Visitor safety policy

We have a duty of care to park visitors, and we manage, but cannot eliminate, risks in parks. This means park visitors must take some responsibility for their own safety.

Kayaking on the Pinch River, Kosciuszko National ParkThis policy outlines how the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) addresses safety issues and reduces risk to park visitors while maintaining park values.

Policy

  1. The Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment (the department) risk management system is the basis for risk management governing visitor use of parks in New South Wales.
  2. National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) manages a range of sites and settings, from remote to highly developed. Management responses to hazards should consider the setting, ease of access and levels of visitation.
  3. Merely forbidding or prohibiting conduct will not in itself discharge NPWS's duty of care for visitor safety.
  4. Higher rated risks should be given higher priority for resources than lesser rated risks.
  5. Approaches to risk management that promote conservation are preferred over alternatives that may compromise conservation.
  6. Protecting property (including park infrastructure) is important, but less important than ensuring the safety of visitors.
  7. The process of assessing risks, determining a management response and implementing a response must be documented, and the documentation must be accessible.
  8. Management planning instruments such as:
    • plans of management
    • statements of management intent
    • branch visitor safety risk registers
    • CAMMS
    • recreational zoning
    can help manage risks to visitor safety by providing a consistent and systematic approach to classifying visitation patterns and determining an appropriate management response.
  1. NPWS has a duty of care to take steps to reduce the risk of harm to visitors where:
    • the risk is foreseeable to NPWS
    • the risk is not insignificant
    • a reasonable person (if aware of the risk) would have taken precautions to limit or remove the risk.
  2. NPWS does not, in most circumstances, owe a duty of care:
    • to warn park visitors of an obvious risk
    • in respect of recreational activities where it has given adequate warnings about the known or site-specific risks involved with those recreational activities.
  3. Staff should seek legal advice from Legal Services if in doubt about NPWS's duty of care in specific circumstances.
  1. Visitor safety risks will be assessed through the department's risk management system (internal information available to staff). Important aspects to consider are:
    • the nature of the hazard
    • the likelihood that harm will occur if care or action is not taken, taking into account the levels of site development and visitation (that is, the number of people exposed to the hazard)
    • the likely seriousness of the harm.
  2. The department's risk management system is the general instrument for managing risks. However, in some cases, risks may be better dealt with using another approved instrument (for example, the Caves Access Policy or the Fire Management Manual [internal document available to staff]). The NPWS Deputy Secretary must endorse the use of any other alternative instrument.
  1. NPWS as a whole and each NPWS operational branch maintain a visitor safety risk register to record all identified visitor safety risks and their assessed risk rating. Some risks – for instance, risks with very severe potential impacts – may remain on the register for continued monitoring, even if they are currently being managed.
  2. Under the department's risk management system, visitor safety hazards require documented management responses and/or risk treatment plans.
  3. NPWS Operations Branch Directors are responsible for preparing, implementing and approving the branch visitor safety risk register within their branch.
  4. The NPWS Safety and Business Performance Team will collate the visitor risk data and produce an annual report.
  1. The department's risk management system sets general risk rating and tolerability levels. The department's Risk Matrix (internal information available to staff) establishes the levels of risk. The risks levels are Low, Medium, High, and Very High.
  2. For some visitor safety risks, it may be necessary to depart from the department's Risk Matrix, but any alternative must be documented and approved by the relevant NPWS Executive Directors.
  3. In accordance with the department's risk management system, risk ratings establish priority and accountability for a management response. However, they do not determine what that response should be.
  1. After a risk to visitor safety has been assessed and its risk rating determined, NPWS must decide on the most appropriate management responses. Options range from eliminating the risk, mitigating the risk through a range of administrative or engineering controls, or accepting the risk.
    Factors to consider when determining a management response:
    • available resources, such as funding, trained staff and management capacity
    • environmental impact of the management response, considering the objects of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act) and the relevant management objectives for the park
    • the nature of the site, and how developed the site is – for the same level of risk, more-developed sites and settings may require a higher level of management intervention than less-developed sites
    • time required to implement the management response, the acceptability of leaving the risk untreated for that period, and the potential for interim or staged responses
    • how much the proposed management response is likely to reduce the risk
    • sustainability or permanence of the management response and whether its effectiveness will diminish over time and/or require significant ongoing maintenance
    • the management response's impact on other park management objectives or services (for example, access within the park or visitor use)
    • the social utility or value (in the context of a national park) of a risky activity (for example, driving a car is statistically a risky activity, but people accept the risk because of driving's social utility)
    • relevant plans or standards
    • the views and expectations of the community
    • other statutory requirements.
  2. For some types of visitor safety risks, it may not be possible or practical to adopt the tolerability level set out in the department's risk management system. Where this is the case, the risk tolerance statement must be documented and approved by the NPWS Executive Directors.
  3. Decisions and actions to mitigate or eliminate a risk are to be documented in a risk treatment plan.
  1. NPWS should not develop, promote or recommend new visitor areas (including 'inherited' visitor areas in newly reserved parks) until:
    • risks to visitor safety have been assessed and included in the relevant branch visitor safety risk register
    • an appropriate management response has been determined and, where relevant, implemented.
  2. Relevant risk warnings should be conveyed via the usual NPWS media and signage strategies.
  1. Inspection requirements for built assets (including elevated structures) will be specified and scheduled in the NPWS Asset Management System (internal information available to staff) and be subject to regular maintenance plans.
  2. For asset-based risks, the risk treatment plan should be based on the adopted cyclic maintenance plan and inspection regime.
  1. Communication is an important tool for managing visitor safety. NPWS will include safety messages online, in publications (such as the NPWS pocket guides) and other promotional media (such as brochures and posters). These safety messages should identify a range of general risks that may be encountered in parks. They are intended to help visitors understand their personal responsibility and guide them on staying safe in parks.
  2. NPWS will issue warnings to provide more detail on the general risks identified in safety messages. These warnings are to be specific to a park and its particular conditions, including the scale, location and consequences of the risks (where this is not obvious).
  3. NPWS may also issue specific risk messages, such as a sign warning of a potentially life-threatening risk, at or near the site of the risk. Such messages must clearly provide information on the nature of the risk and the consequences of the risk (where it may not be obvious). Universal danger and hazard pictograms should be used wherever available to provide supplementary messaging. This is particularly important for park users unable to read English (see the Park Signage Manual, internal document available to staff). Messaging may also be translated into languages commonly used in the area (for example, Mandarin).
  4. The Park Signage Manual outlines the best practice for hazard signs:
    • use a danger sign to warn of a particular hazard or hazardous condition that is likely to be life threatening
    • locate danger signs as close as possible to affected areas
    • always use text on danger signs; symbols may be added to assist with communication
    • always place danger messages on stand-alone signs, never on an integrated sign such as a directional sign.

    Danger sign templates are available in the Park Signage Manual.

  5. NPWS cannot rely on a warning or risk message as protection from liability for negligence where:
    • A warning or message has been contradicted. NPWS staff should avoid issuing directions to visitors that are inconsistent with notices on signs or in printed material (unless there is a 'live' risk such as a bushfire, in which case staff can supply an instant risk message).
    • The person who suffers harm is an 'incapable person' such as a child not under the control of, or accompanied by, a capable adult. In highly visited areas, where children are likely to be present, signs and warnings may not be enough to manage safety risks: additional measures may be needed.
  1. In accordance with the Civil Liability Act 2002, NPWS has no liability for harm suffered from obvious risks of dangerous recreational activities (that is, those which involve a 'significant risk of physical harm').
  2. A person must obtain consent under clause 22 of the National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2019 for any activity or recreational pursuit that involves risking the safety of that person or other people. Clause 25 (2) contains a non-exhaustive list of risky recreational activities for which the consent of the park authority (NPWS) is required unless they are provided for in a plan of management.
  3. Due to the extreme danger associated with base jumping, consent will not be given for this activity in any park under any circumstances.
  4. Consent for risky recreational activities will not be given when there is a substantial conflict with other park users or there is conflict with the protection of natural and cultural values.
  5. Where there are site-specific risks associated with risky recreational activities that are not obvious to park visitors but which NPWS knows about, NPWS will make these risks known to park visitors. A warning sign may be appropriate. An example of a risk of this kind is a weather-related change, such as a sudden rise in river levels during or after heavy rain.
  6. Conditions may be placed upon a consent given for a risky recreational activity (for example, participants may be required to comply with relevant industry codes of practice).
  7. Specific provisions or facilities may be required for certain recreational activities to address their relevant risk and safety issues or to protect the environment. These provisions or facilities should be detailed in the park's plan of management.
  1. The NSW Police Force has statutory responsibility for all search and rescue operations. NPWS allows access through parks for all search and rescue operations.
  2. NPWS will provide assistance to search and rescue operations as appropriate, particularly with regard to ensuring environmental protection, minimising adverse impacts on park values, and providing local knowledge of parks.

How do we determine the appropriate management response?

  1. In some circumstances, such as for risks rated as very high, it will be appropriate to take immediate action to reduce the risk. Risk warnings, signage and temporary barriers should be considered to reduce visitor exposure to hazards until long-term risk responses are implemented.
  2. A management response should always take into account the factors listed in paragraph 21 of this policy and any relevant management plans for the particular park. The latter offers a framework for assessing the effectiveness of potential management responses.
  3. A management response may involve:
    • managing the hazard
    • managing the exposure of visitors to the hazard
    • managing both the hazard and the exposure of visitors to it
    • doing nothing and choosing to tolerate the risk.

How do we manage exposure of visitors to a hazard?

  1. Managing the exposure of visitors to a hazard means reducing that exposure. This can reduce risk without compromising the conservation of natural or cultural values.
  2. A management response to reduce exposure to hazard may include:
    • providing a specific risk message and other general warnings and safety messages through signs, printed material, the website or social media
    • modifying visitor use at the hazard location (for example, rerouting a walking track)
    • redesigning or relocating a visitor area
    • closing a visitor area – partly or wholly, temporarily or permanently.
  3. A hazard may be:
    • a natural feature, such as a cliff, water hole or tree
    • a natural event, such as a storm or fire
    • a native or introduced animal, such as a bird displaying aggressive behaviour
    • a built structure, such as a viewing platform or walking track
    • a visitor activity or behaviour
    • of some other kind.
  4. It may be impractical, impossible or undesirable to physically manage some natural or built hazards. Where it is possible and desirable to manage a natural or built hazard, the response will generally involve modifying a hazard (for example, with fencing) or removing it (for example, by closing a track).
  5. It may be inappropriate to manage a hazard (usually a natural one) if by doing so NPWS would adversely impact on the park's natural, social, scenic or cultural values. In these cases, NPWS should closely analyse risk tolerance.
  6. A natural event may create risks that require a park, or part of it, to be closed until it is deemed safe to reopen.

How do we document risk assessments?

  1. The risk assessment and management decision must be documented. For risks rated as medium or low, an entry in the relevant branch visitor safety risk register may be sufficient. Documentation assists future management and may be used in court action, if an event occurs, to demonstrate that NPWS has applied a systematic approach to visitor safety risk management. Appropriate documentation protects staff from liability; it does not expose staff to personal liability.
  2. In accordance with the department's risk management system, for any risk rated high or above, the management response will be documented and authorised in a risk treatment plan. Documentation will include certification that the response has been implemented.
  3. Where resources permit, a risk treatment plan may also be required for risks rated as medium, if these risks are not well controlled and require ongoing monitoring.
  4. A risk treatment plan should be prepared using the risk treatment template (internal document available to staff). It must include:
    • a description of the risk
    • details of the assessment of the hazard and exposure of visitors to the hazard, and any relevant information that explains how the risk was determined
    • measures currently in place to manage the risk (for example, policies and procedures)
    • details of the alternative management responses that have been considered and the likely consequences and effectiveness of these alternatives
    • details of the costs and other resources that would be involved in undertaking the alternative management responses
    • an environmental assessment of the proposed management response
    • an evaluation of the risk that will remain after the risk treatment plan has been carried out.
  5. NPWS Area Managers are responsible for ensuring that risk assessments and management decisions are documented. Branch Directors are responsible for approving risk treatment plans and certifying their implementation.

Who carries out inspections?

  1. NPWS must inspect any assets that present hazards (for example, a lookout) or manage them (for example, 'no access' fencing). Failure to maintain such assets increases risk and may increase NPWS liability for any injury or death that occurs.
  2. NPWS will use the Asset Management System to schedule and record inspections and maintenance of assets and demonstrate that reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that the asset performs adequately for its purpose.

Safety information and messaging for park visitors

  1. Safety information and messaging for park visitors are provided on the NPWS website and other publications and media. Messaging focuses on areas, activities, features and events common in parks, including (but not limited to):
    • ocean/beaches, rock pools and rivers
    • caves
    • alpine areas
    • boating
    • rock fishing
    • swimming and diving
    • remote bushwalking
    • adventure sports
    • road and mountain cycling
    • driving in the snow
    • driving in the outback
    • flood risk
    • wildlife
    • fire.
  2. The safety information for these common risks will include:
    • the nature of the risk
    • the consequence of the risk (if it is not obvious)
    • what a visitor should do to avoid the risk.
  3. General warnings will be issued for individual parks based on the risks identified for those parks. These general warnings may be delivered to the public via a number of means, including signs, promotional media such as brochures, or park-specific information on the NPWS website. Refer to the Park Signage Manual (internal document available to staff) for guidance on the format, content and location of general warning signs.
  4. If the management response to a specific visitor safety risk is to deliver a risk message using a sign, refer to the Park Signage Manual for the appropriate standard wording and symbols to be used.
  5. If the standard wording is not appropriate for a specific risk, a new risk message may be required for a sign. The new message must be developed with the following principles in mind:
    • the message must be given in a manner that will result in people being warned or informed before engaging in an activity in a park
    • the message needs to convey a sense of risk and danger
    • a message can be general and not identify the specific risk and the consequences of the risk (if they are obvious), but where there is a particular risk, the message must at the least warn of the general nature of the risk
    • the message should be clear about the area that it relates to, when the risk occurs (if appropriate), and any conditions that may give rise to a risk.
  6. The Park Signage Manual sets out the approval process for any new risk message.
  7. Signs warning of risks must be regularly inspected and maintained.

Policy adopted June 1989
Policy last updated September 2021

Scope and application

This policy applies to all lands acquired or reserved under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act) except for lands reserved under Part 4A of the Act (unless the Board of Management for those lands has adopted the policy). However, NPWS staff can use the policy as guidance in their dealings with Boards of Management.

This policy sits within the context of the department's risk management system (internal information available to staff). It should be considered in relation to the Work Health and Safety legislation which governs that framework.

Objectives

This policy sets out the department's approach to managing risks to visitor safety on NPWS-managed lands.

Definitions

The Asset Management System is NPWS's primary business tool to support the planning and delivery of asset management. It provides a corporate master list of all assets NPWS owns and maintains.

Hazard means a potential or existing condition that may cause harm to people or damage to property or the environment (Emergency Management Australia 1998 – Australian Emergency Management Glossary).

Incapable person means a person who, because of their young age or physical or intellectual disability, cannot understand a risk warning.

Management response means the treatment of a risk or the process of selecting and implementing risk-mitigation measures.

Plans of management are statutory documents that are required by, and prepared in accordance with, the NPW Act, and which set out every aspect of a park's specific management requirements.

Risk means a measure of the probability and severity of an adverse effect to health, property or the environment. Risk is often expressed as a combination of the likelihood of an event's occurrence and its consequences (AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009 – Risk Management).

Risk assessment is the process of identifying, analysing and evaluating risks.

Risk treatment plan means documented agreed action(s) or measures (additional to existing controls) to avoid, reduce, remove, modify or share a risk.

Risky recreational activity means an activity or recreational pursuit that involves risking the safety of a person engaging in the activity or that of other persons; and which is prohibited without consent under Clause 25 of the National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2019.

CAMMS is the WHS incident reporting system for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.

Accountabilities

This section outlines NPWS staff with significant responsibilities for ensuring implementation of the policy.

Paragraph Position accountable
13. Endorsement of deviation from the risk management system NPWS Deputy Secretary
14-16. Establishment and endorsement of branch visitor safety risk registers Branch Directors
17. Visitor risk data audit Safety and Business Performance Team
34. Consent to undertake risky recreational activities Area Manager or Team Leader, Resorts Environmental Services Team
37. Notification of site-specific risks Area Manager or Team Leader, Resorts Environmental Services Team
39. Provision of specific facilities for certain recreational activities Area Manager or Team Leader, Resorts Environmental Services Team
50. Closure of a park or part of a park Director
55. Approving risk treatment plans and certifying their implementation Director
58-59. General safety messages and information for use online, and in publications and promotional media Manager, Safety and Business Performance Team
60. General warnings Area Manager or Team Leader, Resorts Environmental Services Team