Australian Inland Taipan - The Deadliest Snake In the World!!
It’s back to school for the year and as always, due to the beautifully warm weather, it's one of the most popular times of the year for outdoor ed trips. It's also prime snake season and given the fact that Australia has the world’s greatest collection of deadly snakes, including the deadliest and second deadliest that can kill you within an hour, if you're bushwalking or camping, it's one risk that seriously needs to be addressed.
Australia has around 140 different species of snake and about 100 of these are venomous. Yes, we do indeed have the most poisonous creatures in the world. However, out of all of these, only a few are likely to inflict a wound that could kill you. These include, but are not limited to the Inland Taipan (Fierce Snake), Brown snake, Tiger snake, Death adder, Black snake, Copperhead and Rough Scaled snake.
Each year in Australia, there are around 3000 snake bite injuries, of which 400 - 500 casualties receive anti-venom. A fact is that snakes don't always envenom their victims and more often than not, it's a dry bite. However, you must assume if bitten, that every bite is venomous and treated as such until otherwise proven. Also be aware that baby snakes are more likely to inject a massive dose of venom into you if they bite, as they don’t have the maturity to decide to venom or not to venom, that's the question on all snake’s fangs.
A fatality as a result of a snake bite is quite rare. It's roughly between 1 and 3 people out of the 3000 who receive bites year that will result in a fatality. Around 60% of recorded deaths in Australia have been due to brown snake bites; the remainder are generally shared out amongst the inland taipan (world deadliest snake), the tiger snake (super aggressive) and the death adder (scary name).
Therefore, how do you manage this risk? Well for starters “DON’T TOUCH SNAKES!” With the exception of the tiger snake, most snakes aren't aggressive. By leaving them alone, you've basically managed most of the risk involved. I've encountered countless snakes over the years and I've never even come close to getting bitten, because they tend to make a fast getaway. However, when provoked, poked, prodded and picked up, they do tend to become quite responsive. The fact that most bites occur on hands and wrists when people try to capture or kill them, should say something. Stupid people have a tendency towards picking snakes up and boys in particular find that they can't resist the temptation and on average more young males get bitten than anyone else. So again, “DON’T TOUCH SNAKES!”
To highlight just how docile they can be, one of my colleagues last year was setting up a shelter when a red belly black snake slithered over his foot. He stood still, possibly frozen from the initial shock and associated fear, and the snake just continued on its way, not even noticing that my colleague was there. If you're hiking, ensure everyone is wearing sturdy footwear and heavy long pants and/or gators. The fangs on Australian snakes can't usually penetrate through these materials that prove great protection against the fangs. The one snake bite casualty I dealt with had been hiking in reef sandals and been bitten on the arch of her foot after stepping on the snake. Had she been wearing hiking boots, she would never have been bitten.
Signs & Symptoms:
With everything, no matter how well you try to prevent these things, people still get bitten. (If only we could leave the stupid people at home). Most bites that occur when out hiking, occur when someone accidentally steps on them. The pain has been described from being struck by a baseball bat, to being like a stick flicking up at you, to people feeling nothing at all until they start showing the signs and symptoms of envenomation, which include headache, tingling, stinging, burning or abnormal feelings of the skin, feeling anxious, tachycardia (increased heart rate), irregular heartbeat, nausea (feeling sick) vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, dizziness, breathing difficulties, problems swallowing, muscle weakness, confusion, paralysis, coma or death in the most severe cases. You may also see redness around the area of the bite and residual venom. However, it's possible that you won't see two clean fang puncture wounds and so rely more on the signs and symptoms.
To treat a snake bite wound, use the pressure immobilisation method. To do this, lay the person flat and do not let the victim move or walk anywhere as this will increase the pace at which the venom travels through the body. Take a compression bandage (preferably a snake bite bandage if you have one in your kit) and apply pressure directly over the top of the bite. The bandage should be firmly on and not so tight that it restricts blood flow. Snake venom travels through the lymphatic system, not the blood stream and so the compression bandage slows this process. If you have a second bandage (which you should), start at the toes, or fingers and apply the pressure bandage all the way to the top of the limb. Use another bandage each time you run out and then test the toes or fingers for capillary refill to ensure it’s not too tight.
Once you have the entire limb bandaged, immobilise that limb. If it's a leg, tie it to the other leg. If it's an arm, splint or tie it to the body. Basically, just make sure they can't move it. Then get them to professional emergency medical care as fast as possible. To be clear, this is just a general overview and for accurate up-to-date first aid advice, check the Australian Resus Council’s Official Guidelines
It's important to be aware that snake bites can cause a severe allergic reaction, anaphylaxis in some people. If you're treating a snake bite and someone has an anaphylactic reaction, treat it in the same way you would any other anaphylaxis as it becomes the priority and then apply the pressure immobilisation bandage.
Whilst snakes are a risk when out and about in the Australian bush, the most important thing to remember in the effective management of this risk is, “DON’T TOUCH SNAKES!”
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.
Whilst a lot of what I like to talk about is constantly pushing limits, trying new things and taking risks, after a recent experience I thought it’s worth dialling things back for a moment and looking at limits with a bit of context around it.
Whenever we feel pushed outside of our comfort zone, we have a choice. Push back and confront the challenge, or step back and say ‘no that’s not for me.’ More often than not, I’ll push back in a big way and take the challenge. However, it’s important to also be considering the risks that are involved in making such decisions.
I was recently in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the USA. This is a wonderful country town about 100km from Yellowstone National Park. The town is surrounded by massive steep mountains, most notably Rendezvous Mountain, where Jackson Hole ski resort is. To say this is steep terrain is an understatement. This is one of the steepest mountains I’ve ever skied. As my experience in super steep terrain was limited, I took some ski lessons to work on this.
It was a great and valuable time spent developing my skills in unfamiliar and often extreme terrain. Riding up the Tram, the cable car to the top of the mountain, you get a sense of just how gnarly the slopes are as you glide over the top of them. We’d been practising skiing down a lot of black and double black diamond runs, which were, intense, challenging and exhilarating all at once. Whilst I can’t say that I was entirely comfortable with any of these runs, they pushed my limits in a good way. However, there was one run, where I knew I’d reached my limit.
Travelling to the top of the mountain with the ski instructor, we left our skis and walked over to the top of a run called Corbet's Couloir. This is a legendary run amongst extreme skiers and I was about to find out why! The entrance itself was roped off, closed by ski patrol for whatever reason that morning. However, walking around to the side we could see the drop in. A tiny cornice forms at the top of the run and to get in, it’s literally a jump from the cornice into a massively steep chute hemmed by the rocky outcrops that form the peak of Rendezvous Mountain.
If you were to ski this and jump in, from there, given the steepness below, as soon as you land, you’d suddenly accelerate and would have to make two critical turns to avoid the walls and another rocky outcrop before running down into the slightly wider chute below. If you stuffed the landing, you’re gone. If you’re going too fast, you’re gone. If you lose balance, you’re gone. If you catch an edge, you’re gone. You get the picture!
Gauging the entry and the sheer insanity of it sent a nauseating feeling through me. I felt unsteady on my feet and took another step back from the rope. Now I’ve skied some crazy things over the years. I’ve booted off cornices, skied steep and deep powder and even taken on the Lake Chutes double black extreme run in Breckenridge, CO. But this was something completely different, the feeling was different, the feeling was dark.
In that moment, I realised something really important. This wasn’t my run. This was no longer pushing my comfort zone. This was just massive injury or death written all over it. Other than saying the feeling was dark, it’s hard to describe it any other way. Whereas every other place we went to, I felt pushed and challenged. I didn’t feel foreboding. No matter how intangible this may sound, it’s an extremely important measure of what’s reasonable to push boundaries, versus what’s unreasonable and pure insanity. Whilst everyone’s scale of this may vary, understanding your limits is very important in terms of managing risk and not getting yourself killed.
Even though you don’t want to be confronted by situations like this, or experience these sorts of feelings all the time, it’s worth experiencing something like this occasionally, as a healthy reminder that we can push the boundaries of ourselves and those around us, but we also have limits and understanding those limits can help us improve our own management of risk and remind us that we’ve already achieved an extremely high level to even be up at the top of the mountain. Rather than jump off a cliff to get back down, I was much happier to ski down another double black run and live to ski another day.