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.
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.