Visitor safety policy

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

15Kayaking on the Pinch River, Kosciuszko National ParkThis policy outlines the National Parks and Wildlife’s (NPWS’s) legal duty of care towards people in parks. It also provides guidance about how the Department can address safety issues and reduce risk to park visitors while maintaining park values.


1. The NPWS risk management system (internal information available to staff) is the basis for risk management governing visitor use of parks.

2. 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. More-significant risks should be given higher priority for resources than less-significant 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
  • visitor safety regional risk registers
  • WorkSafeOnline
  • 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.

9. OEH has a legal duty to take steps to reduce the risk of harm to visitors where:

  • the risk is foreseeable (that is, it is a risk OEH knew about or ought to have known about)
  • the risk was not insignificant
  • a reasonable person in OEH’s position would have taken additional precautions to limit or remove the risk.

10. OEH 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.

11. Seek legal advice (internal advice from the Legal Services Division available to staff) if you are in doubt about OEH’s legal duty in specific circumstances.

12. Visitor-safety risks will be assessed through the OEH 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.

13. The OEH risk management system is the general instrument for managing risks. However, is some cases risks may be better dealt with by using another instrument (for example, the caves access policy or the Fire Management Manual (internal document available to staff). The use of any such alternative instrument must be endorsed by the OEH Executive.

14. Each NPWS directorate maintains a visitor safety regional 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 under control.

15. Under the OEH risk management system, some events or situations require documented management responses and/or risk-assessment plans.

16. Directors are responsible for the allocation and endorsement of the Visitor Safety Regional Risk Register within their region.

17. The NPWS Team Leader Risk and Compliance will collate the visitor-risk data provided by regions, and produce an annual audit and report for the Executive Directors Park Programs and Park Operations.

18. The OEH risk management system (internal information available to staff) sets general risk rating and tolerability levels for OEH. The OEH Health and Safety Risk Level Matrix (internal information available to staff) establishes the levels of risk.

19. For some types of visitor-safety risks it may not be possible or practical to adopt the tolerability level set out in the OEH risk management system. Where this is the case, the risk-tolerance statement must be documented and approved by the NPWS Executive Directors.

20. Similarly, for some visitor-safety risks it may be necessary to depart from the risk-rating matrix, but any alternative must be documented and approved by the Executive Directors Park Programs and Park Operations.

21. In accordance with the OEH risk management system, risk ratings establish priority and accountability for a management response. However, they do not determine what that response should be. The risks levels are:

  • Extreme – requiring immediate and urgent action, and senior management to be notified. A risk treatment plan must be completed.
  • High – needing to be addressed as soon as practicable and senior management to be notified. A risk treatment plan must be completed.
  • Medium – requiring timely action and notification through the chain of management. Completing a risk treatment plan is optional.
  • Low – can be managed by the relevant manager through implementation of routine policy and procedures.

After a risk to visitor safety has been assessed and its risk rating determined, NPWS must decide on the most appropriate management response/s. Factors to consider include:

  • available resources, such as funding, trained staff, and management capacity
  • environmental impact of the management response, having regard to the aims of the NPW Act and the relevant management principles for the park
  • the nature of the site, and in particular 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 impact of the management response on other aspects of park management (for example, if the response would require an area to be closed to all visitors or to certain activities, the removal of camping sites, or visitor numbers to be limited)
  • 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.

23. 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 Visitor Safety Regional Risk Register
  • an appropriate management response has been determined and, where relevant, implemented.

24. Relevant risk warnings should be conveyed via the usual NPWS media and signage strategies.

25. Inspection requirements for built assets (including elevated structures) will be specified and scheduled in the OEH Asset Maintenance System (internal information available to staff), and be subject to regular maintenance plans.

26. For asset-based risks, the risk treatment plan should be based on the adopted cyclic maintenance plan and inspection regime.

27. Communication is an important tool for managing visitor safety. NPWS will include safety messages on the OEH-managed websites, in publications (such as the NPWS pocket guides) and in 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 to guide them on how to stay safe in parks.

28. 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).

29. NPWS may also issue specific risk messages as a management response to specific risks to visitor safety where necessary (for example, a sign warning of a potentially life-threatening risk, at or near the site of 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 imagery of danger and hazard 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, section 9.1), internal document available to staff). Messaging may also be translated into languages commonly used in the area (for example, Mandarin).

30. The Park Signage Manual (section 8.3.4; internal document available to staff), 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 area/s
  • always use text on danger signs, a symbol/s 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 (section 9.3, internal information available to staff).

31. We cannot rely on a warning or risk message to protect us from liability for negligence where:

  • A warning or message has been contradicted. Staff should take care not to issue 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.

32. 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’).

33. A person must obtain consent under clause 22 of the National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009 for any activity or recreational pursuit that involves risking the safety of that person or other people. Clause 22 (2) contains a non-exhaustive list of risky recreational activities for which the consent of the park authority is required, unless they are provided for in a plan of management. These risky activities currently include:

  • caving
  • abseiling
  • base jumping
  • bungy jumping
  • rock climbing
  • parachuting
  • canyoning
  • whitewater boating
  • paragliding
  • parasailing
  • hang gliding.

34. Due to the extreme danger associated with base jumping, consent will not be given for this activity in any park under any circumstances.

35. 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.

36. 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.

37. 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).

38. 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.

39. The NSW Police Force has statutory responsibility for all search and rescue operations. OEH allows access through parks for all search and rescue operations.

40. OEH 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?

41. In some circumstances, such as for risks rated as extreme, 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.

42. A management response should always take into account the factors listed in paragraph 22, and any relevant management plans for the particular park. The latter offer a framework for assessing the effectiveness of potential management responses.

43. 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?

44. 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.

45. 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, re-routing a walking track)
  • redesigning or relocating a visitor area
  • closing a visitor area – partly or wholly, temporarily or permanently.

46. 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 built structure, such as a viewing platform or walking track
  • of some other kind.

45. It may be impractical, impossible or undesirable to physically manage some natural hazards. Where it is possible and desirable to manage a natural or other hazard, the response will generally involve modifying a hazard (for example, with fencing) or removing it (for example, by closing a track).

47. 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.

48. A natural event may create risks that require a park, or part of it, to be closed until it is deemed safe to re-open.

How do we document risk assessments?

49. The risk assessment and management decision must be documented. For risks rated as medium or low, an entry in the relevant Visitor Safety Regional 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.

50. In accordance with the OEH risk management system (internal information available to staff), for any risk rated extreme or high, the management response will be documented and authorised in a risk-treatment plan. Documentation will include certification that the response has been implemented.

51. 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 on-going monitoring.

52. 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.

53. Area managers will be responsible for ensuring that risk assessments and management decisions are documented. Regional managers will be responsible for approving risk treatment plans and certifying their implementation.

Who carries out inspections?

54. 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.

55. A written record should be kept of the inspections and maintenance of such assets, to document how they have been managed and show that reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that the asset performs adequately for its purpose. The NPWS Asset Management System should be used to schedule and record inspections and maintenance.

Where do we place general and specific safety and risk messages?

56. The following general safety message is used on the NPWS website and in other publications and media:

It's great to explore and experience NSW national parks. We encourage you to see and do as much as possible. We also want you and your companions to stay safe. Remember that parks are natural environments and can be unpredictable. You should plan your journey for all weather conditions.

57. In addition to the general safety message, further safety information will be provided on the OEH and NPWS website and in other publications and media on areas, activities, features and events common in parks, including (but not limited to):

  • ocean/beaches, rock pools and rivers
  • caves
  • alpine areas
  • boating
  • rockfishing
  • swimming and diving
  • remote bushwalking
  • adventure sports
  • road and mountain cycling
  • driving in the snow
  • driving in the outback
  • flood risk
  • wildlife
  • fire.

58. 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.

59. 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.

60. If the management response to a specific visitor-safety risk is to deliver a risk message using a sign, refer to the Signage Policy for the appropriate standard wording and symbols to be used.

61. 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 not 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.

62. The Park Signage Manual sets out the approval process for any new risk message.

63. Signs warning of risks must be regularly inspected and maintained. 

Policy adopted 24 May 2017


Under the Civil Liability Act 2002, OEH, as a land manager, has a legal duty of care to all people within parks: park visitors, OEH staff, contractors and volunteers.

The Visitor Safety Policy sits within the context of the OEH risk management system (internal information available to staff), and should be considered in relation to the Work Health and Safety legislation which governs that framework.

Scope and application

This policy applies to all lands acquired or reserved under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act), including lands managed by New South Wales Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) under Part 11 of the Act. It covers the requirements that OEH has as an overarching organisation managing risk, but also covers the risk requirements NPWS has as the manager of park-related operations within OEH.


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

Exposure hazard refers to the exposure level of visitors to hazards. It contributes to the likely consequence of an event.

Incapable person means a person who, because of his or her young age or physical or intellectual disability, lacks the capacity to 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 the chance of something happening that will have an impact on health and safety objectives (for example, an event or circumstance and the consequences that may flow from it). Risk is generally measured in terms of a combination of the consequences and the likelihood of an event.

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

The Visitor Safety Regional Risk Register is a document, maintained by staff for their region, that formally records the risk assessment and management process for visitor-safety hazards. It provides the basis for ongoing risk monitoring and reporting.

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 22 of the National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009.

WorkSafeOnline is OEH’s web-based Work Health and Safety system. It supports the reporting and management of incidents, hazards, audits and safety interactions and provides the data for analysing WHS performance at a local level, which promotes WHS awareness.

Relevant legislation or other mandating instruments

Legislation and/or mandating instruments that this policy supports are:

National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974

National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009

Civil Liability Act 2002

Work Health and Safety Act 2011 

Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 

AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009 Risk Management Principles

AS/NZS 4801:2001 Safety Management System


This table outlines the management accountabilities in implementing the policy.

Paragraph(s) Position(s) accountable
13. Endorsement of deviation from OEH Risk Management Framework Chief Executive
14–17. Establishment and endorsement of Visitor Safety Regional Risk Registers Director
17. Visitor-risk data audit Risk and Compliance Team, Strategy and Coordination Branch
23. Development of new visitor areas Area Manager or Team Leader Resorts, and Environmental Services Team
33. Consent to undertake risky recreational activities Area Manager or Team Leader Resorts, and Environmental Services Team
36. Notification of site-specific risks Area Manager or Team Leader Resorts, and Environmental Services Team
38. Provision of specific facilities for certain recreational activities Area Manager or Team Leader Resorts, and Environmental Services Team
48. Closure of a park or part of a park Director
53. Approving risk treatment plans and certifying their implementation Director
54. Inspection of hazard related assets Senior Field Supervisor
55. Written record of inspections and maintenance Senior Field Supervisor
57–58. General safety messages and information for use on the OEH website, publications and promotional media NPWS Content Team
59. General warnings Area Manager or Team Leader Resorts, and Environmental Services Team
61. Application of principles for developing new risk messages Area Manager or Team Leader Resorts, and Environmental Services Team
62. Approval of new risk messages Permanent messages – Area Manager or higher
Temporary signs, consistent with manual – any staff
63. Inspection and maintenance of signs Senior Field Supervisor

Policy review

The Strategy and Coordination Branch coordinates the review of this policy. Reviews will be undertaken when changes in legislation, policies, park operation or other areas make them necessary.

Contacts for further advice

Contact NPWS Team Leader, Risk and Compliance for further advice about matters covered by this policy.