Many organisations have irrational obsessions and unhealthy relationships with their written risk assessments. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do written risk assessments because you should. They’re an extremely important part of a risk management framework. However, what is unhealthy about them, is the demand from management to have a written risk assessment, but once it’s done, it just gets filed and nothing else is done with it. Yet if something goes wrong, the first question is, ‘Where’s your risk assessment?’
This is a bizarre way to operate because you can write all the risk assessments in the world, but unless your staff are understanding of and actively managing risk, all your paperwork means absolutely nothing. Despite this reality, the paperwork obsession remains a top priority for many organisations, but unless every activity is being run by switched on professionals who pro-actively manage risk within the organisation, then no matter how good your paperwork is, you’re exposed.
The practical reality is that you can write whatever you like in a risk assessment document but often, once it’s written, it’s quickly forgotten. It soon gathers dust and like vampire in the night, it never sees the light of day again, until a pile of fanged marked corpses prompt someone into action.
You simply can’t afford to place yourself or your staff in a situation where this is the standard operating procedure. The end result, if something does go wrong, is usually expressed through head scratching and befuddled proclamations, ‘Well, we wrote a risk assessment!’ However, there can’t be a disconnect between the documentation and the implementation. They must be reflective of each other.
One organisation I previously worked for were totally and utterly obsessed with written risk assessments. I was tasked with auditing their risk assessments and methodology. However, from the moment I started reading what they had in place, it became evident there was absolutely no connection between the activity and what had been written. Subsequently, it became perfectly obvious that nobody had actually read any of the paperwork, which left me wondering what they’d been doing. Not only did their pointless documentation have to be re-written from scratch, a significant process of change management was required to refocus the culture within the organisation to be one that was proactive in its assessment and management of risk.
Often the source of this problem is that many organisations don’t have people who truly understand risk management at the top. Just because someone has reached a leadership position, doesn’t mean he actually knows anything about management, least of all, risk management. Therefore, if you put someone in the situation where he is supposed to be managing risk, yet doesn’t understand risk beyond filing a written document, it’s little wonder that he’s focussed on paper pushing nonsense and not on organisational culture.
In this situation, when something goes wrong, it becomes all about blame and retribution. It’s not about discussing what was the root cause of an incident, it’s about finding scapegoats. This sort of approach is unhealthy and totally counter-productive. What an organisation needs to be able to do is sit down and openly discuss activities that involve risk and be prepared to debrief near misses and learn from each other’s knowledge and experience.
Good risk management procedures stem from this sort of open, honest and pro-active culture of risk managers within an organisation. If everything’s about retribution and blame, you create a culture that wants to cover up anything that doesn’t go 100% to plan. With this, you get a thin veneer giving the impression everything’s fine, yet scratch the surface and you’ll find what can be a toxic mix, priming itself for a significant failure.
To avoid this, there has to be that open and honest conversation about risk, about contingency planning and about response and mitigation. It’s important to have someone at the top setting the tone and facilitating the culture within an organisation to ensure you have a team of proactive risk managers.
Ultimately, documentation is only a tiny part of how your organisation should be assessing and managing risk. The remainder comes down to the professionalism, experience and team work of your staff to ensure that every activity is being run safely and effectively. Once you’re operating with this cultural mindset and have a team of pro-active risk managers, the paperwork takes care of itself.
An operational management plan is essentially the standard operating procedures for your program. Now I hate the term SOP, because it always feels like it's a set of rules that's written down, which ultimately guarantees that nobody ever reads it. So what's the point? Like anything involving people, logistics and risk, it needs to be a living, breathing process that all staff are part of. It has to be clear in the minds of all staff what the process is to run a safe and effective program.
With any experiential education, you need to have some very clear structures in place to both ensure the smooth operation of activities, as well as contingency plans if something goes wrong. Some organisations are obsessed with risk management plans and waivers, thinking this is all the planning they need. They've kept their lawyers happy and there's a document they can produce to prove they at least thought about something before leading the group into the valley of death. Well, there's quite a lot more to it than that and this is where many organisations go wrong.
You’d think it goes without saying that you need a plan, an itinerary, a schedule, risk assessment, student medicals, permission notes, or at the very least a class roll! However, I’ve regularly seen the focus of planning to be on only one or two of these components, rather than properly addressing them all. You must address them all! There's no point in having an itinerary and risk assessment written and not having the logistics and staffing in place to execute your plans.
You always need a functional end-to-end operational plan, that is flexible enough to handle multiple contingencies. Therefore, you need to plan for everything from the perfect operation to various “what ifs” for minor hurdles, emergencies and full crisis response. An effective response though has more to do with the staff’s mental state and ability to respond and adapt to a fluid situation, rather than a rigid written plan that's immediately forgotten when confronted with a complex crisis.
I've seen this done very well, but also extraordinarily poorly, especially when people aren't operating programs all the time and they feel they need to make things up as they go. There's a huge difference between being adaptable and making stuff up on the run. So one massive hint here, Don't Make It Up As You Go! Have a well-structured, executable plan that everyone’s part of that can be quickly enacted if something goes wrong.
What if the weather changes? What if an emergency happens? What if a crisis happens? Are you prepared to switch it up and respond quickly and effectively? I've seen some great written risk assessments where I have mused, ‘wow they've thought of everything!’ but then looking further on, no contingency plans nor any real idea as to how to manage an emergency or crisis.
It's Never Nice Getting Hit By This
I've seen and worked on programs (thankfully not run them) where the organisation had a ‘nothing will ever go wrong’ approach. This is where everything is done on razor thin staffing, based upon the idea that everything will go exactly to plan and I mean exactly to plan! The danger of this, is firstly, it's idiotic in the extreme. When you're dealing with groups of students and staff in different locations and involving vehicles and equipment, something could eventually go wrong. If you have no flexibility and adaptability factored in, then you're asking for a lawsuit and in fact, you deserve the horrendous experience of being dragged through the courts for your stupidity. I never felt safe, nor comfortable on this program. Thankfully, when I brought it to the attention of the organisation and they couldn't see the problem with it, I left and found another place to work that did.
This ‘razor thin’ notion, usually done to ‘save money,’ that works off the basis that everything will go exactly to plan, just increases the pressure, stress and fatigue on staff, which adds to the inevitability of something going wrong. Philip of Macedon (Alexander The Great’s father) put it very nicely. ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’
So with that in mind, here's an outline of how I develop an operational management plan:
If you plan around these 10 steps, then you're well on the way to having a safe, enjoyable and rewarding experience for everyone involved.
Now thankfully this isn't something that happens every day, but it does happen. Given the fact that my first job was at a gun club, shouldn't mean the chances of being shot increases. Whilst many bleeding hearts will tell you the dangers of shooting, it remains one of the safest sports you can do. I've had far worse injuries from hockey than anything else. Mountain biking and skiing are right up there for the most dangerous sports. However, once again, I digress and so back to the topic.
I'd got my first job as many teens do at 15. However, it wasn't a fast food joint. It was a shotgun club. My job was to put the skeets on the hopper and fire them up so that people could shoot at them. It was a fun job that paid really well. Most of the time I just sat inside a concrete bunker waiting for the buzzer. When I heard that, I'd load the clay and off it would go. This would be followed by the sound of a shot gun and depending on how good a shot they were, it either shattered the clay pigeon, or it would gracefully sail back down to land in the field nearby. The only real hazard of the job was when a clay shattered inside the bunker as it flew out. You'd be shielding your eyes as you were peppered with tiny ceramic fragments as they ricocheted off the solid concrete walls.
The job was fun and often I'd get to shoot a few clays afterwards too, which added to the excitement of it all. One day however, we were on a different range. It was the field and game range. At this range, it wasn't the traditional skeet tower and bunker configuration that we usually worked with, meaning the clay pigeons would be fired from either a tower, or the bunker. Instead, we used a whole range of different styles and sizes of clays which could be bounced along the ground, thrown up into the air, down a gully or every which way possible. It added a remarkably different sort of challenge to it all.
That day, I was stationed high up on top of this rock. When I heard the buzzer, I'd fire two clays up over this rock and the shooter would see them as if they were birds through the trees. This was no worries at all as I was high up and protected by a rock. However, the next range over, something was being fired across the gully and unfortunately I found out the hard way that this side wasn't so well protected.
There had been a few shots now and then where I'd heard the leaves in trees above getting sprayed through with shot, but thought nothing really of it. I was protected by a rock. It was way above my head as it should be. It was all good. However, just as I was loading a double clay, I heard a boom and whipping sound coming at me. My arm suddenly stung before a hot painful burning sensation took over. I grabbed my right shoulder with my hand. Looking down I could see blood, lots of blood and my upper arm dimpled with telltale signs of a spray of shotgun pellets.
I don't remember screaming or crying in pain. It all felt so surreal. One second I was loading clays. Next I'd been shot in the arm and bleeding profusely. I felt my right hand release the clay hopper and I shot the two clays up into the air. It must have surprised the range officer, as I'd let them go too early. He was on the radio to see what was happening.
I said, ‘I think I might need some help. Can you come up?’
I remember the reply was one of grumbles, as if it were so much effort to get up the hill. (Actually, for most of the club members it was, given the fact that they weren't the fittest group of individuals.)
However, when he got up there and saw the blood, his attitude changed. Thankfully, someone in the club had some idea of first aid and it wasn't long before they stopped the bleeding and revealed some nice neat pellet holes in my right shoulder.
Whilst today, I'd be seriously looking into their risk processes and procedures to find out why there was such an horrendous failing in their safety, back then. After I realised that the wounds weren't too deep, the pellets had all been removed and I was ok, it now felt so cool to have been shot at work and as compensation, they gave me and extra $50. All in all, a great day at work.
I've previously written about the need for having a designated safety officer as part of your operational management plan. The safety officer is your backup and support for all field operations and as such, should be a key component of your risk management strategy.
However, this isn't a token honorary role for someone to sit around and do nothing, or ‘do admin’. The person has to be experienced, competent and switched on, ready to respond to anything from small hurdles and emergencies, to full-blown crisis and critical incident management.
When do incidents happen? Any time, any place and to anybody! Consequently, the safety officer role must be taken extremely seriously and be done by someone who is capable of quickly responding and adapting to what can be fluid, chaotic and evolving situations.
Unfortunately, I've seen the other side where organisations and individuals haven't valued the safety officer role, nor taken it seriously and those put in the position of safety officer have thought it to be a nice, cushy, quiet ‘day off,’ which it's not. I could run through several examples of the disastrous mess that's occurred when organisations and individuals have taken this approach, however, I’ll stick with just one for now.
It was a weekend like any other at our residential outdoor education campus. We had 60 students in the field and 20 onsite. My group was the one onsite, so I had an insight into everything that was going on. I was told my help wasn't needed, but I made sure I remained informed and kept my finger on the pulse, just in case things changed.
I'd seen the safety officer, who was part of the admin staff and not really experienced in field operations. He'd been causally wandering around campus and saying how he was looking forward to finishing up and going home, as he didn't like working weekends. It had basically been a trade off. He had to work a weekend as did everyone else, but rather than be out on a trip, he decided the best place for him was in the office ‘doing safety.’
At around 3pm, a call came in from one of the groups. One of the boys had been bitten by a snake… They weren't sure what sort…
The near comedic chaos that followed demonstrated that not only do you need someone on safety. You need someone who is switched on and competent. Maps were being pulled out, madly opened and juggled about to work out which way was up. A worried and panicked expression had set into the safety officer’s face and a general state of confusion gripped the air.
This really wasn't the confident basis for a swift response and to say things took a long time, would be a serious understatement. The lack of mental preparation by the safety officer and the limitation of knowledge and understanding as to what was going on became immediately apparent.
Fumbling through the whole messy process, what should've been a simple pickup from a trailhead ran from 3pm until just after 8pm when the boy was finally transported to hospital. There was no hiking. No 4WDing involved. Everything was accessible via sealed roads and the nearest town was 20mins away. As evacuations go, it was a fairly simple and straightforward one. So why did it take so long?
The main factor was the safety officer wasn't switched on to the fact that something could go wrong. He had the attitude that all he was doing was having a nice quiet day in the office, where he might have to answer the occasional phone call. He was also already thinking about going home. Because he wasn't mentally prepared, when circumstances changed, he didn't shift his thinking into response mode. Instead, he immediately went into panic mode, which consequently turned everything into a chaotic mess, dramatically increasing the potential for further harm.
At the end of the day, the boy finally got to hospital and thankfully, after tests were done (and the fact that it had been hours since the bite and no obvious signs of envenomation had emerged), the doctors found he hadn't been poisoned and was treated for the puncture wounds and sent home. This result was sheer dumb luck and if the boy had been poisoned, the outcome could have been far worse.
The bottom line is, don't rely on dumb luck, or inexperienced staff to get you through an emergency or crisis. If they're not experienced enough to be in the field, then they're the last person you want acting as backup and operational support. As part of your standard operations, you need to effectively plan and prepare for contingencies and most of all, ensure your safety officer is the right person for the job. When things go wrong, they go wrong quickly and your safety officer needs to be able to react and respond just as quickly and effectively.
By doing this, you ensure the right framework and resources are in place so that in the unlikely event something adverse happens, it can be swiftly contained. Good response can prevent any further injury or damage can be minimised. Right person, right place, right time, isn't dumb luck, it's good planning.
Whenever you're running trips in the field, be it outdoor expeditions or sports trips, part of your planning should include someone who’s sole role is the safety backup person. Unfortunately, this is often an overlooked roll, or one that's totally under-estimated in its importance.
Whenever you're dealing with staff, students, vehicles and equipment, no matter how careful you are in the planning process, something could go wrong. When it does, you want to be able to respond quickly and effectively to contain the incident and mitigate any damage. If all your resources are tied up with the operation itself, then your ability to respond to unforeseen events is seriously compromised.
The process we used at one school I worked at was very effective. Staff were trained in emergency and crisis response management, had been on every single expedition we ran and rotated in and out of the safety office position throughout the year. This meant they always had their finger on the pulse as to what ‘normal’ operations should look like and they knew the local area extremely well, so when contingency plans needed to be enacted, they were able to form a swift and appropriate response.
The safety officer was the central command for all communications in and out to the groups. He monitored the group’s location, progress and knew of any specific needs of the group. All contact in and out was logged so there was a complete record of communication with the group.
Most of the time, this just meant the safety officer was sitting in the office and didn't have much to do. However, when something didn't go to plan, he was ready with a vehicle, comms and equipment to respond swiftly and in the most effective manner possible. No scratching of the head, no running around to grab supplies, they were ready to go immediately.
Why is it so important to have a person in this role? Why can't the person on the ground just deal with it? I've also worked for a school that thought this should be the case and their idea of someone on safety, was a person who was on-call on their day off, 2.5 hours drive away. Now I’ll let you be judge on how negligent this approach is. The reality is if you limit the resources to manage contingencies or not even have contingencies, then you seriously increase the risk of harm to staff and students.
The safety officer needs to actively monitor weather conditions, notify groups of any changes, or the issuance of extreme weather warnings. They need to remain appraised of other potential environmental hazards, such as bush fires, flash flooding, lightning, high winds, feral animal control or even other groups in operational areas.
I always enjoy the variety that this role brings. At times, it's a great way to have a quiet day in the office, simply checking weather, fire danger and logging communications. However, other times you're on the go all day, sorting out logistical and operational issues to smooth out daily activities, or occasionally taking a student to hospital (and sometimes a staff member).
The bottom line is that the safety officer is a vital, available resource that's ready to respond, provide additional support or effectively co-ordinate a larger scale operation in the event of an emergency or crisis. It's not just a cushy role for some inexperienced staff member to have a quiet ‘admin day’ in the office. You need to use your most capable staff because the difference that can make to the speed and effectiveness of the response, impacts significantly on the containment and mitigation of the incident.
Winter is coming, and although that might now strike fear into the hearts of those guarding the wall to the north, it’s an awesome and exciting time for those who like snow sports. Apart from teachers being able to get a trip away to the snow, with huge responsibility thrown in, what’s the point of running a ski trip?
There are two aspects of ski trips. They’re either developing skills and social and emotional connections, or they’re about training and competing. I’ve been involved in both types of programs. However, for me, the social and emotional growth is far more interesting than standing around at the side of race tracks helping kids wax their skis.
Snow sports are a great fun way for students to learn and improve skills, take responsibly and socialise. Skiing and snowboarding can be engaging for anyone of any skill level. Across the range of outdoor activities, for me, it’s more fun than anything else and I’m not going to try and hide that fact, but if education can’t be fun, then what’s the point?
I always think that no matter what you’re teaching, if you can’t make it engaging, then why bother?! Snow sports, which includes skiing and snowboarding are technical and physically demanding sports. It’s challenging for so many people, because balance and fitness are key to ensuring you can ski all day, not have accidents and not wake up feeling as though you’ve been hit by a train. Therefore, if you’re going to be running a snow sports program, a fitness regime in the weeks/months leading into it is a must.
For school administrators scratching their heads wondering how this is educational at all, here’s where your education comes into it! Kids need to understand effective preparation for so many aspects of their lives. Most of the time they don’t need to prepare anything for themselves. However, failure to prepare in an alpine environment can lead to injury, exhaustion or serious illness putting others at risk in the process. Leading up to any ski trip, you should provide students with a program that builds their fitness to increase strength and stamina, making sure you do it as well.
This sort of pre-trip fitness is often neglected because too often people see trips to the snow as a fun holiday and not a physically demanding sport. You’re not going to run onto the sports field and play an intensive match having not trained at all. If you do, you’re going to risk injury and of course, you’re most likely going to lose. To avoid this, everyone going on a snow sports trip should have to meet minimum fitness requirements so they don’t end up in the medical centre on the first day.
Whilst there are many other considerations when preparing for a trip to the snow, having fit, well-prepared students will significantly decrease your risk of injury on the mountains. It’s in everyone’s interest to get out, get fit and have a great time at the snow.
I've touched on the topic of kids’ differing perceptions of risk before. However, it's not a one off issue that can be easily dealt with. It's an ongoing concern that requires constant attention, as the adolescent brain doesn't perceive risk in the same way an adult brain does.
To highlight this point, on my recent visit to the US, I was struck by this problem at a bus stop. I was in Park City, which is in the mountains in Utah and to say it was cold would be an understatement. It was around -20 deg C. The late afternoon air bit viciously every time you drew a breath. I was rugged up in two layers of thermals plus another four layers on top of that.
I'd just been shopping for some supplies for dinner. Walking along the pavement, I noticed two teenage girls huddled together at the bus stop. I could see they were shivering and not wearing much at all. They each appeared to be wearing some leggings (tights or something like that) and a light top. With their teeth chattering, they were debating if they should keep waiting for the bus or go inside and risk missing it.
Listening in for a few moments. It became apparent that they'd ducked out of the house to quickly go to the shops and didn't think they’d need a jacket (or pants). At this point I started thinking about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but I quickly dragged my mind back from this. I rustled in my pocket and thankfully it was still there. I had a pair of hand warmers which I'd taken with me up the mountain. Once it hits below about -5, I like to keep my hands warm.
Pulling them out, I offered them to the girls. They thanked me and grabbed the hand warmers. Clutching them in their hands, they then hugged them close to their pale faces. Another five minutes went by. I chatted with the girls to try and keep their mind off the cold. They sounded increasingly despondent as the bus was running late.
“Why don't you duck inside over the road?” I said, pointing to a restaurant opposite. “I’ll signal when I see the bus.” The girls looked at me, looked at each other, then the restaurant. It was an easy decision. They dashed across the road and into the warmth of the building.
Another 10mins of waiting in the freezing cold and the bus finally arrived. I waved to the girls, who ran over and jumped onto the heated bus. Huddled together at the back, still shivering, that was the last I saw of them.
Whilst I'm sure they were ok in the end and I did ask if they were ok to get home, it does highlight a serious problem with teens’ attitudes towards risk. I see it time and time again with activities I run, be it skiing, mountain biking, canoeing, hiking, whatever the case may be. I’ll see a student without a helmet, without a jacket, no PFD and when you challenge them on it, you get the excuse, ‘but it's only just…’ and therein lies the problem. The idea that (in the girls’ case) it's only just down the street, (so I won't need a jacket), unfortunately follows through to everything else that teenagers do. They have this complete lack of awareness to risk. This is different from risk taking behaviour where they're seeking our risky activities. This is just a total lack of forethought. Everything in the adolescent brain is purely focussed on reward, or the outcome. It's not worried too much by the details in between.
Whilst all of this poses a massive challenge for a teacher from a risk management point of view, it also provides some great learning opportunities too. I don't mind when kids do things like this (within reason), because it teaches them a valuable lesson. For example, one ski program I worked on, we spent a lot of time briefing and preparing the kids for the first day. However, no amount of clear instruction will ever be enough for some people. They need to experience everything first hand.
With snowboarders, one of the most frequent injuries that occurs, is the broken wrist. To counter this, we instruct all our snowboarders to wear wrist guards. Most do, however, one boy in 10th Grade, it being the first time he'd ever snowboarded, decided not to wear them. It was the first run of the first day of a 10 week program. He slipped, fell forward, put his hand out, landed on his wrist and broke it. I asked him, when we got to the medical centre, ‘Where were your wrist guards?’
‘Umm… I had them on me!’ he said defensively. ‘They were just in my pocket!’
I looked at him and I'm pretty sure he knew what I was thinking, ‘so what valuable lesson do we learn from this?’ I said rhetorically.
Even though, as teachers, we go to great lengths to manage all sorts of risks, we can never underestimate kids inability to perceive risk in the same way adults do. Even though the ‘only just’ excuse frustrates me to no end, it provides a great learning opportunity through debrief and reflection.
As a result, we need to use these opportunities where kids disregard risk and ignore their own safety, not as disciplinary issues, but as learning experiences. It's not about getting someone in trouble to prove that you're right. It's about giving them the opportunity to reflect on what they did, or didn't do and what happened as a result, in such a way that they can learn from the mistake and not repeat it in another more critical or dangerous context.
I realise that already countless people have switched off having read ‘Risk Management’ in the heading and are now watching a video of a fat cat sipping milk from a bowl. If you're still here however, well done for reading this far. I’ll avoid going off on my dolphin party tangent from my last article on risk. Instead this time I’ll jump right in!
Many people learn about risk management from a training course or a lifeless lecture by a lawyer telling you of all the dangers of everything, yet having no practical experience in the field themselves. They might put up an infographic for you to look at with some big red warning signs and after an hour or two you're now qualified in risk management. If you've had this experience, you're probably feeling uncomfortable about the whole process and looking for a much better approach. From the start, let me make something clear. Risk management is a cultural attitude within an organisation, not a check box compliance process. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain stupid and dangerous to those around them.
My first job in experiential education was with a private school, working at their outdoor education campus. It was here that risk management was instilled in me as being a natural part of absolutely everything we did. Not paranoid about risk, but very proactive. Before every activity, the team going on that trip would sit down and write out the risk management for it. There was no thought of simply printing out a generic risk management form that nobody bothered to read and everyone blindly signed it. This was an active discussion of the risks and hazards for that specific activity to ensure it was clear in our minds the risks and controls we needed to put in place to ensure a safe well-managed activity was run.
The value of this was immeasurable. On the one hand, you had a current and accountable risk management document for each and every activity, prepared by those who were directly responsible for the safe conduct of the activity. On the other hand, it was building and reinforcing a culture of active risk management. Risk was a regular, open and honest discussion amongst the staff, which kept everyone on the same page and held everyone accountable for the preparation, operation and decision making processes being used. It was never the case of ‘Oh don't worry, I know what I'm doing!’ or ‘It's someone else's job to do that,’ as I’ve found in so many other organisations. It was a continuous proactive and dynamic process.
It's hard for me to understand why anybody wouldn't take this logical approach. Yet, as I said before, this was how I was educated, so I hadn't known it to be any other way, until I moved to another school and the difference was stark and concerning.
As a brief background note on the school I was working for originally, 18 months prior to my starting, there’d been a fatality on one of their overnight hikes. This tragic event sent shockwaves through the school and had dramatically and bluntly shaped much of the focus of the organisation moving forward. The devastating fallout from the fatality lingered for years, yet many important lessons were learnt from this experience.
Fast forwarding 17 years to today, there’s absolutely no reason why it should take a critical incident to change the culture within an organisation, yet sadly it often does because of a lack of real understanding of risk management and its effective usage. With many fatalities, serious injuries and near misses so well documented by the industry and the coroner, working through some of these cases together as a staff can be of great value in starting the process of cultural change towards the goal of proactive risk managers.
When you understand what you're aiming to achieve and how simple oversights can have massive repercussions, then it's much easier to develop the whole team to be working together and thinking along the same lines. The ultimate aim of a proactive risk management culture is to run safe and challenging activities, promote sound decision making and prevent major disruptive events (aka critical incident). There's no future in finding yourself in front of a coroner and your only defence being to say that you at least had all your paperwork in order. At this point, paperwork is quite worthless and purely academic, and you're going to look like a complete idiot and potentially liable, if not culpable.
Creating a culture of risk managers means that your paperwork, which is always required, is actually being put into action and that if anything adverse happens, everyone is equipped to respond swiftly and appropriately. However, you will also find that running an organisation with an embedded culture of risk management, will mean the potential of a significantly disruptive event occurring becomes increasingly unlikely.
The most important thing is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Get started today. Read some case studies that are closely aligned to what you're doing on your program and discuss them with your team. Build that culture of the proactive risk manager mindset into your organisation and ensure that you're running the best programs possible with the best framework possible to challenge and really push your students and at the same time ensuring their safety.
In first aid training, it should be drilled into students more and more that Danger is the No. 1 consideration for First Aiders. It's often mentioned, but the massive importance of the issue is not always effectively addressed. Personal safety and personal protective equipment should be dominant factors in your decision-making process of, ‘To help or not to help!’ The tough reality is that if you're going to be at risk, then you always have the choice not to involve yourself. It's a hard decision, especially when you're trained and have a desire to help others, but sometimes it's the only choice possible if you’re going to end up in danger yourself.
One situation I found myself in where the danger to me proved far too great, was when I was in Colorado, in the US. I was skiing at Breckenridge, and coming down a home trail that links two of the peaks together, when a movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. I skidded to a stop. Glancing back I saw two figures scrambling desperately to get out of a creek bed next to the trail.
The first one popped up onto the side of the track. ‘Are you ok?’ I asked, seeing that he was a snowboarder.
‘Yeah, I'm fine,’ he panted.
He seemed distracted, turned back and scrambled towards the creek. I skated up and took a closer look. I could see his friend half way up the snow covered embankment, his head covered in blood.
‘Oh…’ I thought, suddenly switching modes and quickly assessing the area, the people and everything around me.
The guy who'd climbed out first was now becoming increasingly distressed.
I looked directly at him and calmly said, ‘Would you like me to call ski patrol?’
‘Oh yeah man… yeah… I need to get him out!’ he replied sounding confused and now appearing disorientated.
That was about the best indication I could get that this guy wanted help, so I called ski patrol and gave them a quick description of the situation and my location. At this point however, I’d only just seen the scrambling up, some blood and heard a bit of noise. I didn't quite understand the full extent of the injuries or anything like that.
As I got off the phone, I could see the second snowboarder grab the edge of the track and push himself up. I clicked out of my skis and stepped forward. Staggered to his feet, the snowboarder stumbled toward me. Taking one look, I stepped back. Blood was pouring down his face like a bubbling brook.
Taking another defensive half-step back I said, ‘My name’s David, I’ve called ski patrol and they're on their way.’
I got a mumbled somewhat confused response that at some point included an acknowledgement.
This whole time, I was still assessing the scene and evaluating the injured snowboarder. I'd determined the scene was safe. Given the mechanism of injury appeared to be snowboarding into a creek without a helmet, I wasn't that concerned about that happening to me. The next danger was that the snowboarder was now standing in the middle of a ski run and other skiers and snowboarders were riding past at speed. To manage this danger, after I took my skis off, I’d crossed them up hill from our location, so I was happy with the fact that I wasn't going to get hit where I was standing.
Next I moved to the human factor in my ongoing Danger assessment. I’d already determined that there was significant personal risk involved in providing First Aid. There was blood everywhere, I didn't know the person, he appeared to be under the influence of drugs and I had no personal protective equipment (gloves). This was too much danger for my liking and there was no way I was going to put myself at risk of a blood borne infection through providing assistance in this situation. At the same time, I also decided that I wasn't going to just walk away. I was going to be entirely ‘hands off’ as the casualty was at least able to do things for himself and help was on its way.
From a safe distance, I provided clear instructions to him and his friend, who was still wandering around in a panic. ‘Okay, ski patrol isn't far away,’ I said again to reassure the casualty. ‘What I suggest you do whilst you wait is just sit down on the side of the track and with your glove, press down on your head.’ I pointed to where I wanted him to sit, out of the way of others and demonstrated with my hand on my head to show him what I wanted him to do.
The blood kept streaming down the snowboarder’s face unabated, but there was little else I could or would do in this situation. He sat down and at least put some pressure on his wound. For at least 2 minutes, he was sitting there doing what I'd suggested he do.
This is where it became weird. His friend is still walking about in a panic and I was trying my best to calm him and reassure him. Then the casualty starts reacting to his idiot friend’s panic. ‘I've gotta get outta here man!’ he said.
‘Oh no,’ I thought. ‘Here we go!’
Now dealing with profusely bleeding drug tripping snowboarders isn't my idea of a good day on the snow, but I still had to try my best until I could hand this bloody mess over to ski patrol.
‘It's okay,’ I said again, ‘ski patrol is on its way. Just stay where you are, keep pressure on your head and you’ll be taken care of shortly.’
‘Nah, man I gotta go!’ he said, taking his hand off the head wound. Suddenly more blood streamed from his head as the pressure released. He proceeded to strap on his snowboard.
I tried reasoning with him some more, and when that didn't work, I tried reasoning with his friend. Not an easy thing to do with stoners! Dave definitely wasn't their man!
No matter what I tried, the guy was determined to go, so I certainly wasn't going to try and stop him. He skated off woosily, his friend chasing after him yelling, ‘You gotta see a doctor man!’
I quickly got back on the phone to ski patrol and explained the situation. ‘Do you know where he’s going?’ they asked.
‘No, sorry I don't know, but there's a pretty clear trail of blood leaving my location. Follow that and you're bound to find him.’
With that, it was the end of my involvement. Even though I provided some level of assistance, I remained completely hands off to protect myself from the clear and present danger. Having come across an injured person, I’d fulfilled my obligations under the skier’s code of responsibility, by stopping and calling ski patrol. However, in my assessment of the scene, the injury and the person involved, I’d decided very quickly during my initial danger assessment, I wasn't going to offer or provide first aid.
This can be a hard decision, as you're trained to help others in need. However, I've seen people rush in to situations and end up finding themselves covered with a stranger’s blood, which, even if you've only got a paper cut on your finger, could mean an infection. The last time I saw this happen, the person was a first responder to a car accident. He rushed in with another, started treating a casualty, no gloves, no danger assessment done at all. The irony was that there was a well-stocked First Aid kit with plenty of gloves in the back of the responder’s vehicle. If they had taken 60 sec to calm themselves, checked for dangers and put gloves on whilst they assessed the scene and its surrounds, they wouldn't have needed to go through the stress of a number of blood tests for infectious diseases. I can't stress enough DON’T DO THIS! If you're the first responder, your No. 1 priority is always to CHECK FOR DANGER! At the end of the day, you can't afford to put yourself at risk of harm and become the second casualty of the incident.
Attitudes towards risk varies dramatically in individuals. Some people love extreme sports, others don't even like to change the channel on the TV. Whilst these are two extremes of the spectrum, we must manage risk in our own lives on a daily basis. However, what happens when assessing and managing risk is part of your work? How do we avoid diametrically opposed views on risk impacting on effective risk management?
Do we let the mathematicians do the stats for us and tell us why we can or can't do an activity? After all, statistically eventually everything happens! If we’re purely relying on statistics though, more young people die on our roads from vehicular accidents than anything else. The government then jumps up and down and says that they’re having a blitz on road safety, but this just means more speeding fines. It doesn’t deal with the core issue that young males are massive risk takers. What we need to be doing is dealing with core issues, not randomly managing the symptoms.
In any organisation, you want to avoid the extremes. This is especially when working in experiential education. You can have people there who are so risk averse, they don't want to leave the building. However, the far greater risk is the problem of staff who have the attitude, “Don't worry about it, it’ll be fine!” These people either don't understand how to manage risk, or they're so full of their own self-worth, they have the idea that it will never happen to them. Therefore, they don't need to do anything to manage risk, because nothing like that will ever happen!
If you have someone like this in your organisation, you need to get rid of them as they're a danger to themselves and everyone around them. This is worse than the ‘expert’ blind spot where someone fails to see risk due to their experience, as this person fails to see risk due to their lack of experience and lack of understanding. They will disregard anyone else's opinions too.
Not long ago I was running a canoe expedition up into the Shoalhaven Gorge. This is a magnificent area. Remote, pristine and rugged. It forms part of the Etrema Wilderness area and is accessible either by the lake, or by helicopter. Therefore, there’s little margin for error. We were about to set out on our journey when a flotilla of canoes came paddling in. It was a school group, most of whom weren't wearing life jackets and the staff seemed ill-prepared.
We briefly engaged in conversation with one of the teachers and he told us that they'd never been here before. They just hired some boats and canoed up until they found a campsite. I didn't ask what sort of safety equipment they brought. One of them was running around with a mobile phone, trying to get a signal. I informed him there was no point as the closest reception was 16km away. It would be silly for me to have suggested they use their satellite phone, but I did all the same, to which they replied, “No, we don't have one of those. We didn't know there wasn't any reception down here.”
I decided to explore this situation further and asked a few more questions. They'd only decided in the last week they were going to bring the group of kids out. It was a co-ed group with no female staff. They had done a recce, but it was in a completely different area and because someone had seen a snake there, they thought it too dangerous to go. I was totally gobsmacked by this, thinking that these are the sort of people who end up costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars because they take no responsibility and end up getting into trouble, not being able to manage it and having to be evacuated.
I quickly realised I was talking to idiots and so I politely extracted myself from the conversation and went to do some final checks before we departed. Away we went up into the magnificent Gorge and paddled for almost three hours until we reached the campsite. I hadn't thought any more of that group until we were setting up camp. One of the boys threw a piece of paper onto the fire pit in preparation for the evening’s campfire. All of a sudden I smelt smoke… the paper burst into flames. As the paper burnt out, I put my hand over the top of the fire pit. It was still hot! The idiot teachers from the other group had done nothing to make sure the fire was out. It would've been at least 6 hours since they'd departed the site and the heat coming out was enough to reignite.
Thankfully I don't run into too many people like this, but it highlights such a lack of concern and understanding of risk. Did they even do a basic risk assessment? Even if they did, what was the point? This is a failure on so many levels of an organisation. To manage risk effectively, it means you need to develop a culture of risk management within the organisation. This doesn't mean become risk averse. It means working together as a team to proactively work out what real risks are and how they can be effectively managed. It's vital that you have an experienced operator providing oversight and not just a classroom teacher who's been promoted beyond their talents, or an in house lawyer who's never been outside of the office. These people might understand an aspect of risk, but don't know how it translates into the real world.
With the right leadership promoting an open and honest culture of risk management in which discussions can occur on a regular basis about risks, hazards, incidents and near misses, you ensure you set and maintain the highest of standards for the safe operation of all of your programs. It is through this culture of awareness that we can continue to run safe and effective programs.