In every outdoor activity there are countless risk factors that must be considered and effectively managed to ensure safe operations and enjoyable experiences. Whilst it's easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of risk management and the enormous task of trying to think of every risk possible, from falling tree branches to unprovoked possum attacks, generally in outdoor ed, risks fall into three main categories. These create a nice triangle which could be used on a pretty PowerPoint presentation, for the world dominating purposes of the illuminati, or to make lots of money mysteriously disappear into places such as Bermuda. Whatever the case may be, the three components which make up the triangle are:
Again, broadly speaking, a failure of one of these area is problematic, but manageable. A failure of two of these areas is dangerous, as the ability to effectively mange the situation seriously diminishes and failure in all three could be catastrophic.
Over the years, I've experienced some interesting situations where one of these areas of ‘normal’ operation becomes compromised. For example, when environmental conditions have unexpectedly turned for the worse, I've found myself in the middle of storms, freezing cold nights, ragingly hot days, white outs, blizzards and everything in between. However, each and every time the situation hasn't been a problem. It's not only been manageable, but it's also been character building for those involved. So why's that?
If the environment itself is the only failing component of the risk triangle, it means you have the right equipment and people are following instructions appropriately, therefore you're just experiencing discomfort, rather than anything else more serious. As a result, the discomfort can provide great learning experiences for the group and not adversely impact on safety.
I will however, qualify something at this point, because someone’s bound to say, ‘What about lightning?’ Let’s take lightning out of the mix for the moment, as getting caught in a thunderstorm is dangerous no matter how you look at it. Supercharged bolts of electricity randomly shooting down from the sky is something you really don't want to be in, especially if you've upset Zeus, Thor or …. at some stage in your life. If you have upset any of these mythical gods for some reason, basically you’re on your own from here on in.
Excluding the wrath of angry gods and severe storms that should be picked up by your weather monitoring practices, getting caught in bad weather is not generally dangerous. However, let's see what happens when we throw a spanner in the works and another component of the triangle becomes compromised. For example, inadequate or poor quality equipment!
On one trip I was leading many years ago, it was late winter and had been raining all morning. We were running a program in the southern highlands of NSW. The hike was around 8km and the forecast was for more light showers. On the surface, not a problem. However, during the lunch stop, we decided to do an equipment check, as most of the students were wearing cheap useless ponchos that their parents had misguidedly bought them to ‘save’ money. This sort of thing will last two minutes in the bush and be torn to shreds in no time at all. You may as well not bother and you’re better off spending that money on an overpriced coffee, as it will have more of an effect on your comfort and well-being than the rubbish poncho. Despite the inadequate rain protection, this wasn’t the major issue, as the most important thing for the students to have was their thermals. This was on their packaging list, but untrusting of the parents and their poor decision made on the rain gear, we thought it best to double check. The result was three pairs of thermals were being carried out of 28 students! This was without a doubt an Epic Fail!!!
Suddenly, we had two components of the risk triangle in play and actively compromised, so our risk profile just shot up dramatically! Hypothermia was at the forefront of my mind and the fact we didn't have any vehicle access to the area only added to this. Given the poor quality of equipment, the lack of essential clothing and the potential for students to be carrying useless summer sleeping bags, we had two options. Accept the high-level of dangerous risk involved with continuing, or modify the plan… Needless to say, we modified the plan, extended the day trip and returned to base.
In stark contrast with this, another trip I led, we were completely smashed by rain, far worse than anything we had experienced the day we had to pull the pin, but the difference was that everyone had thermals and was wearing Gortex jackets. With no epic equipment failure, the situation was uncomfortable for everyone, but completely safe to continue with as planned.
Importantly, the way these three components interact with each other is the determining factor for the real level of risk with which you're working. Many risk assessment schemes fail to take this into account and are focused on writing everything down, but without the understanding of how risk may increase as one or more of these components become compromised or fail. However, it's critical that this is understood and is factored into the risk assessment and management processes and practices for the organisation.
This brings us to the People component of the risk triangle! Unfortunately, there’s no material safety data sheets, engineering limits or forecasts when it comes to people and how they’re going to act, react and behave in any given environment or situation. Even though it’s the most unpredictable and complex factor in the risk triangle, it’s often the least considered and most underestimated. There’s no shortage of stupid people in the world. In fact, many people excel in this area every day of the week and should certainly not be trusted with open flames or power tools, or anything without smooth edges.
The problem is that when you're responsible for people like this who are unpredictable, or taken to doing idiotic thing, it's vital that you watch them and actively manage them. Unlike finding a faulty or damaged piece of equipment and replacing it with a new one, the people risk is far more emotive and complex.
If you can exclude a student from activities who simply will not listen or engage, that could be the best solution as they drag everyone else down with them. However, often schools are reluctant to take definitive action and sadly, sometimes as leaders, we’re stuck with a compounding people risk until their idiocy negatively impacts on the group and someone higher up in the organisation suddenly realises that what you said in assessing the participant risk has now come true. This is not a situation you want to find yourself in and it’s worth having good behaviour management strategies in place, such as higher staff to student ratios or modified programs when the people factor has the increased potential for producing adverse risk to the staff and the group.
As with any other individual component of risk, behaviour alone isn’t necessarily critical and with a good leader more often than not, like every other risk factor in isolation, is not a major concern. However, throw in a bit of bad weather, forget or misuse some vitally important piece of safety equipment and you’re now shaping up for some major issues.
When you’re reviewing your risk management systems it’s well worth considering the interaction of these three components in the context of your organisation and how you can best address them when running any sort of program. Being aware of how the level of risks escalate as one or more are compromised, will help you to build far greater situational awareness. This keeps your risk management practices alive to ensure safe operations and great educational outcomes.
Recently, I was on an expedition along the spectacular south coast of New South Wales. Despite having a group of Year 9 boys with me, it was a spectacular trip! The expedition itself was a journey of around 30 km from Dolphin Point in the North, to North Durras in the South. Rather ironic that the most southerly point is called North, but of course everything is North of something, unless you’re at the South Pole.
Given the fact that the group of 18 boys on the expedition had been trained in all the requisite skills beforehand, I framed my briefing so they were running the expedition, not me. Consequently, the boys get the opportunity to explore, take on challenges and make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t.
From a staffing point of view, the other teacher and I were there purely as the ‘safety blanket’ just in case a poor decision were to be made in the dangerous risk category. This means, we only ever would intervene if there’s a serious safety risk. If they walk in the wrong direction for an hour, I don’t care, because it’s not a dangerous risk. If they’re thinking about crossing a flooded river filled with snakes and piranhas, then this is my moment to facilitate a discussion on risk. At the end of the day, however, the students are running the trip and I encourage them to do everything possible themselves without the intervention of staff.
At no point with high school students do I want to be working on the premise that I’m ‘taking’ them out on a trip. Anybody can take a group of students out, blindly lead them around the bush and call it a hike. However, from an educational point of view, this doesn’t make any sense because there are no real learning opportunities that are created from this when you drag students around as if you’re the Pied Piper. Sure, you might wander around the wilderness for a couple of days, see some sights and ‘rough it’ a little. The students might feel a bit uncomfortable being out camping, but ultimately that's about it. There's not much actual learning involved in this scenario.
So for starters, avoid ‘taking’ students on a trip. Their parents can take them on a trip. Any sort of teacher can ‘take’ them on a trip. But as an experiential educator you must let them take you and lead you on the trip. For some teachers, this is way too hard and they don’t want to give up control. I saw an embarrassing example of this in my favourite café in Berry one day. The guy in front of me ordered a coffee, but then instead of letting the barista make it, the man wanted to pour his own milk in. The owner just stared at him and said, “why did you come out for coffee if you want to make it yourself?” Sometimes you really just need to let go!
Anyway, back to the coastal expedition and two different approaches to the same issue. We’d had really high seas for the past week and this raised a few red flags in terms of our risk management and our assessments of the locations. However, there wasn’t anything significant enough to mean we had to cancel or redesign the trip.
Day 1, we hiked along 7 kilometres of beach before reaching a headland that jutted out into the sea. Approaching this point, I positioned myself towards the front of the group, knowing the headland was one of those potentially dangerous points on the expedition that required active supervision.
Since I’d already put all the decision-making responsibilities onto the students, I didn't move into this position to take over. Instead, I put myself there acting in my role as ‘safety manager,’ to facilitate a discussion about the location and the hazard. I wasn't going to suddenly jump in and say, ‘Right, I’m in control now! Follow Me!’ If I did this, it would defeat the whole purpose of what we’re trying to achieve. Why? Because I can’t tell my students one thing and then do the complete opposite whenever I feel like it. Students quickly see through people who aren't authentic and honest, so if you decide to jump in randomly here and there whenever it suits you, good luck building trust after that! It remained up to my students to make an informed assessment and determine for themselves how they should proceed once they have all the information.
I need to be very clear at this point. I’m not going to put the students in any danger if they make a poor decision. I’ll use this opportunity to further expand on actions and consequences and keep working on it until they make a sounder decision.
At this point of the headland, there are two ways around. There’s one path up to the right, as we were traveling south and are on the East Coast of Australia, which goes up and over the headland via a bush track. To the left is the ocean and directly in front of us, are the rocky platforms that step up and down to make up the headland.
I’d stopped at a vantage point a few metres above sea level at the point where we could go no further. From here I could see around to the beach on the other side of the headland. The swell was powerful and as I watched, I could see multiple sets of waves lining up before crashing on the platform below.
To this point, the boys hadn’t been paying much attention to what was going on around them. They’d been hiking for almost 2 hours. They’d been walking and talking and everything had been easy going. The simple act of walking along a beach isn’t particularly hard so it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.
Gathering the boys together on the rocky platform I said, “Ok, this is one of the points that you need to carefully assess and make a decision on. We have a couple of options available to us.” One of the boys immediately said, “Let’s just go straight ahead!”
I looked at him and he was one of those passenger students. We always have a lot of passengers and they’re the ones who just want to be taken on a trip. They’re used to be taken everywhere and having everything done for them. It’s people such as him, that demand instant results from no effort, and they’re the ones who tend to make dangerous ill-informed decisions.
For such as this student, if I hadn’t put myself in that specific location to facilitate a discussion about risk, they would’ve kept walking down onto the next rock shelf that was awash with the bright white foam of the waves, not noticed the approaching swell and got themselves smashed down by the crashing wave before being swept off the rocks as it withdrew back out to sea. Now they’ve just turned a nice walk on the beach into a coronial inquest. The faster you can identify this type of student the better, because all they see is the reward in a fast solution and perceive no risk or no danger as part of this.
I said to the boys, “Wait a minute. Before you make a decision on this, let’s run through the options that are available to us.” I outlined the bush track over the headland versus continuing around the headland. Whilst on the one hand, they were listening to me, more importantly, they were standing watching what the ocean swell was doing. It was only another 30 seconds and I got the result I wanted. The swell surged up and a massive set of three waves, one after the other pounded the rocks below us and a fine ocean spray mist covered us from head to toe.
Suddenly the boys’ attitude changed. “We don’t want to go down there!” one said.
“Ok, explain to me why you don’t you want to go down there.”
“Well look at it!” he said, “the waves keep crashing onto the rocks and if you’re down there, there’s nowhere else to go!”
The passenger from before, who wanted to proceed because he thought it would be easier then said, “We’ll be fine, let’s just time it and run across!”
The next wave smashed onto the platform, quickly followed by another, covering the entire rock shelf.
“Ok, so we have 20 people to get across, how exactly are we going to time it without getting hit by one of those waves?” The boy went silent. He didn’t have an answer as more and more waves crashed powerfully onto the rocks. As it was an incoming tide, it was only going to get worse.
I knew very clearly in my mind what decision needed to be made. However, it was still extremely important to let the boys have a discussion amongst themselves and make the decision. They’d been given all the information they required and were standing looking directly at the dangerous environmental conditions themselves. However, I wasn’t going to pre-empt what they were going to do and therefore save them from making a decision. This was an important teachable moment and they had to make the decision for themselves.
After a few more minutes of discussion and observation, the boys finally made their decision. “We’re going to go around, Sir!” said one them.
“Ok, good let’s make it happen,” I replied.
Without making a big deal about it, we backtracked a couple of hundred metres and went up and over the headland via the bush track. Before long, we were back on the beach continuing our journey.
Alternatively, when we got to that point I could’ve stopped everyone and said, “It’s too dangerous we can’t do this!” and led them around the track myself. However, what would’ve been the point of that? I would’ve wasted a really-important learning opportunity. I would’ve wasted the opportunity to let the boys see what a dangerous situation looks and feels like and wasted the opportunity to let them make an informed decision for themselves.
Whilst you can’t plan situations like this and I’d never take students into dangerous situations just for the sake of it, if they arise, use these opportunities as great teachable moments. Don’t just jump in and take control. Instead, see them for what they are, as extremely important learning opportunities for students. If facilitated in the right way, they can empower your student to make well-informed decisions for themselves, not just as a ‘one off’. This gives them the opportunity to grow as they learn to understand and experience the difference between a dangerous risk and a perceived risk.
Since the boys had made the decision on this occasion to go around, for the rest of the trip, every other headland we came to, the boys ran through this decision making process and either deemed it was safe to continue, or found an alternate route. I didn’t have to prompt their thinking or intervene at all.
In our debrief that evening, we again talked about taking risks. Whilst we’d already dealt with decision making in regards to dangerous risks earlier in the day, that night was a discussion about taking other risks. For example, the risk of trying something new, the risk of going outside our comfort zones, the risk of confronting a fear.
Contrasting the potentially dangerous risk the boys had to deal with that day with their own individual perceived risks, was a great way to conclude the day and reinforce the learning from that teachable moment. During this debrief, I experienced one of the most interesting and insightful discussions I’ve ever had with a group, all because we’d been able to seize that moment earlier in the day and use it to get the students really thinking.
So whenever you’re presented with a situation like this, embrace it, facilitate the discussion and use this to your advantage to help teach your students valuable lessons they’ll never otherwise learn, nor understand, unless they’ve actually experienced it for themselves.
This is something everyone seems to hate doing, which I understand, because it can be quite an involved and time consuming task. As a teacher, you're always under a lot of competing time pressures. Whilst effective risk management needs to be a culture within your organisation, for the moment I'm just going to focus on the paperwork.
There's also often confusion between the development of risk assessments and their practical application. Risk assessments and management systems (RAMS) are living documents, not something that you write just to make the principal happy and then file it away until something goes wrong, at which point everyone scrambles for the dusty document.
RAMS embody what dangerous risks there are for an activity or location and how those risks are managed or mitigated to reduce or remove the dangerous elements of that risk. Consequently, when you put it into practice, they result in well-planned activities in which the participants come back essentially the same way they left, but having experienced something new, unique and awesome.
There are three key areas of risk that you're always looking to effectively address:
As each of these elements can be extremely fluid and dynamic, generic risk assessments that are not tailored and considerate of the specific location, group involved, time of year, potential weather conditions, equipment being used and type of activity is a recipe for disaster. So don't do this. It's really bad practice and potentially exposes you and your organisation to a massive legal minefield.
One time, I was auditing the risk management systems for a school and it quickly became apparent that all their risk assessments had simply been blindly copied and pasted from one activity to another with absolutely no regard for the content.
I'd read only two paragraphs of the first document and it was obvious that the title and activity listed had absolutely nothing to do with what was written below. They were two completely different things.
I had a whole pile of documents to work through. Each one had a different title and date at the top. Each one was signed and dated at the bottom, but the exact same risks were listed for hiking, as they were for canoeing, as they were for rugby, as they were for tennis, as they were for every sport and activity the school did. They not only didn't make any sense, they jumped around here, there and everywhere so much so that if they were subpoenaed by a court, the school would have been found completely negligent and laughed out the door.
Not only had someone written a far too general and poor risk assessment to begin with, everyone else had just blindly copied and pasted it word for word. Nobody had checked it at all and some of them dated back over three years, which I suspect was the point of origin.
Thankfully, most schools I've assessed haven't been like this, but it highlights the danger of the copy and paste approach to risk assessments. The reality is that if you sign off on that document, then you are responsible and potentially liable for what's in that document.
This doesn't mean you need to start from scratch every time. What it does mean though is that you need to develop a specific risk assessment for each individual activity. There may be similar elements from one to another, but be careful that only the similar elements get written in and not just massive slabs of pointless nonsense, so you can make it look as if you've covered every risk possible in the world!
Rather than trying to think of every risk and throwing it for the sake of it, ensure you cover the three key elements that relate to your specific activity:
What are the potential risks and hazards that each of these elements bring to the activity? What strategies are you then going to use to reduce or remove these risks?
Bush fires are for example, a considerable risk in the hotter months, so controls to consider and manage where to hike need to be in place. Controls over campfires need to be in there and active monitoring of information from the rural fire service is a must.
In the colder months, bushfires aren't as much of a concern, whereas exposure of staff and students to cold is. Therefore, a compulsory piece of clothing would be thermals. As each risk is considered, you connect it with a way in which you're going to manage that risk.
The more you write into the document however, doesn't always mean the safer your activity will be, because each risk and control must relate to the specific activity or location. The risk of drowning for example playing tennis would just be stupid and also render the document in the laughable and unreliable category (Yes, that was in one of the documents).
At the end of the day a good risk assessment comes down to your ability to understand the activity you're running and the document you've written and how you and the other staff implement this when running the activity. It's this direct correlation between proactive planning and good practice that will make your risk assessments stand up against rigorous tests and challenges if they were ever called into question. Ultimately though, it's not about the paperwork itself. It's about helping you make every one of your activities safer and easier to manage.
Why is everyone so afraid of the word risk? To be honest talking about risk is a risky topic in itself, because whenever people think of risk, it conjures up visions of dangerous risk and is usually associated with money grubbing lawyers, soulless insurance companies and drawn out court cases, all of which should be avoided, like the plague or romantic candle lit dinners with Kim Jong Un.
Unfortunately, people become blinkered to anything else, especially when dating a dictator who desperately needs to find a new hairdresser. Seriously though, regardless whether risk is dangerous or not, it fills people with a sense of fear. Not knowing how to deal with one’s fear, leads to a perception that all risk is bad and therefore all risk must be avoided at all cost.
However, every part of our lives involves some form of risk. Whether it be trying a new dish off a menu for the first time, deciding what to do on the weekend or planning to leave your current job in pursuit of a new career. All these things involve risk. However, most of this risk stems from people’s inbuilt fears rather than serious risk of harm. Consequently, not all risk is dangerous risk, but it does make us feel uncomfortable, or even fearful because the outcome is unknown. Often people will delay making decisions, or avoid them entirely, because they want to avoid the risk of making the ‘wrong’ decision.
Education is all about taking risks, yet due to the misconception that risk is just about dangerous risk, there’s a huge disconnect with schools being proactive with their students and educating them how to take measured and reasonable risks to help them develop and grow. Instead, the focus is on ‘playing it safe’ and being totally and utterly risk averse. Once again, the nanny state and its perverse litigious legal system can justify its own existence.
It’s drilled into many children from a young age, ‘be safe’, ‘take care’, ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that!’ ‘BE CAREFUL!!!’ It’s fair enough that parents don’t want to put their child in danger. However, I’m not talking about dangerous risks, so if they’re so risk-averse that they’re not even willing to let their kids get dirty playing around in the backyard at a friend’s house, it’s going to cause much, much bigger problems later on.
Unfortunately, the current generation of school-aged kids seems to have been brought up by a generation of paranoid, risk averse parents who are desperate to see no ‘harm’ come to their ‘special child!’ Sadly, as a result of this paranoid parenting, it’s actually damaged many a child’s ability to understand what it means to take a risk, and to be able to take measured and informed risks for themselves. The comfort zones of kids are slowly smothering them into inaction and indecision, then often their perception of risk is either totally over the top, or so oblivious they believe they’re impervious to anything.
There are only two approaches you can take when dealing with risk. You can either accept and proactively embrace the inherent risks that life brings, or you can try to avoid them completely. By trying to avoid any sort of risk and avoid the risk of ‘failure,’ this can do more damage to children, than letting them explore and experience risk from within in a positive framework.
If parents have the ultimate goal of ensuring their child can’t possibly fail at anything in school, they’re missing the point about education and personal development. The reality is that this ‘perfect child,’ ‘perfect world’ approach is disastrously counterproductive and can only lead to a much greater failure in the future. By being over-protective, parents are not giving their children the chance to develop coping mechanisms and the resilience needed to deal with life’s setbacks that will most certainly occur.
Instead of wrapping kids in bubble wrap to protect them from everything, it becomes critical to allow them to explore taking risks within a structured framework such as an experiential education program. This allows them to think for themselves, make decisions and risk failure without massive negative consequences.
Through experiencing what taking risks feels like and helping students step outside their comfort zones, we can help students learn about taking chances in life, which is what life’s all about. It’s not about ‘playing it safe,’ to the point that you never progress and grow as a person. It’s about pushing the boundaries to make the most of opportunities and to become the best you can. Next time you’re running a program, set up an activity that involves a good amount of perceived risk that’s suitable for the age and maturity of your students. Through this, encourage them to take a chance, try something completely new and push beyond the boundaries that have been unnaturally put in place for them by others.
Failing that, there’s always that romantic dinner date…
One of the hardest things for Outdoor Education Programs is they take a lot of hard work to create. Lots of thought, time and effort go into designing, developing, assessing and testing a program. However, once a program is up and running, it’s far easier to repeat the same trips, rather than creating new experiences all the time. After all, most students only ever do that program once, so for students, it’s a new experience.
Consequently, people get into the pattern of doing the same things over and over again. When you’ve got a good program going, despite the repetition, people often stick with it. The problem with this however, is that it can lead to organisations becoming complacent. Staff become happy with the daily run of the mill program and fail to renew and change.
This creates stagnation within an organisation and when an organisation stagnates, a number of problems emerge. If don’t have a culture of continuous improvement within your organisation, you risk becoming complacent in what you’re doing. Complacency can lead to operational and organisational blind spots. When dealing with outdoor activities that involve various levels of risk, this creates a dangerous problem, often known as the expert blind spot.
The expert blind spot often occurs when you have a teacher or instructor who’s very good at the task. The same thing has been done for years and years and complacency and a false sense of security can start to creep in. When you believe you know everything there is to know about an activity and you can do it without even thinking about what you’re doing, you’re now in the danger zone, without even realising it.
Henry Doherty, the successful Irish businessman famously said, ‘Be a student as long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life!’ This is a poignant statement that’s so true for everybody that’s ever lived. No matter how much experience you have, you can always learn something new. If you get to the point where you can learn no more, then you’re just lying to yourself and everyone around you.
Programs that have been running for many years with the same staff who don’t like to assess, improve or vary the activities, risk falling into this blind spot danger zone. Subsequently, the risk of injuries or catastrophic failures dramatically increases as the blind spot entrenches itself deep into the person’s psyche. Be cautious when you start to hear statements such as, ‘We’ve always done it like this, so it’s fine,’ ‘That weather front’s ok, I’ve been in worse before.’ ‘We don’t need a risk assessment done on that. We all know what we’re doing!’ ‘We’ve done it so many times before, nothing can go wrong…’
What can you do to prevent the expert blind spot creeping in? One of the ways is for continuous improvement to be the goal of your program. What you’ve done last time wasn’t necessarily as good as what you’re going to do the next time. It’s not that you’re doing a sloppy job now but we can always do better. We can always improve on our processes and procedures. We can always improve on our cultural make up within our organisation. We can always find better activities to do. We can always find more challenging activities to do.
Rotate the locations of where you’re going on your programs. Rotate the staff that are running your programs. After all, it’s often staff becoming stale in what they do that can be a great causation for the expert blind spot to creep in. This doesn’t mean you just randomly shuffle your staff for the sake of shuffling it. There needs to be a reason. Plan it that way. Let staff experience different activities. Let staff develop different skills. Send staff on training courses. The amount of new knowledge that I get from every training course I do is immeasurable and it’s not just the content. It’s about engaging with other professionals in the field. Finding out what each does; listening to stories and experiences. If you go in with that attitude ‘I’m looking forward to learning something new,’ you’re going to get a lot out of it. If you go in with the attitude, ‘I know everything and I’ll prove it to you,’ you’re an idiot and the root cause of the problem.
It’s a very tricky dynamic with which to work. I’ve worked with some of these so called “experts” in the past. It’s more an attitude than anything else. Sure each has experience in the field but this blind spot once put me in a situation where we were hit by an extraordinary storm and we were absolutely smashed by it. We were lucky that we didn’t have anything more than a couple of students with hypothermia. I was a junior instructor at the time and despite my objections to going out in that weather, I was told: ‘No it’ll be fine.’ That put us at significant risk of harm. It’s this blind spot where it’s just day in, day out in your daily routine of running a program, ‘no it’ll be fine,’ that creates problems in the long run.
To avoid these problems: Go on some professional development. Open yourself up to an analysis of the program that you’re running. Ask your staff what each thinks of the program. Ask your students what each thinks of the program. Look for feedback that can be used constructively to improve your program, improve your processes and improve the overall experience of everyone involved. Don’t let yourself become stagnant. Don’t let yourself get lulled into this false sense of security that ‘we’ve always done at this way’ or ‘we stick to this because we know this so well.’ Ultimately, that can be counterproductive and that can lead to a dangerous situation with that expert blind spot is your blind spot.
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.