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.
Whenever you're running trips in the field, be it outdoor expeditions or sports trips, part of your planning should include someone who’s sole role is the safety backup person. Unfortunately, this is often an overlooked roll, or one that's totally under-estimated in its importance.
Whenever you're dealing with staff, students, vehicles and equipment, no matter how careful you are in the planning process, something could go wrong. When it does, you want to be able to respond quickly and effectively to contain the incident and mitigate any damage. If all your resources are tied up with the operation itself, then your ability to respond to unforeseen events is seriously compromised.
The process we used at one school I worked at was very effective. Staff were trained in emergency and crisis response management, had been on every single expedition we ran and rotated in and out of the safety office position throughout the year. This meant they always had their finger on the pulse as to what ‘normal’ operations should look like and they knew the local area extremely well, so when contingency plans needed to be enacted, they were able to form a swift and appropriate response.
The safety officer was the central command for all communications in and out to the groups. He monitored the group’s location, progress and knew of any specific needs of the group. All contact in and out was logged so there was a complete record of communication with the group.
Most of the time, this just meant the safety officer was sitting in the office and didn't have much to do. However, when something didn't go to plan, he was ready with a vehicle, comms and equipment to respond swiftly and in the most effective manner possible. No scratching of the head, no running around to grab supplies, they were ready to go immediately.
Why is it so important to have a person in this role? Why can't the person on the ground just deal with it? I've also worked for a school that thought this should be the case and their idea of someone on safety, was a person who was on-call on their day off, 2.5 hours drive away. Now I’ll let you be judge on how negligent this approach is. The reality is if you limit the resources to manage contingencies or not even have contingencies, then you seriously increase the risk of harm to staff and students.
The safety officer needs to actively monitor weather conditions, notify groups of any changes, or the issuance of extreme weather warnings. They need to remain appraised of other potential environmental hazards, such as bush fires, flash flooding, lightning, high winds, feral animal control or even other groups in operational areas.
I always enjoy the variety that this role brings. At times, it's a great way to have a quiet day in the office, simply checking weather, fire danger and logging communications. However, other times you're on the go all day, sorting out logistical and operational issues to smooth out daily activities, or occasionally taking a student to hospital (and sometimes a staff member).
The bottom line is that the safety officer is a vital, available resource that's ready to respond, provide additional support or effectively co-ordinate a larger scale operation in the event of an emergency or crisis. It's not just a cushy role for some inexperienced staff member to have a quiet ‘admin day’ in the office. You need to use your most capable staff because the difference that can make to the speed and effectiveness of the response, impacts significantly on the containment and mitigation of the incident.
Attitudes towards risk varies dramatically in individuals. Some people love extreme sports, others don't even like to change the channel on the TV. Whilst these are two extremes of the spectrum, we must manage risk in our own lives on a daily basis. However, what happens when assessing and managing risk is part of your work? How do we avoid diametrically opposed views on risk impacting on effective risk management?
Do we let the mathematicians do the stats for us and tell us why we can or can't do an activity? After all, statistically eventually everything happens! If we’re purely relying on statistics though, more young people die on our roads from vehicular accidents than anything else. The government then jumps up and down and says that they’re having a blitz on road safety, but this just means more speeding fines. It doesn’t deal with the core issue that young males are massive risk takers. What we need to be doing is dealing with core issues, not randomly managing the symptoms.
In any organisation, you want to avoid the extremes. This is especially when working in experiential education. You can have people there who are so risk averse, they don't want to leave the building. However, the far greater risk is the problem of staff who have the attitude, “Don't worry about it, it’ll be fine!” These people either don't understand how to manage risk, or they're so full of their own self-worth, they have the idea that it will never happen to them. Therefore, they don't need to do anything to manage risk, because nothing like that will ever happen!
If you have someone like this in your organisation, you need to get rid of them as they're a danger to themselves and everyone around them. This is worse than the ‘expert’ blind spot where someone fails to see risk due to their experience, as this person fails to see risk due to their lack of experience and lack of understanding. They will disregard anyone else's opinions too.
Not long ago I was running a canoe expedition up into the Shoalhaven Gorge. This is a magnificent area. Remote, pristine and rugged. It forms part of the Etrema Wilderness area and is accessible either by the lake, or by helicopter. Therefore, there’s little margin for error. We were about to set out on our journey when a flotilla of canoes came paddling in. It was a school group, most of whom weren't wearing life jackets and the staff seemed ill-prepared.
We briefly engaged in conversation with one of the teachers and he told us that they'd never been here before. They just hired some boats and canoed up until they found a campsite. I didn't ask what sort of safety equipment they brought. One of them was running around with a mobile phone, trying to get a signal. I informed him there was no point as the closest reception was 16km away. It would be silly for me to have suggested they use their satellite phone, but I did all the same, to which they replied, “No, we don't have one of those. We didn't know there wasn't any reception down here.”
I decided to explore this situation further and asked a few more questions. They'd only decided in the last week they were going to bring the group of kids out. It was a co-ed group with no female staff. They had done a reccie, but it was in a completely different area and because someone had seen a snake there, they thought it too dangerous to go. I was totally gobsmacked by this, thinking that these are the sort of people who end up costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars because they take no responsibility and end up getting into trouble, not being able to manage it and having to be evacuated.
I quickly realised I was talking to idiots and so I politely extracted myself from the conversation and went to do some final checks before we departed. Away we went up into the magnificent Gorge and paddled for almost three hours until we reached the campsite. I hadn't thought any more of that group until we were setting up camp. One of the boys threw a piece of paper onto the fire pit in preparation for the evening’s campfire. All of a sudden I smelt smoke… the paper burst into flames. As the paper burnt out, I put my hand over the top of the fire pit. It was still hot! The idiot teachers from the other group had done nothing to make sure the fire was out. It would've been at least 6 hours since they'd departed the site and the heat coming out was enough to reignite.
Thankfully I don't run into too many people like this, but it highlights such a lack of concern and understanding of risk. Did they even do a basic risk assessment? Even if they did, what was the point? This is a failure on so many levels of an organisation. To manage risk effectively, it means you need to develop a culture of risk management within the organisation. This doesn't mean become risk averse. It means working together as a team to proactively work out what real risks are and how they can be effectively managed. It's vital that you have an experienced operator providing oversight and not just a classroom teacher who's been promoted beyond their talents, or an in house lawyer who's never been outside of the office. These people might understand an aspect of risk, but don't know how it translates into the real world.
With the right leadership promoting an open and honest culture of risk management in which discussions can occur on a regular basis about risks, hazards, incidents and near misses, you ensure you set and maintain the highest of standards for the safe operation of all of your programs. It is through this culture of awareness that we can continue to run safe and effective programs.
I realise that already countless people have switched off having read ‘Risk Management’ in the heading and are now watching a video of a fat cat sipping milk from a bowl. If you're still here however, well done for reading this far. I’ll avoid going off on my dolphin party tangent from my last article on risk. Instead this time I’ll jump right in!
Many people learn about risk management from a training course or a lifeless lecture by a lawyer telling you of all the dangers of everything, yet having no practical experience in the field themselves. They might put up an infographic for you to look at with some big red warning signs and after an hour or two you're now qualified in risk management. If you've had this experience, you're probably feeling uncomfortable about the whole process and looking for a much better approach. From the start, let me make something clear. Risk management is a cultural attitude within an organisation, not a check box compliance process. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain stupid and dangerous to those around them.
My first job in experiential education was with a private school, working at their outdoor education campus. It was here that risk management was instilled in me as being a natural part of absolutely everything we did. Not paranoid about risk, but very proactive. Before every activity, the team going on that trip would sit down and write out the risk management for it. There was no thought of simply printing out a generic risk management form that nobody bothered to read and everyone blindly signed it. This was an active discussion of the risks and hazards for that specific activity to ensure it was clear in our minds the risks and controls we needed to put in place to ensure a safe well-managed activity was run.
The value of this was immeasurable. On the one hand, you had a current and accountable risk management document for each and every activity, prepared by those who were directly responsible for the safe conduct of the activity. On the other hand, it was building and reinforcing a culture of active risk management. Risk was a regular, open and honest discussion amongst the staff, which kept everyone on the same page and held everyone accountable for the preparation, operation and decision making processes being used. It was never the case of ‘Oh don't worry, I know what I'm doing!’ or ‘It's someone else's job to do that,’ as I’ve found in so many other organisations. It was a continuous proactive and dynamic process.
It's hard for me to understand why anybody wouldn't take this logical approach. Yet, as I said before, this was how I was educated, so I hadn't known it to be any other way, until I moved to another school and the difference was stark and concerning.
As a brief background note on the school I was working for originally, 18 months prior to my starting, there’d been a fatality on one of their overnight hikes. This tragic event sent shockwaves through the school and had dramatically and bluntly shaped much of the focus of the organisation moving forward. The devastating fallout from the fatality lingered for years, yet many important lessons were learnt from this experience.
Fast forwarding 17 years to today, there’s absolutely no reason why it should take a critical incident to change the culture within an organisation, yet sadly it often does because of a lack of real understanding of risk management and its effective usage. With many fatalities, serious injuries and near misses so well documented by the industry and the coroner, working through some of these cases together as a staff can be of great value in starting the process of cultural change towards the goal of proactive risk managers.
When you understand what you're aiming to achieve and how simple oversights can have massive repercussions, then it's much easier to develop the whole team to be working together and thinking along the same lines. The ultimate aim of a proactive risk management culture is to run safe and challenging activities, promote sound decision making and prevent major disruptive events (aka critical incident). There's no future in finding yourself in front of a coroner and your only defence being to say that you at least had all your paperwork in order. At this point, paperwork is quite worthless and purely academic, and you're going to look like a complete idiot and potentially liable, if not culpable.
Creating a culture of risk managers means that your paperwork, which is always required, is actually being put into action and that if anything adverse happens, everyone is equipped to respond swiftly and appropriately. However, you will also find that running an organisation with an embedded culture of risk management, will mean the potential of a significantly disruptive event occurring becomes increasingly unlikely.
The most important thing is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Get started today. Read some case studies that are closely aligned to what you're doing on your program and discuss them with your team. Build that culture of the proactive risk manager mindset into your organisation and ensure that you're running the best programs possible with the best framework possible to challenge and really push your students and at the same time ensuring their safety.
Thinking back, can you remember the first time you had to deal with a real first aid emergency?
My first experience is something that's always stuck in my mind, as it was confronting and my reaction wasn't what it would be now. We were out on a night navigation exercise, ascending a spur under head torch light, when one of the students collapsed. As soon as I saw him go down, everything I learnt on my two day first aid course went out the window... I completely froze...
This left me feeling overwhelmed and helpless! I wasn't sure what I should be doing. I had this sudden debilitating feeling... I can't deal with this! Thankfully I had another really experienced teacher with me, who jumped in and took charge of the situation. The day had been ragingly hot and it turned out the boy was severely dehydrated and suffering from heat stroke.
It's hard to train for this sort of situation and until it actually happens, it's very hard to know what your initial reaction is going be and what it's going to feel like. It's even harder to know what to do about it. However, one important thing you can do in any situation, in the words of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is 'Don't Panic'. Take a deep breath, be calm, collected and assess the situation. Run through the DRSABCD calmly in your head and look around assessing the area as you approach. This will give you time to put your gloves on, collect your thoughts and balance out the adrenaline that your brain has just shot into your body.
Don't let your body overwhelm you in this sort of situation. Calmness and common sense helps a great deal and first aid is not a solo effort, so if you can, call another teacher in to help manage the situation and provide support for the casualty whilst you wait for emergency services. Remember, most importantly, you're there stabilising and protecting your students from further harm until the ambulance arrives.
After that incident I decided I should upgrade my training beyond the basic two day course and so I studied wilderness first aid. This helped develop my confidence in treating injuries and managing casualties, but still nothing focussed and developed my skills more than the experience of a student walking up to me dripping with blood from massive cuts to his chest, hands and stomach! But that's a story for another time!
There’s always a lot to think about when preparing for an outdoor ed camp. Assuming you know where you’re going and what you’re doing sorted, then it’s time to prepare the finer details.
For most teachers, this is where it can become overwhelming. Often the feeling is, “I want to run an enjoyable and safe trip… but where do I start?”
The first thing to do is develop your risk management plan. Many other things will simply fall into place once this is done. Although the bane of many teachers’ existence, a good risk management plan can save you considerable time and effort down the line.
When building your plan, look at your daily routine and work out what the key risks are for each activity and how you will accept, eliminate or mitigate these risks. You’ll need to consider things such as time of year (season), weather, temperatures, location and emergency exit points. Add to this the specific risks for each activity in those locations at that time of the year and you’ll start to build a picture of what your key risks are and how you’re going to address them.
With your risk management strategy created, remember, this is a living document not a copy and paste job which just makes up part of the ‘annoying paperwork.’ All staff need to be aware of risks and mitigation strategies and be prepared to react and respond if and when it’s needed.
The next step is to sort permission notes, get updated medicals and provide a student packing list with all the items they need to bring (and things they shouldn’t). Have a detailed plan ready to go before you send this out to parents. You’re bound to get lots of questions so the more detailed the itinerary you can provide upfront, the better.
For the equipment list, clearly specify quantity and quality of what’s required. Whilst I know some parents might not be able to supply this, as a matter of safety, it’s important that you’re able to cater for any shortfall. One of the most important pieces of equipment is a set of thermals. Even in warmer months, it’s good safety practice to carry some thermals in case of emergency and if you’re running an autumn or winter camp, it’s essential that all students have a set. The reason being (not just to support our great wool industry), hypothermia is always a significant environmental risk due to wet and windy conditions in Australia.
With permissions notes, medicals and gear all sorted, it’s time to brief everyone! This is often overlooked, but it’s vitally important to run a pre-camp briefing for staff and students. This goes back to pro-active risk management. Set the scene, set the expectations and build the excitement for camp. After all, you’ve just spent weeks preparing something very special it’s now time to tell everyone about it! Showing images from a previous camp and location on a map, is a great way to put into perspective some of the experiences they’re about to have.
With all this done, it’s down to the last items and you’re ready to go! First Aid kits, spare Asthma Puffer, spare EpiPen, any medications, groups lists, medical summaries, food and you’re good to go! By the way… did anyone book the buses?
Risk is the potential of loss or harm and it’s a huge issue when taking kids away on an excursion! But when managed effectively, it means you can provide kids with some fantastic learning opportunities out in the real world! One of the most important things to remember in this litigious world, is that we should never stop taking kids out on excursions! We should just make sure we do a great job in preparation and execution.
Unfortunately when it comes to the issue of risk, most people switch off, or think that it’s too hard and that it’s someone else’s problem. However, if you’re taking kids out of school on an activity, then it’s not someone else’s problem… it’s your responsibility! The fact is that most of it comes down to common sense. I’ll be posting more on risk and managing that risk through out the year, but here’s a few tips on where to get started!
1. When planning an excursion – go and actually do the activity yourself ahead of time.
2. When you do the activity look for issues or concerned based around what could cause an injury or loss of any kind.
3. Take photos of the locations and make note of any issues, or concerns you have seen.
4. Come up with a solution for removing, mitigating and managing each possible risk.
It’s that easy! And it doesn’t matter if it’s a local art gallery, or you’re trekking the entire overland track! Get out there and do it! Have some fun aswell! Oh and it’s a work trip so get them to pay for it!
So as a good starting point for managing risk on an excursion, never be in the situation where you don’t know what’s around the next corner. Go there! Do it! Know what to expect! Nothing makes for a better risk assessment than seeing things first hand!