Welcome to the Xcursion Risk Tips. These tips are designed to save you time, money, reduce risk, and improve safety for all of your programs. Today, we're going to look at students cooking. Phew, yes you probably just reel back from some certain experience that you've had out on a program where our kids cooked you something. Now, I've had both ends of this spectrum. Some kids well, you really wouldn't trust what they cook or what they put in that meal. However, other kids can cook so well. It is great to see them get involved and actually cook something.
I've come across schools and I've come across teachers who are really hesitant to allow kids to cook. But seriously, at what point do you let go and enable kids to take ownership and take responsibility and do something they really want to try? This is something that not a lot of kids get to do at home. So the opportunity to cook whilst on camp is really important and they love to try and impress you with their meals. There are a couple of risks involved in this and a couple of hazards. The two main ones that we want to look at are knives and fires.
Firstly, it's the preparation of the meal. It's cutting up everything on the cutting boards and making sure that they don't cut the veggies and themselves with the blunt knives. Now more often than not, you're going to find blunt knives on camps because you can't trust anybody with a sharp knife. Unfortunately, with a blunt knife, they're more risk of causing injuries, than sharp knives. Because the pressure that's applied to a blunt knife is far greater than the pressure you need to apply with a sharp knife. So at least have your knives slightly sharpened so that they're not totally blunt and can cause really really bad injuries.
One student I had on one of my programs, he managed to stab himself in the webbing of his hand with a knife. How we managed to do that? I don't know. But he was cutting up the vegetables and just came up to me and said, "Oh Sir, Sir I've cut myself." I was like, "How, how did you do that?" I mean, it was an impressive cut and we managed to apply pressure and patch it up ok. But I was astounded. But basically what he had done was he had pushed so much pressure on the knife, flicked it off the vegetable and skew it himself in the hand. Now that's one part of it. You really do need to monitor and supervise effectively when the kids are cutting things up.
Once they're all cut up, the next thing is the fire. Or most likely you're going to get something a Trangia. Now a Trangia for those who don't know, is this little stove and it's got an alcohol burner in the middle, and you pop it in and put your pot on and away it goes. Many schools I've worked at, many programs I've seen to begin with, didn't actually contain these fires or didn't monitor this effectively. This is the next really critical hazard that you need to manage effectively for when students are cooking. So what you want to do is set up what we call it a Trangia circle. Now a Trangia circle can be done just with a small bit of rope and you put a big circle right around and the pots go in there, nobody or nothing else goes in there and your fuels go well away from where you are. So with that in mind that you have your contained cooking circle, and you only limit the number of kids near the cooking circle. You don't need three kids cooking in one pot. You need one student cooking in one pot. So, limit the numbers around the cooking circle and actively monitor this. Don't cook your own dinner at this point in time.
One great solution is get one of the kids to cook. This has worked many many times that I've often had a lot of student meals because they've offered to cook for me. At this point in time, you don't want to be cooking because you need to be supervising what's going on and monitoring that fire circle and monitoring the way in which it's being conducted. This is critically important to reduce the risk of burns and scalds, which are some of the highest numbers of injuries that you get when you have kids cooking on programs. So you monitor that. They cook you dinner and you get to stand around drinking a cup of coffee whilst you watch them cook your dinner. What's not to like about that?
One of the problems I've seen is when staff are cooking their own dinners is that they don't have that level of supervision. They become too focused on their own meal and at the end of the day, you're the leader, you're looking after these kids, you can eat later. So, use that opportunity to try some kids cooking and that the reaction that you get when they cook something for you and you are able to share a meal with them is really good and it's all part of that bonding experience. It's all part of that journey of a camp. That way you can develop rapport with your kids in such a unique setting.
So two main risks for cooking with kids, it's not the taste, it's not the flavor, it's not what they cook although sometimes they can burn things and it's horrible, but we won't go there. But the two main hazards are cutting with knives, prepping meals, and also the cooking circle or the Trangia circle. If you can effectively supervise these two, then you've seriously reduced the risk of something going wrong on your program, and the kids are learning from this experience by cooking meals for themselves.
Recently, I was reading a fascinating book about airplane crashes and how poor decision making ultimately led to disaster and the huge loss of life. What was striking about this was the similarity to so many coronial inquests for outdoor education incidents.
Much like many fatalities on outdoor expeditions, each of the airplane disasters could have been avoided. However, fatigue and poor decision making ultimately led to disaster. So why are we so impaired by fatigue and why do some organisations still not see this as a major problem?
One school, which shall remain unnamed, for which I worked a number of years ago, were vehemently opposed to any discussion around fatigue, despite numerous concerns being raised by staff around the impact it was having on the welfare and well-being of the staff. The implication was that we were just being lazy and trying to get out of work. I would suggest 80+ hour weeks backed up by driving vehicles full of students was a bit over the top. However, I’m not going to dwell on the rest of that experience, other than to say it was a pre-loaded disaster waiting to happen.
When we’re fatigued, a number of things happen which reduce our ability to make clear, informed and reasonable decisions. The harder we try, the less effective this becomes. Our focus narrows further and further into a tunnel vision that cripples our ability to make sound, reasoned judgment. This was evident in the cockpit recordings of each of the plane crashes outlined in the book. Instead of clear, thoughtful and decisive action, mistake, after mistake, after mistake was made, culminating in the inevitable plane crash. Experienced pilots forgot their training. Simple corrective actions weren’t taken.
The same is true of fatalities in outdoor education in which fatigue adversely impacts on the ability of an instructor to make reasonable, informed decisions. Research has shown that multiple shifts of work and not sleeping for 24 hours (which counts poor/broken sleep within the mix), has the same effect on decision making that being drunk has. Do we ever allow teachers and instructors to be drunk at work? No! So why do we allow fatigue to be overlooked?
If you examine the black box flight recordings of the conversations inside the cockpit, it becomes abundantly clear that for example, despite evidence to suggest that all the pilots needed to do to save the plane and those they were responsible for was to push down on the controls to increase speed and prevent a stall, they kept pulling back on the stick, consequently condemning the plane and all onboard.
However, before we call them stupid, which is the temptation of a back-seat pilot with no airtime, let’s look at the effects which fatigue has on people and why it’s not surprising that such poor decisions were made in the air and also in the field, for so many expeditions which have gone disastrously wrong.
When people are fatigued and/or drunk, their reaction time slows, their ability to solve complex problems is significantly inhibited and their ability to perform even the most regular and simple tasks becomes compromised.
The only solution for fatigue, is sleep, not push through it as a former boss of mine would always profess was the way he always did it and we should do the same! That, in my opinion, is idiotic in the extreme and will eventually result in someone getting killed. However, you can always learn a lot from idiots as they demonstrate the dangers of what not to do. Often this can be even more beneficial than someone telling you what you should do.
Good decision making is one of the best risk management strategies you can have. You see something that hasn’t gone to plan, doesn’t fit or doesn’t feel right. You assess the problem, adapt and respond accordingly. Good outdoor leaders will continually do this throughout any program. Most of the time, what they do isn’t even noticeable. Other times, it’s clear that there’s a problem and there’s a shift in plans to address it. The same is true with airlines. Most of the time you have no idea that corrective action was taken, which is the way it should be. Unfortunately, when we’re fatigued, that vitally important, broad problem-solving skill set stops working. We can only focus on single tasks and, even then, we might only be able to focus on a single part of a single task, which is even worse.
Often fatigued individuals will also focus on something that is completely irrelevant to the problem at hand. Instead, they become entrenched in a minor detail and they can obsess over it, as it’s the key to solving their current problem. However, their tired-self can’t even rationalise the fact that they’re grabbing onto something which is completely pointless, again due to their diminished capacity to make rational decisions.
Unfortunately, in outdoor ed incidents, we generally don’t have first hand recordings of the events as they transpire, which we do have for the airline industry. Listening to these recordings, it becomes clear that minor and irrelevant concerns become the sole focus of someone who is fatigued. The death spiral starts and there’s no way out. If you compare this with coronial inquests into outdoor education fatalities, on many occasions, you can see how fatigue might have impaired judgment and might have contributed to triggering the repeatedly poor decisions and the downward spiral which ultimately resulted in the fatality.
Now not all outdoor ed fatalities have fatigue as a contributing factor, but if we’re aware of the fact that it’s one of the most dangerous problems we can face even as experienced instructors, then we can put systems in place to manage and avoid fatigue and it’s related hazards. If we don’t want staff to be working ‘drunk’ from fatigue, then we must have good systems in place for managing this.
How long is an acceptable shift? What are the tasks that each staff member is doing during this time? What driving is involved? Can the load be shared? What if someone feels fatigued? What backup plans do you have in place?
The outcome of each of the airplane crashes was that systems to monitor and address fatigue were introduced, the result being, safer air travel. For outdoor education, this is something that must be addressed. It can’t be pushed through. It can’t be ignored. It can’t be put off for a discussion later in time. The end results, like the fatal vehicle accident in New Zealand where the teacher fell asleep at the wheel, are self-evident that fatigue and good decision making don’t go hand in hand. Do you have a fatigue management system in place? If not, make it your number 1 priority today as it’s vital that we and our industry ensure we keep safe those for whom we’re responsible. It’s essential to have instructors with clear heads and great decision-making skills, so that every outdoor experience is a wonderful and rewarding one for everyone.