of the car which I take as my early Christmas present.

21 December 2012: She is now cautiously walking on her damaged foot which is encased in the safety of the moonboot.

27 December 2012: We received our very first contact from The Rock House since my telephone call the day following my daughter’s accident. It was a letter within a Christmas card. On showing to a friend, she described it as very ‘passive aggressive’.

24 January 2013: During an appointment at orthotics it was noted that my daughter’s right hip was now lower than her left one. To counter this the specialist fitted an insert into her shoe as well as an orthotic.

19 February 2013: This was the day that my husband and I had our scheduled meeting with MBIE. They went through the case and then informed us that they will not be prosecuting The Rock House for lack of other evidence to build a case against them. Where is the justice for my daughter? I was told they only end up prosecuting in 2% of reported cases. What is it with this country of ours? At this meeting I made a verbal request for a copy of the file under the Official Information Act 1984.

The MBIE report states that commercial climbing walls in New Zealand have ‘no specific NZ Industry guidelines for the safe management of climbing walls’ (p. 5/7). Reference is made to the ‘Australian Standard 2316.1 (2009) Artificial climbing structures and challenge courses – Fixed and mobile artificial climbing and abseiling walls’. Also ‘Health and Safety for Artificial Climbing Structures and Operations Guide 2002’ produced by Workcover New South Wales. The main points from the 2002 Australian guidelines where I feel The Rock House failed are:

  • Operators have duties in their capacity as controllers of the premises to ensure that they are safe and without risks to health (p. 4).
  • 2.1 Energy absorption The floor in the potential impact zone should be covered in an energy absorbent (impact attenuating) material (as per clause 2.2 below). This is to reduce the likelihood and severity of injuries. The area of floor coverage should be at least 2 metres out from the wall, overhang, roof anchor, climbing rope or climbing ladder where provided (p. 8).
  • 2.2 Standard AS/NZS 4422:1996 Australian Standard AS/NZS 4422:1996 Playground surfacing Specifications, requirements and test method, should be used to reference the requirements of the material and testing specifications. While the forward to the Standard states that it is not directly relevant for potential long bone injuries it is the only standard that gives some relation between potential injury and the energy absorbing properties of the impact surface. It is considered that compliance with this standard, for a 1.5 metre fall, should significantly reduce the risk of serious injury for the uncontrolled descents described in clause 2.1 above. The manufacturer/supplier or a competent person should provide certification for the flooring attenuation as having a critical fall height of 1.5 metres or greater in accordance with AS4422:1996 (p. 8).
  • 3. Climber Attachment Method Where a karabiner is used as the primary connection it should be as a dual attachment method, i.e. provided with a back-up connection (p. 9).
  • 7. Belayer/Climber Supervision Direct supervision on a one-on-one basis may be required when energy absorbent material is not used (see 2.2) and no other method is implemented to ensure that the climber is not injured by impact with the floor or ground. Appropriate levels of supervision will depend on a number of factors such as: number of participants; ability and experience of participants; age of participants. To assist in determining the provision of adequate supervision levels, groups should be encouraged to book in advance. Information regarding the numbers, age group, ability and any special needs should be recorded. Consideration should also be made of the facility’s previous utilisation, including the time of year (including school holidays). Sufficient staff should be available to ensure continuous line of sight supervision, allowing for any staff performing other duties, including instruction and assessment. Only the number of participants that can be adequately supervised should be permitted to use the climbing facility at any time (p. 14).

Also The Rock House failed to follow the Department of Labour’s own ‘Hazard Management Bulletin: Fall from Indoor Rock Climbing Wall’ recommendations issued in February 2010 after an 8.8m fall from an indoor climbing wall:

  • ‘ensure constant supervision of the climbing wall.
  • review safety procedures and ensure they meet minimum standards.
  • ensure lead instructors hold NZOIA qualifications suitable for climbing walls’.

In frustration, and wanting change I emailed Tauranga MP Simon Bridges, currently the Minister of Labour: ‘I understand that there is no inter-departmental reporting of accidents by ACC and the Ambulance Service to the Department of Labour due to the Privacy Act. In fact, I have been told that the Department of Labour often finds out about serious accidents through newspaper reports. In light of the cross-departmental sharing of information currently being introduced amongst the welfare agencies to counter child abuse, why is the same not being done between ACC, the Ambulance Service and the Department of Labour? If the victim does not report the accident to the Department of Labour and the facility denies anything has happened, then there is no proof and so nothing that can be done to prevent serious accidents like the one that happened to my daughter from occurring. Logically, these three agencies should be working together to curb unsafe practices and prevent the injuries that cost the taxpayer so much every year. I also query why there is no New Zealand Standard for Artificial Climbing Structures. We have such strict rules for playgrounds when the falling distance is not great and yet nothing for falling 4 metres onto bare concrete at an indoor rock climbing facility. I do understand that as a result of my daughter’s case guidelines are currently being worked on. I don’t think guidelines will be mandatory however, but I believe that standards are.’

21 February 2013: A media release from Simon Bridges’ office reports that the Government is to set up new health and safety agency to focus on ‘addressing New Zealand’s unacceptable health and safety record’ as recommended by the Royal Commission into the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy. The workplace health and safety functions currently sitting within the Ministry will transfer to the new agency which will sit alongside the work of the ‘Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety’ which is due to report back at the end of April 2013. Legislation will be introduced to establish the Crown agent in June 2013.

27 February 2013: Back to the Fracture Clinic for an x-ray on my daughter’s hip. More serious discussions with doctors. I received an email reply from Jeremy Gooders, District Operations Manager for this region of St John in reply to my request under the Official Information Act for information about how many times St John’s have been called to The Rock House over the past twelve months. On 1 March I received another email from him saying that my request had been passed on. On 21 June 2013 I sent another email to Jeremy reminding him of my request. On 24 June I received this reply: ‘St John is not a government agency and therefore not party to the Official Information Act… in this instance we are unable to assist you as St John does not keep data by location of incident’.

7 March 2013: I received a letter from the MBIE acknowledging my request made on 19 February for my daughter’s file; ‘You can expect to receive a response by 3 April 2013’.

8 March 2013: The indoor rock climbing/climbing on artificial structures industry symposium was held in Palmerston North. The focus was on how to implement the recommendations in the new ASG’s. Two employees from The Rock House attended.

18 March 2013: I received a reply from Simon Bridges: ‘Information is shared between ACC and the Ministry on a weekly basis… [this is contrary to what I was told] Following your email the Ministry met with the ASG industry working party and discussed the circumstances of your daughter’s accident. Consequently the ASG industry working party has agreed to raise the industry standard… Last year the Government commissioned an Independent Health and Safety Taskforce to review whether New Zealand’s workplace health and safety system – including legislation, regulation, incentives and enforcement – is working effectively… Your email and your daughter’s experience will assist me as I consider the recommendations from the Taskforce’.

20 March 2013: Anna Mildenhall from ACC responds to my request under the Official Information Act on 26 February 2013: How many accidents have been reported in relation to The Rock House in Triton Avenue, Mount Maunganui, within the last five years (broken down by year)? ‘Unfortunately, ACC does not record specific accident locations to this level of detail. To provide you with this information would involve a search of individual claim files. Therefore, your request if declined as the requested information cannot be made available without substantial collation or research. This decision complies with section 18(f) of the Act’.

On 21 June 2013 I sent Anna another email, ‘if I limit my request to accident’s reported in 2012 and 2013 will you be able to comply with my request under the Official Information Act’. On 25 June I received her reply; ‘Unfortunately, ACC is still not able to provide the information requested in relation to accidents reported against Rock House. This would still require searching each claim lodged in 2012 & 2013 - as ACC do not specifically record that level of detail. ACC is a no-fault scheme and the focus is on the event and injuries sustained not the individuals involved in the event (such as Rock House)’. I sincerely hope this information is incorrect. Surely they should be keeping statistics on where events occur! Isn’t this what we pay for as taxpayers? Isn’t this the way that accidents are prevented in future thus lessening the burden on the taxpayer? And what sort of rubbish computer program are they running that doesn’t have a space for recording the place the accident occurred?

28 March 2013: I received another letter from the MBIE about my request for my daughters file under the Official Information Act; ‘The Ministry’s response will now be made by 2 May 2013’.

3 April 2013: The Activity Safety Guidelines (ASGs) are officially launched. TIA Advocacy Manager Geoff Ensor states that ‘Any investigation into an accident may look at how well an operator followed these guidelines’. Although the ASG’s were not created at the time of my daughters accident, under them I feel that the main places that The Rock House failed were:

  • 3.3 Design of belay and anchor systems: attaching climbers to the belay system with two attachment points (p. 15).
  • 3.5 Padding of fall zones: Poorly padded fall zones can contribute to serious harm injuries. Note: Concrete is identified as a particularly hazardous surface within a fall zone. Using padding that is of sufficient type and thickness to absorb impact from falls – 40mm absorbent foam is commonly used in belayed areas, with 200mm being more common in bouldering fall zones (p. 16).
  • 4.2 Climbing session monitoring. Every climbing session should have a staff member who is responsible for monitoring general safety and ensuring the session is managed according to the operator’s standard operating procedures (p. 17).
  • 5.1 Roped climbing Check that climbers know how to attach to the climbing rope and use the harness correctly, and have safety systems in place to check these before they climb – such as buddy checks and the ‘three C’s and a squeeze’ test [this is a safety check that includes squeezing the carabiner across the gate to check it is properly locked]. Ensure that climbers’ clothing does not interfere with easy visual inspection of their attachment to the system or closing of carabiners (p. 19).
  • Ensure children aged less than 14 years old have their attachment point checked before climbing – this could be by a staff member or a person aged 14 or older who has been verified as competent to do so (p. 21) THIS IS AUTOBELAY SYSTEM.
  • 6.2 Verifying competence In January 2013 the New Zealand Outdoor Instructors Association developed a new sports climbing qualification and a new sport climbing endorsement for their level 1 rock instructor award. They are currently working towards developing ACS specific qualifications (p. 27).
  • 7.2 Pre-activity risk disclosure Before partaking in climbing inform every client of the following information: climbing involve risk of serious harm or death, particularly resulting from falling from height AND clients should be aware that the operator cannot guarantee the client’s safety (p. 33).
  • 8.1 Establishing a Supervision System Suitable levels of client supervision are vital for safety at an ACS. Clarity on procedures for ensuring supervision levels are maintained if staff take an unplanned break from their supervisory responsibilities, such as toilet stops. Guidance on when the supervision system may need adjustment, such as an increase in the number of clients participating in an activity, an increase in the number of young children, an increase in the level of distraction (p. 35).
  • 8.2 Parameters for directly supervising clients Directly supervise clients anytime they are involved with climbing or being lowered – particularly when they are above 3 metres off the ground (p. 47).
  • 8.4 Supervision of children Recommended levels of supervision are: direct supervision of climbers aged less than 14 years old (p. 39).
  • 10.1 Accessing suitable external emergency support Ensure that suitable external emergency support is available within a planned period of time – this period of time should be specified within the operator’s emergency procedures (p. 43).
  • Appendix 1: The health and safety legislation says you must take all practicable steps to safely provide adventure activities. The operator is responsible for balancing the likelihood and seriousness of potential harm against the cost, effort and effectiveness of measures. Where there is a risk of serious or frequent injury or harm, a greater cost in the provision of safeguards may be reasonable. If there are significant hazards and the measures are too expensive, unavailable, or ineffective, the only reasonable safeguard might be to cancel the activity (p. 45).
  • What is ‘serious harm’? Harm is illness, injury or both, and includes physical and mental harm. Serious harm is death, or harm of a kind defined to be serious for the purposes of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. The Act does not give a simple definition of serious harm, but gives examples including: harm that requires hospitalisation for 48 hours or more (p. 46).

30 April 2013: The ‘Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety’ which was established in June 2012 delivered its report to Simon Bridges on 30 April 2013. They found that ‘New Zealand’s current health and safety system is not fit for purpose’. Quite frankly I’m not surprised.

13 June 2013: It’s now 114 days since my request for my daughters file from the MBIE on 19 February under the Official Information Act. During repeated phone calls I have listened to excuses and been told outright lies, heightening my suspicions that there is something in that file that someone doesn’t want me to see. I have no idea what, but it shouldn’t be this much of a battle. I put a complaint into the Ombudsman’s Office.

14 June 2013: I called into Simon Bridges Electorate Office at 184 Devonport Road, Tauranga, and discuss the elusive file with Glen Harris. He kindly makes a phone call to the Ministry and they promise to have the file in the courier this afternoon.

18 June 2013: Still no file so I phone Glen Harris at Simon Bridges office and he kindly makes another phone call on my behalf.

19 June 2013: I finally have the file in my hands after I picked it up from the courier office. Curious that it is less than one centimetre thick when I had expected about seven inches of paperwork?

In typical New Zealand fashion, the victim, who has to live with consequences for the rest of their life, is left without redress. At this stage my daughter doesn’t comprehend the long term consequences of her injury. There is the arthritis I’ve been told that she will get, the slight limp she still has, the terrible scar on her leg and the fact that, next October, we need to make a decision whether to take out the hardware out of her leg or leave it in. There is still the possibility of the head of the bone dying off during the next three years so continued monitoring by the hospital is required. If this happens my daughter will require a full hip replacement – not a good option for someone of her age.

From the outset my daughter has blamed herself and not wanted to get The Rock House in any trouble. Yes, there is some personal responsibility to be taken here, but these were children and the fact of the matter is, the adults were in charge. Children should have their equipment checked by a supervisor before every climb. Adults who rock climb outside have stated to me that this is what happens before they, as adults, do a climb. Arborists are adults with years of experience and they still make mistakes and fall out of trees. The Rock House should have had double carabineers, they had forewarning of our arrival so should have had enough staff to provide adequate supervision, and why any thinking person would have concrete underneath a potential hazard of that height is completely beyond me. We count our blessings every day that it was not a head or spinal injury, or death. But we paid money for a safe experience and we did not get one. These were children and there is a duty of care issue here. It’s not like they were going ten pin bowling.


ASG Activity Safety Guidelines: Climbing on Artificial Structures (June 2013)

Australian New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 4422:1996 Playground Surfacing – Specifications, requirements and test method.

Australian Standard 2316.1 (2009). Artificial climbing structures and challenge courses: Fixed and mobile artificial climbing and abseiling walls.

Bay of Plenty Times: Teen breaks bones in climbing accident (29 October 2012)

Beehive: Government to set up new health and safety agency (21 February 2013) 

Calendar and Diary entries.

Department of Labour’s Hazard Management Bulletin: Fall from Indoor Rock Climbing Wall recommendations (February 2012)

Facebook posts.

Health and Safety for Artificial Climbing Structures and Operations (2002) by WorkCover, NSW, Australia

Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.

Health and Safety in Employment (Adventure Activities) Regulations 2011 [climbing on artificial structures not covered].

Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment file released under the Official Information Act 1982 [some withheld under section 9(2)(a) and 9(2)(ba)(i) of the Act].

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment letter (7 March 2013).

Minister of Labour, Simon Bridges, letter (18 March 2013).

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment letter (28 March 2013).

Mobile phone Telecom bill (October 2012).

Mobile phone text messages.

National Incident Database

New Zealand Herald: Teen breaks bones in climbing accident (29 October 2012)

New Zealand Outdoor Instructors Association (NZOIA)

New Zealand Mountain Guides Association

New Zealand Parliament: 8. Health and Safety, Workplace—Establishment of Stand-alone Agency (21 February 2013) (29 October 2012);

Safety guidelines developed for adventure activities (3 April 2013)

Summary Offences Act (1981)

Support Adventure

The Rock House, letter (received 21 December 2012).

The Rock House, receipts (10 Oct, 13:19pm and 15:09pm).

This page was archived at Perma cc March 2017

Discuss This Topic

There are 0 comments in this discussion.

join this discussion