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, it was late winter and had been raining all morning. We were running a program in the southern highlands of NSW and that afternoon we were going to hike down Meryla Pass into Kangaroo Valley. It’s about a 6km hike 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.
For me and many others in Australia, the transition from Christmas to the New Year has been incredibly stressful and disconnected from what we would usually think is a wonderful holiday period. We’ve finished 2019 and started 2020 having experienced some of the most horrendous bush fire conditions anyone has ever seen and at such a large scale.
Whilst some of the most catastrophic days have past, there remains a clear and present danger in terms of fires. However, with any risk, it’s in the assessment and active review of that risk that we’re able to effectively manage those risks.
In recent days, I’ve heard of a number of schools cancelling their entire outdoor education programs. I have absolutely no idea what idiotic thought process was involved in these decisions. In fact, it’s worse than that. If you have people running these programs who are willing to take them all out of the field on such a thin premise, then those people shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near an outdoor ed program, let alone a school, as it doesn’t demonstrate any level of reasonable thought nor leadership on what has been a devastating concern, yet at the same time, not an insurmountable risk.
Being able to understand the difference between perceived risk and real risk is important for those running an outdoor ed program, or any school excursion or activity for that matter. Certainly, parent perception is a risk, but it’s not a dangerous risk, it’s more of an unpleasant risk in the grand scheme of things. However, if you clearly explain decisions based upon real evidence and have professional, well-trained and experienced risk managers running your programs, then this is not a real risk at all.
On the surface, it would appear that schools have cancelled programs because of this perceived risk and perceived parental opinion, rather than any real risk. The real risk in all of this, is that it reinforces the fear that many students might have about the outdoors and it’s much easier just to give up than to actually manage the risks at hand. As camp is the only thing many students remember about their schooling, sorry to say kids, for some of you 2020 won’t be very memorable.
Whilst we should never underestimate the dangers which come with bushfires, it’s important that as an industry and educators, we don’t waste an opportunity for students to learn. With all outdoor education in Australia, the level of real risk is quite low and when it’s managed and run by experienced professionals, the prevalence of injuries and significant events is also very, very low. Why then would a school ignore the industry’s high standards and simply cancel everything? Are their risk management systems and staff so inadequate that they’re incapable of managing an environmental risk? Or have they taken advice from idiots who have never worked in the field before?
Even though we can’t be blasé about safety nor the potential real risks involved with bushfires in the summer months, we also can’t afford to be so risk averse that it damages a student’s experience and builds fear into them about the outdoors and the natural environment. Throughout my career in outdoor education and risk management, we’ve had to pull the pin on a number of programs because of a change in conditions or circumstances and you could see the elevation of the level of risk heading to the point of an unacceptable risk. Therefore, it was time to adapt to the circumstances and change what we were doing. However, every time we did this, it was based upon real risk management and operational thresholds that have not changed the way in which we would, nor should view the current situation in Australia. Our risk management systems are progressive and leverage all of the available information, from public sourced services, news reports and real-time information on the ground. Basing decisions on good risk management practices is always critical to the success of your programs, no matter what. These fire events have not changed that in any way, shape or form and the core principles of good risk and program management remain the same.
The reason why we manage risk in a professional and systematic way is so that we can make well-informed decisions based upon current circumstances and conditions and despite the impact of major social and environmental events, we can continue to operate in a safe and professional manner. The reverse is also true, when people don’t understand how to effectively manage risk, they make ill-informed and rash decisions which either result in serious injuries or ridiculous decisions such as cancelling everything because those responsible for these programs don’t have the skills, knowledge or confidence to pro-actively understand and manage the risks involved.
Just last year several people were injured in a pre-Christmas shopping centre crush as an ill-conceived giveaway promotion went horribly wrong! Many people also die on our roads travelling at this time of the year. Do we cancel Christmas? No that would be stupid… and so is this.