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World-first volcano risk assessment system wins accolade - 02/06/2015

A GNS Science-devised system to work out the cumulative annual risk of working on and near active volcanoes has won a national safety award.

Dr Gill Jolly (left) receives the commendation award from Alison Murphy of EQC, one of the judges at the 2015 Workplace Health & Safety Awards.

Dr Gill Jolly (left) receives the commendation award from Alison Murphy of EQC, one of the judges at the 2015 Workplace Health & Safety Awards. Photo: Michael Stephens Photography

The system – a world-first – won a special commendation award at the 2015 Workplace Health and Safety Awards, held in Auckland this week.

The impetus for the new system was an incident in November 2012 where three GNS Science field staff working on Mount Tongariro left the Te Maari crater only minutes before it erupted unexpectedly.

For an organisation that prides itself on its safety record, the incident was seen as a close call and it prompted a review of its procedures.

GNS Science believed it needed a better way of assessing personal risk for staff who regularly visit active volcanoes in the course of their work.

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It was a challenge to develop a robust decision-making tool that used our scientific data and understanding of volcanic activity. We have created an objective and clear way of setting exposure limits in high risk situations

Dr Gill Jolly

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Surprisingly, there were no best practice guidelines on this anywhere in the world.

So the Director of GNS Science’s Natural Hazards Division, Gill Jolly, researched and developed a way to assess the risk of travelling to and working on active volcanic fields.

“Over 30 volcanologists have been killed on active volcanoes over the last 50 years,” said Dr Jolly.

“As an organisation, we have a vital national role in monitoring the volcanoes in New Zealand through the EQC-funded GeoNet project. We have to ensure that we minimise the risk to our people while they are undertaking this work.”

Dr Jolly’s method calculates risks over a full year and helps determine ‘go’ and ‘no go’ zones, and what level of risk is tolerable for each person engaged in field work on volcanoes.

Her method has been operating successfully at GNS Science for three years and is regarded as a world first.

“It was a challenge to develop a robust decision-making tool that used our scientific data and understanding of volcanic activity. We have created an objective and clear way of setting exposure limits in high risk situations,” she said.

“The limitations on working close to volcanoes have also driven our scientists to explore new innovative ways of collecting data on volcanic emissions (gases, fluids, and ash) from a safe distance.”

The method has been shared with civil defence authorities, local authorities and tourism operators, and is being used by DoC to manage public access to volcanic areas.

Dr Jolly accepted the award at a gala event at Sky City in Auckland this week.