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.