Safety - Mt John - Physics and Astronomy - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

Mt John Safety and housekeeping Rules

"Rules alone will not prevent accidents...users [should cultivate] a ‘common sense’ approach of proceeding with caution going about their business (especially in the dark)." D.J. Sullivan.

Dial 111 from any telephone to contact emergency services

State location as ‘Mt John Observatory, 422 Godley Peaks Road, Lake Tekapo’. The ‘Observatory’ is important to avoid confusion with Mt John Station.

Dial 2777 from any telephone when urgent assistance is needed but it is not appropriate to summon the emergency services.

  • This will sound all Observatory sonalerts.
  • If a sonalert sounds, dial 43 on the nearest telephone to pick up the call.

Deputy Safety Officer at Observatory - Resident Superintendent - Nigel Frost

Departmental Safety Officer (in Christchurch) - Assoc Prof Owen Curnow Ext 6819

University Health & Safety Team (in Christchurch) Ext. 93636

All Mt John Staff hold current first aid certificates: Nigel Frost

This document comprises three parts:

All staff, students and visitors to the Observatory are required to be familiar with the safety and Housekeeping sections.

Personnel with additional safety responsibilities should be familiar with the Compliance procedures section.

1. Safety

Short Safety Rules:

  • Students, staff and visitors are morally and legally required to participate in ensuring the highest practicable standards of safety at the Observatory. (See Legal Obligations, Hazard Logs, Reporting Hazards, Reporting Accidents)
  • Vehicles must be driven prudently, especially on ice and shingle. (See Safety in Vehicles)
  • Check ladders and stepladders before using them.
  • Inspect plugs and cabling for damage. High-tension and mains voltages can kill.
  • In a fire, the over-riding consideration is to preserve life. (See Fire)
  • Make allowance for the stresses of night work. Move slowly near telescopes in darkened domes to minimize head injuries. (See Working at Night)
  • Note that domes may turn at any time due to observer operation, electrical or computer faults, or wind loading. Disconnect motor power before working on any dome.
  • Be prepared for the hazards of high-country weather. (See Weather)
  • Read each building's red-covered Hazard Logs to become aware of any unusual hazards.
  • Evaluate whether you can lift an object safely. (See Lifting)
  • If alone at the Observatory, take special care and periodically report your continued survival. (See Working Alone)
  • Use the safety equipment supplied for handling liquid nitrogen - visor, gloves etc. (See Handling Liquid Nitrogen)
  • Proper footwear must be worn while working with telescopes and other equipment, protecting the whole foot and preferably with non-skid soles.
  • Smoking is prohibited in vehicles and in buildings, especially the domes. If you smoke outside dispose of the butts carefully in summer and during dry spells to avoid grass fires.
  • Work with hazardous or toxic materials must be done with proper precautions - e.g. with flammable liquids, gases such as hydrogen, oxygen and acetylene, pesticides or weedkillers. Read the relevant Material Safety Data Sheet.
  • All accidents or near accidents must be reported. (See Reporting Accidents, First Aid)
  • All users are encouraged to take first aid training. (See First Aid)
  • Medical attention: Fairlie Medical Centre, phone 685 8211. (See Non-Urgent Medical Problems)
  • No one may work in a room with its major access door locked.
  • Doors of all buildings should be locked if they are empty. Do not leave buildings unlocked while temporarily absent.
  • No electrical wiring may be done by students.
  • Power tools may not be used by students.
  • A binder in the 1-M Library contains additional safety material, as do the minutes of recent GADs. (Grand Astronomy Discussions, normally held annually.)
  • Supervisors are responsible for ensuring that their students are familiarized with the Observatory's safety procedures and safe working practices.


  • Because Mt John is at least half an hour away from any kind of fire service, the prevention of fire is a major safety concern. Smoke detectors and/or sprinklers are installed, and fire extinguishers are located in all buildings. Please inform yourself of where to find extinguishers in the places you will be frequenting at the Observatory.
  • Keep doors closed as much as possible to minimise the spread of smoke, especially in the 1-M building.
  • Be aware of the nearest exit wherever you may be.
  • Fire extinguishers are provided for fighting small fires. Anyone may use them, but only if the user judges that the fire can safely be extinguished.
  • All other fires should be left to trained firefighters. The large fire hoses and pumps both at the 1-M building and on the summit are to be used only under the supervision of trained firefighters.
  • When using an extinguisher, first ensure a safe line of retreat. Never turn your back on an apparently-extinguished fire.

If a fire occurs that you cannot fight with an extinguisher:

  • leave the room with the door closed
  • operate the nearest fire alarm
  • find a safely distant telephone to call the emergency number which is 111
  • evacuate yourself from the burning building (if not required earlier).
  • Ensure that the deaf and disabled are evacuated too.

Fire alarm systems

The 1-M building and the rest of the Observatory are on two different but connected alarm circuits. They are set off by smoke detectors, heat sensors and manual alarm switches.

The fire horns in the rest of the Observatory will sound wherever the fire is located. In the 1-M building the fire bells will sound if the fire is in the 1-M building, while the bleepers will sound if the fire is elsewhere. The bleepers can be switched off at the grey box on the side of the fire alarm panel in the north foyer. Do this before attempting to use the phone.

Evacuation procedures

If ANY fire alarm sounds occupants of ALL buildings must evacuate and first gather at the building's assembly point. THEN move to the assembly point appropriate for the location of the fire. This is essential for ensuring everyone is accounted for.

For the 1-M building the assembly point is the sealed area east or north of the building (depending on weather).

For the rest of the Observatory the assembly point is on the south side of the workshop.

The Fire Warden checks the location of the fire. For the 1-M building this is indicated on the box in the foyer at the north end of the building. For the rest of the Observatory, the indicator is visible through the south window of the workshop.

If a fire is confirmed, the Warden rings 111 from a safe telephone to advise the emergency services. The call will be taken in Christchurch so the caller must state "Mount John Observatory, 422 Godley Peaks Road, Lake Tekapo" [the 'Observatory' part is important -- to avoid confusion with Mt John Station.]

The Fire Warden is usually the Resident Superintendent but in his absence it is the most appropriate person -- this can be a visitor. The Fire Warden's job is ensure the buildings are safely evacuated and everyone is accounted for, and to give the arriving firefighters details of the fire's location etc.

The red cape stored in the blue box at the outside end of the north foyer in the 1-M building should be worn by the Fire Warden to identify him/her at once to the firefighters and other arrivals.

Trial evacuations will be held periodically, once every six months, and within 24 hours of any field party taking up residence.


  • In the event of a strong earthquake take cover under any desk, table, doorway or solid structure available, away from windows.
  • Leave the building as soon as possible using the same route and assembly procedure as for fire evacuation.

Deaf and disabled people

A register of disabled people in residence is kept on the noticeboard at the exit end of the north foyer of the 1-m building and should be updated as necessary. Ensure deaf and disabled are evacuated when fire alarms ring.

Legal obligations

Employers have certain duties under the Health & Safety at Work Act 2015. These include: Systematic identification of existing and new hazards; reporting and investigation of accidents; elimination of significant hazards if practicable, minimization of and protection from the hazard if elimination or isolation is not practicable; involvement of employees in development of health & safety procedures. For the purposes of the Act, students are considered 'workers' or 'others'.

Workers also have certain duties under the Act. While at work, workers are responsible for ensuring their own safety and the safety of others as far as practicable.

The University of Canterbury has crystallized these legal obligations into ‘Health & Safety Accountability Statements for Heads of Department’ and ‘Responsibilities of Department Safety Officers’. (See Compliance Procedures)

Reporting hazards

  • If you become aware of any unrecognized significant hazard, you are obliged to report it so that elimination, minimization or isolation procedures can be instigated and the significant Hazard Logs can be updated. Note that the Hazard Logs do not cover hazards which a visitor would not normally be exposed to. For example, the numerous hazards associated with using machine tools would not be listed in the Workshop Hazard Log.
  • To report a previously unidentified significant hazard, see the Resident Superintendent about filling in the University's ‘Hazard Report’ Form (hs_frm09). The Superintendent will discuss the issue with the Observatory Director and other relevant personnel before forwarding the form to the University Safety Officer. The hazard will also be discussed at the next GAD.

Hazard logs

Significant Hazard Logs (red plastic binders) are available in each dome and building. Persons using them should read the logs on first entry and make themselves aware of the unusual hazards that may be present.


There is a potential for injury in lifting more than 16 kg from a standing position or 4.5 kg from a sitting position. Evaluate carefully whether you are acting safely when lifting objects of greater weight.

Liquid nitrogen

Liquid nitrogen is a potentially hazardous material.

(a) Safety spectacles should be worn when transferring it into or out of a vacuum flask, no matter what the quantity.

(b) All liquid nitrogen containers should be completely emptied at least twice a year, because of the gradual accumulation of liquid oxygen.

(c) Liquid nitrogen traps on vacuum lines tend to liquefy air passing through the trap as well as organic vapours, to give a dangerous combination. Do not draw air through a trap unnecessarily and always empty the trap immediately after use.

(d) Liquid nitrogen must be stored in a ventilated area.


  • Know what valve does what or ask first.
  • Use the visor and gloves provided.
  • Keep valves and nozzles pointed away from persons (and furniture!).
  • Wear serviceable shoes and clothes (not e.g. shorts and jandals) .
  • Try to keep the mechanism for turning the flow off within reach.

Material safety data sheets

These are available for all hazardous substances used in the Observatory. Copies are kept near the substances themselves and in the 1-M Library. Sheets for new hazardous substances should be ordered through the Deputy Safety Officer in Christchurch.

Reporting accidents

  • All accidents and near-accidents must be reported. For minor cuts etc. it is sufficient to write in the log books found in every first-aid cabinet.
  • More serious injuries, and near-accidents with the potential for serious injury, must be reported to the University Health & Safety Team in Christchurch on the University’s Event Form (hs_frm01). For this, report immediately to the Resident Superintendent or any other member of the Observatory staff.
  • The Resident Superintendent will also send a copy of form hs_frm01 to the Observatory Director for discussion at the next GAD.
  • If you wish to keep details of your accident private, you may request this, or even bypass the Resident Superintendent and Observatory Director and return the form directly to the Health & Safety Team.

First aid

  • All users of the Observatory are encouraged to hold current First Aid Certificates. Tekapo staff are required to hold First Aid Certificates. The cost of first-aid training will be borne by the Group or Department.
  • For serious injury when local assistance is not available, telephone Fairlie Medical Centre, Tel: (03) 685 8211.
  • First Aid boxes are available:
  • 1-M building - lounge, in the cupboard under the west-wall sink.
  • Workshop - bathroom area
  • Borealis - [cupboard above hand basin but not much in here]
  • OC Dome - dome, south wall on bench.
  • B&C Dome - foyer, on north wall.
  • House - kitchen, bottom drawer by laundry door.
  • First Aid manuals are available in the Library, and in the B&C and OC domes. A copy is also available in Room 803 in Christchurch.


  • At 1019 metres the weather poses hazards seldom encountered at lower altitudes.
  • Winds can come up fast, sometimes to gale speeds.
  • Never leave a dome open unattended. Wind can also rotate closed domes.
  • Don't leave doors and windows open unattended.
    It is wise to carry warmer clothing if possible when out for a walk.
  • Snow: may build up quickly on the road surface especially if it is cold (an overcast winter day) and present a hazard for leaving or returning to the Observatory. Plan excursions with the weather forecast in mind.
  • Ice: forms on the sealed area especially just outside the dormitory doors. Take care with footing there. Prevent the formation of icy patches by shovelling away the snow around the doors BEFORE anyone walks on it -- footprints will be preserved much longer than deserved by you, or your unwary colleagues... Ice builds up in shady places. Be very careful if exiting the 1-m building by the door at the south end of the dormitory passage. Also watch for ice at side door of the garage.
  • Cars: should have antifreeze in the radiator whatever season.

Driving in snowy conditions:

  • Drive slower; use the handbrake rather than the foot brake to slow down; if you have the choice stay home. Anti-skid courses advise depressing the clutch not the brake to regain control during a skid.
  • The Godley Peaks road has now been sealed, but there are still a considerable number of shingle roads in the Mackenzie.
  • The safe speed on shingle is 50 kph. Change down a gear to decelerate if opposing traffic means you must move to the side of the road -- that is where all the speedsters ahead of you have shifted most of the gravel. Braking hard in gravel has the same result as braking hard in snow & ice -- the car skids. Use the handbrake rather than the foot pedal.

Safety in Vehicles

Before driving a Department van or the Observatory station wagon make a visual inspection of the vehicle's condition, including tyres.

Respect the legal speed limits:

  • 100 kph on the open road;
  • 80 kph towing a trailer;
  • 70 or 50 kph in Tekapo village

and the practical ones:

  • 50kph on gravel; slow for ice/snow/wet conditions
  • When transporting liquid nitrogen dewars (full or empty)
  • Use a net or cords to keep your load immobile.
    Corner carefully especially on the Mt John road.
    If possible get someone to help get your load in/out of the vehicle.
    Keep a Materials Safety Data Sheet in the vehicle.

When towing a 450-litre liquid nitrogen trailer

  • Make sure coupling and safety chain are secure and lights are working
    Ensure hydraulic brakes are engaged and operating before driving.
    Allow extra clearance for the trailer when cornering, at petrol stations, etc.
    Beware of jack-knifing in wet or icy conditions.
    Obey the legal trailer speed limit of 80 kph.
    If reversing uphill, disable automatic hydraulic brakes (which otherwise may come on).
    Use trailer handbrake when decoupled from vehicle.

Working at night

Expect to be tired and slow to react
Take time for refreshment
Try to have things to do during long exposures
Beware of hitting your head against the telescope

Working alone

It is judged that there is only slight risk of an injury so severe that you cannot telephone the emergency services. Nevertheless, it is undesirable that anyone should be alone on the mountain top for an extended period. If you are likely to be in such a situation, discuss this with the Observatory Director. Alleviating measures include daily calls to a friend or relative, or being accompanied.

1-M Dome and rising floor

Memorise the location of the red stop buttons -- south wall at stair foot, north end of data room, etc. They stop the dome and floor, but do not stop the telescope, which you must switch off via the buttons on the north side of the pier.
DO NOT get snagged by the dome. The dome may turn at any time due to observer operation, electrical or computer faults, or wind loading.
Check before raising or lowering floor for people or equipment in the way.
Check stepladders before use, especially the catch. Don't climb ladders in the dark.
Wear comfortable nonslip footwear.

Emergency lighting and heating

The 1-M building is provided with emergency lighting in case of power failure. The lights last for about 20 minutes.

A portable gas heater is available in case of a long power cut in winter. The heater is stored in the garage. Carefully follow the instructions on its top.


The Police Station is on the south side of State Highway 8 by the Tekapo Auto Centre. Telephone (03) 680 6855.

Earth & Sky Ltd

Earth & Sky Ltd now run tours of the site.

2. Housekeeping


A dormitory consisting of 6 double bedrooms, one with ensuite, a communal bathroom, and a large kitchen and living room, forms part of the 1-M building's facilities.

Accommodation must be booked in advance with the Resident Superintendent.

The Observatory provides clean sheets and pillowcases, blankets and bedspreads. Visiting staff, students, observers and others are asked to make up their own beds and on leaving to strip the sheets and pillowcases and place them in the laundry basket.

Visitors should bring their own towels and personal toiletries. An automatic washing machine and dryer are available for personal laundry.

Please be quiet while others are sleeping.

Record the number of nights you stay in the log book in the canteen.


The kitchen is equipped with electric range, microwave and sandwich-maker.

Visitors are asked to keep the kitchen area tidy for the other or next users. This includes washing dishes and pots and wiping benches and stoves, as well as cleaning up spills. A cleaner comes two days a week for the larger cleaning jobs.

There are three refrigerator-freezers and a larder-cupboard for food storage. Visitors are requested to dispose of food that is not used at the end of their stay, either by wrapping it as rubbish and putting it in the bin or by leaving it clearly labelled as "free to all comers."

Nonperishable food may be left for a future visit if it is stored in a clearly labelled box in the walk-in pantry. Some items may also be left in the freezers but they must be clearly labelled with owner's name and date. Leftover food not boxed and labelled may be disposed of by the Observatory Rodent Control Authority (ORCA).

Damp food waste should be wrapped in newspaper to prevent leaks when the rubbish bags are taken to the dump. Old newspapers are stored on the shelves by the kkitchen outer door.

Night-time lights

To preserve the Observatory's dark skies, night-time lighting restrictions are in force in most of the Mackenzie basin. It creates a very bad impression if the Observatory itself is a source of light.

Curtains must ALWAYS be drawn whenever internal lights are on at night.

Dark adaption is particularly rapidly destroyed by fluorescent lights, which should not be switched on unnecessarily at night.

Observers are responsible for looking after their own torches. A charger is available in the canteen area for recharging batteries.


Transport from Christchurch, if not by rental car, can be by bus, Mt Cook line or Intercity, or one of several shuttle services. These normally arrive in Lake Tekapo between 12 noon and 2 pm. Transfer between Tekapo and the Observatory in the Observatory vehicle must be arranged in advance with the Resident Superintendent.

So that others can use communal vehicles, leave their keys on the chrome bars above the TV in the canteen.

Observers who are bringing equipment which they want to use on the night of arrival must arrive WELL BEFORE 5 pm if they require the help of the Observatory technicians to install the equipment, rebalance the telescope, etc. Expected arrival time should be notified in advance so that the technicians can plan their work.


Keys should be obtained from the workshop and returned there at the end of each visit.

Other Facilities

There is a TV and video; CD/cassette-tape player; computer for email; photocopier; fax machine; small library; million-dollar view.

Non-urgent medical problems

Consult the Resident Superintendent if he is around. If not:

Fairlie Medical Centre, phone 685 8211, hours Mon-Fri 9am-5pm EXCEPT Wednesday afternoon, will deal with any medical requirements that are not of the ‘dial 111’ emergency type. There are two doctors, male and female, and a practice nurse. Appointments are necessary. Out of regular hours, service is available (but there is a sizable surcharge) or an answerphone will give the phone number of the Timaru After Hours Medical Centre, 5 Dee St. Timaru, phone (03) 684 8209. Its hours are Sat 9am-12noon, 4-6pm; Sun 4-6 pm (and public holidays).

There is a pharmacy in Fairlie, hours 9am-5.30 pm Mon-Fri, 9am-1pm Sat. For an after hours pharmacy, there is a weekend roster in Timaru, but it will be necessary to phone the afterhours medical centre to find out which pharmacy is on duty and when it is open. (03) 684 8209.

3. Compliance procedures

Written procedures are evidence that the Observatory is complying with the Health & Safety expectations of the University of Canterbury, as specified in the University's ‘Health & Safety Policy' and Departmental Safety Officer (DSO) Role Description which are attached as addendums.

Duties of the Director

Ensuring that the Safety & Housekeeping rules are kept up to date.
Reviewing Event Report Forms (hs_frm01) and Hazard Report Forms (hs_frm09) and initiating discussion of them at the next GAD.
Formal identification of new hazards at each GAD.
Ensuring health and safety matters are minuted after each GAD.

Duties of academic staff

Ensuring that their students are familiar with the Observatory's safety rules and adopt safe working practices.
Conducting a trial evacuation within 24 hours of bringing any field part into residence at the Observatory.

Duties of the Resident Superintendent

Ensuring that a warning of any new hazard is promptly communicated to all staff and visitors to the mountain, and passed on to the Director. Ensuring that such hazards are eliminated as quickly as possible.
Controlling the behaviour of any person at the Observatory when necessary for safety of personnel or protection of equipment.
Passing to the Director any information necessary to keep the Safety & Houskeeping rules up to date.
Ensuring all research users of the Observatory who are not University of Canterbury permanent employees have signed the 'Declaration of Health & Safety Responsibilities' form.

UC Health & Safety Policy (13 April 2016)

Departmental Safety Officer Role Description (21 July 2015)

  • Department of Physics and Astronomy
    University of Canterbury,
    Private Bag 4800,
    Christchurch 8140,
    New Zealand.
    Phone: +64 3 364 2523
    Fax: +64 3 364 2469
  • Follow us
    FacebookYoutubetwitterLinked In