Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Importance of HR: A Tragedy that Could Have Been Avoided

If any of your colleagues or senior management ever doubt the importance of the Human Resources function, tell them about the Tragedy at Mangatepopo Gorge.

On April 16, 2008, 6 students and 1 teacher died due to an amazing array of Human Resources failures on the part of Sir Edmund Hilary Outdoor Pursuits Centre. The tragedy happened on an adventure field trip in New Zealand but the Human Resources lessons are applicable to companies around the world including those in North America.

Sir Edmund Hilary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) describes itself as a provider of outdoor education and adventure. It's goal is to provide adventure activities to "develop people’s potential and instil concepts of environmental leadership." Programs include kayaking, canoeing, tubing, rockclimbing, snow and ice climbing, caving, tramping, skiing, snowboarding, river walking, gorge walking, camping and ropes course.

This story takes place on a canyoning trip at Mangatepopo Gorge, located in the Tongariro National Park in the Central North Island of New Zealand. Canyoning (also known as canyoneering) is a rigorous sport which requires climbing, jumping, and swimming and generally requires special apparatus such as ropes, helmets and wetsuits. It was raining when the students and teacher from Elim Christian College, a small school in Auckland set out for their adventure trip with their guide from OPC. During the trip, the rains turned to flash flood and caused the river to rise trapping the canyoneers on a ledge overhanging the cliff. They stood on the ledge for an hour until the heavy rushing waters were up past their knees. The guide made the decision to continue onward and she and one pupil jumped into the water. They made it across. She successively had each student in groups of two jump into the waters while she threw rope for them to grasp. The seven who died were unable to reach the rope or were unable to hold on due to the violent waters. They went over a dam where their bodies were recovered.

Had they chosen not to go out on that day or had stayed on the ledge, the loss would have been avoided.

Why is this a tale of HR misfunction rather than a story of a risky adventure going bad? Over the past two years, the parents of the deceased children requested examination into the tragedy that shattered their lives. The investigation revealed an alarming number of issues, all within the purview of HR that could have and should have been corrected. From what was discovered, the loss may have been avoided if someone was minding the HR shop at the Sir Edmund Hilary Outdoors Pursuit Centre.

Eight HR problem areas were identified:

1) Employee Turnover. Staff turnover at OPC was described in all reports as being very high. This resulted in inexperienced employees along with a loss of institutional history both of which contributed to the deaths.

2) Promotion "Creep." At the OPC, employees were being promoted to "Senior Staff" at just 2 years.

3) Safety Issues due to Poor Corporate Culture and Employee Stress. A safety audit in 1996 reported that 50% of the employees at OPC had a 50% risk of having a serious accident or illness. 11% had a 79% risk. According to the Sunday Star Times, the audit highlighted high staff turnover, non-compliance with agreed organizational policy and an "autocratic, unfriendly and demotivating" management dynamic as significant safety risks.

4) Ignoring Exit Interviews. In addition to the safety audit, Exit interviews (which is why this story came to my attention) warned that employees were "overworked, not supported and disillusioned."

5) Inadequate Training. The guide for this trip had only done the gorge trip 5 times prior to the tragedy. Her training consisted of:
  • a 12-week course
  • 2-weeks as a volunteer
  • FT employee for 2 months
She had been with the company for just three months. Yet with this limited amount of training she was still sent out as a solo guide for this challenging trip.

6) Poor Workforce Management. Whether it's due to money savings or lack of employees, the OPC assigns just 1 instructor to each adventure. The Coroner's report which included recommendations to prevent a future tragedy suggests a minimum of two guides per trip (each equipped with proper communication devices). On the OPC website today it still states, in the risk section I might add, that they continue to provide 1 guide per adventure.

7) Inadequate New Hire Orientation and Induction. The investigation report says that OPC provides a 3 week induction for newly graduated instructors which they consider inadequate due to the high risk nature of the jobs. After the tragedy, the Center Manager said "there was pressure to get new instructors into productive work mode as soon as possible." He also cited an "ineffective mentorship system for new staff."

8) Employee Silos and Communication Breakdown. A direct contributor to the accident was due to a communication breakdown between the guide (who survived) and the Program Manager. One of the Program Manager's job functions is to determine if it's safe for the guides to go ahead with planned outings. The guide said she received approval. The Program Manager said she never would have approved it. It later was revealed that the two had spoken and the Guide promised to not go very far up the gorge.

Luckily in most of our companies, high turnover, high stress, inadequate training, poor communication, insufficient onboarding and mentoring result only in a financial loss* and not a loss of life. I am reminded however of a set of exit interviews from employees in the Pharmacy of a hospital who all stated they were leaving because they didn't feel they received enough training and were afraid they were going to kill someone. (Unlike OPC, this hospital jumped on the information and improved training programs in this area.)

The work that we do in HR is important; vitally important. The impact that we have on minding the "people part" of the business affects every customer that interacts with every employee. For some companies it goes beyond our customers to the very health and safety of every person and every living thing on the planet. If you ever begin to doubt the importance of HR, think about the kids who died at Mangatepopo Gorge and how those death may have been avoided if YOU were in charge of HR at OPC.

* OPC was fined $40,000 and ordered to make $440,000 in reparation
You can read more in the Sunday Star Times article: A Tragedy That Could Have Been Avoided
Additional articles available through searching on the term: Mangatepopo Gorge


Blogger Hà Nguyễn said...

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10:28 PM, September 08, 2017  

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