One of the hardest things for Outdoor Education Programs is they take a lot of hard work to create. Lots of thought, time and effort go into designing, developing, assessing and testing a program. However, once a program is up and running, it’s far easier to repeat the same trips, rather than creating new experiences all the time. After all, most students only ever do that program once, so for students, it’s a new experience.
Consequently, people get into the pattern of doing the same things over and over again. When you’ve got a good program going, despite the repetition, people often stick with it. The problem with this however, is that it can lead to organisations becoming complacent. Staff become happy with the daily run of the mill program and fail to renew and change.
This creates stagnation within an organisation and when an organisation stagnates, a number of problems emerge. If don’t have a culture of continuous improvement within your organisation, you risk becoming complacent in what you’re doing. Complacency can lead to operational and organisational blind spots. When dealing with outdoor activities that involve various levels of risk, this creates a dangerous problem, often known as the expert blind spot.
The expert blind spot often occurs when you have a teacher or instructor who’s very good at the task. The same thing has been done for years and years and complacency and a false sense of security can start to creep in. When you believe you know everything there is to know about an activity and you can do it without even thinking about what you’re doing, you’re now in the danger zone, without even realising it.
Henry Doherty, the successful Irish businessman famously said, ‘Be a student as long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life!’ This is a poignant statement that’s so true for everybody that’s ever lived. No matter how much experience you have, you can always learn something new. If you get to the point where you can learn no more, then you’re just lying to yourself and everyone around you.
Programs that have been running for many years with the same staff who don’t like to assess, improve or vary the activities, risk falling into this blind spot danger zone. Subsequently, the risk of injuries or catastrophic failures dramatically increases as the blind spot entrenches itself deep into the person’s psyche. Be cautious when you start to hear statements such as, ‘We’ve always done it like this, so it’s fine,’ ‘That weather front’s ok, I’ve been in worse before.’ ‘We don’t need a risk assessment done on that. We all know what we’re doing!’ ‘We’ve done it so many times before, nothing can go wrong…’
What can you do to prevent the expert blind spot creeping in? One of the ways is for continuous improvement to be the goal of your program. What you’ve done last time wasn’t necessarily as good as what you’re going to do the next time. It’s not that you’re doing a sloppy job now but we can always do better. We can always improve on our processes and procedures. We can always improve on our cultural make up within our organisation. We can always find better activities to do. We can always find more challenging activities to do.
Rotate the locations of where you’re going on your programs. Rotate the staff that are running your programs. After all, it’s often staff becoming stale in what they do that can be a great causation for the expert blind spot to creep in. This doesn’t mean you just randomly shuffle your staff for the sake of shuffling it. There needs to be a reason. Plan it that way. Let staff experience different activities. Let staff develop different skills. Send staff on training courses. The amount of new knowledge that I get from every training course I do is immeasurable and it’s not just the content. It’s about engaging with other professionals in the field. Finding out what each does; listening to stories and experiences. If you go in with that attitude ‘I’m looking forward to learning something new,’ you’re going to get a lot out of it. If you go in with the attitude, ‘I know everything and I’ll prove it to you,’ you’re an idiot and the root cause of the problem.
It’s a very tricky dynamic with which to work. I’ve worked with some of these so called “experts” in the past. It’s more an attitude than anything else. Sure each has experience in the field but this blind spot once put me in a situation where we were hit by an extraordinary storm and we were absolutely smashed by it. We were lucky that we didn’t have anything more than a couple of students with hypothermia. I was a junior instructor at the time and despite my objections to going out in that weather, I was told: ‘No it’ll be fine.’ That put us at significant risk of harm. It’s this blind spot where it’s just day in, day out in your daily routine of running a program, ‘no it’ll be fine,’ that creates problems in the long run.
To avoid these problems: Go on some professional development. Open yourself up to an analysis of the program that you’re running. Ask your staff what each thinks of the program. Ask your students what each thinks of the program. Look for feedback that can be used constructively to improve your program, improve your processes and improve the overall experience of everyone involved. Don’t let yourself become stagnant. Don’t let yourself get lulled into this false sense of security that ‘we’ve always done at this way’ or ‘we stick to this because we know this so well.’ Ultimately, that can be counterproductive and that can lead to a dangerous situation with that expert blind spot is your blind spot.
Having written about two major human risk factors involved with any outdoor program, the expert blind spot and the idiot blind spot, I thought it worth talking more about risk management training.
Despite the attention to risk management forms, this is one area which is seriously lacking in schools today and is unlikely to ever be covered by any education degree. However, as experiential education and outside of classroom learning expands, the need for risk management training will become critical to any uni course. However, this doesn’t mean that it will find its way into the curriculum at any point.
Unless you’re an outdoor ed person, for most teachers the first time they encounter risk management is when they’re taking a group of students away for the very first time. With puzzled looks, they ask someone else what to do. The equally uncertain colleague says something like, “Oh! I’ve gotta fill in a bunch of paperwork.”
It’s more often than not the blind leading the blind and one poor practice is followed by another, with the end result being that people think they’re doing the right thing, when they’re not even aware of most risks involved in a program, nor how to eliminate, mitigate or accept the risks.
Swift Water Rescue Training
Without any training, a school or organisation can stumble through, reliant mainly on luck for the success of their programs. This is never a good approach, since unless you’re a Marvel superhero, luck tends not to be a terribly effective way of managing risk. Instead, you need to build systems that are reliable, trackable and continuously reviewed. Risk management is a culture within your organisation and not a stand alone document that gathers dust until the lawyers and coroner want to take a look. Without a culture of risk management, then your organisation is leaving itself open to poor planning and potential operational disasters.
How do you avoid this? As with everything else you want to improve in, do some training! Learn to what risks you’re exposing staff and students. Learn how to effectively plan and implement good risk management systems and build a culture of risk managers. Also learn how to respond when things don’t go to plan. I’ve seen far too many teachers over the years start to fall apart when things don’t go to plan. Instead, train and practice for the worst case scenarios, to ensure you’re ready to deal with any scenario.
The more teachers take students outside the classroom, the more critical it is to be trained in proper risk management. You can’t rely on a third party provider to do everything. Despite what many people may think, you can’t subcontract your risk out to someone else. Therefore, to protect you, your staff and students, get trained in risk management, which incidentally our partner company Xcursion runs. Everything from basic risk management for new staff, to senior management programs to organisation-wide training can and should be covered. Pleading ignorance is no defence in court, so it’s not worth the risk of not understanding risk management.
OK! Before you fall asleep with the thought of two days of risk management training, hear me out!
What are the most exciting things you do in education? It probably has nothing to do with sitting in a classroom and completing worksheets. Each year, that puts countless people to sleep.
Education needs to be dynamic, exciting and engaging to equip students with the skills they need for life. However, to run really cool programs like this, we usually have to step outside the school gates and engage with the real world.
Only problem is that when we do this, there’s a whole stack of inherent risks with which we’re suddenly confronted. Everything from your usual stack of peanut allergies, to your bus strangely catching on fire, which to be clear was not actually my fault.
The randomness and richness of the world outside the school gates is the most amazing place in which to learn, but if we’re not trained and equipped to plan for and manage risks in this environment, then we’re putting ourselves and our students at risk.
At this point we have three options:
Don’t go! It’s all too hard! School’s not about the real world anyway. If you take this option, you probably should have become an accountant or a public servant, perhaps both. Complete risk aversion is pointless and damaging and should be avoided.
Just do it! Grab your bags, kids and let’s go! If you take this option, which unfortunately, I’ve seen many teachers do, then you’re setting yourself up for some major problems. Anything can and does go wrong in these situations where well-intentioned teachers don’t take the time to plan, prepare for and run their programs carefully.
Have a structured, well-planned approach for all of your programs which documents the steps you need to take to ensure your group is well managed and the focus is on great experiential education outcomes for students, with robust systems in place for contingencies to support this.
For me, the only option when running any excursion, camp, sport or activity is Option 3. However, most schools are operating somewhere in between Option 1, 2 and 3 with many teachers confused about their role and responsibilities when planning and running any programs. Even experienced staff can struggle with this.
You must put the time, energy and effort into building a well-formed plan no matter what the activity is. It could be just going down the road to visit the local court. It could be a year level camp, or an overseas trip. Whatever the case is, you need to ensure you’ve planned for normal operations and contingencies if something doesn’t go to plan, which invariably will be the case. One trip I was on, I received a phone call to say that one of the 5th Grade students had been taken to hospital with a fish hook in his arm! I was pretty surprised by this, since there was no fishing on the program, yet here we were with fish hook in the arm, right next to a vein.
Risk Management Training prepares you for weird random stuff like this and how to respond quickly and effectively no matter what the context.
With a non-delegable duty of care, you also can’t outsource your risk management to another organisation, even if they suggested you can. It just doesn’t work that way.
Instead, you and your school are ultimately responsible for the duty of care over your students for any trips you’re on.
“But they didn’t tell us that at uni!” I hear you say! True, unis don’t actually equip teachers with most of the skills they need with which to teach, but that’s another matter.
At the end of the day, if you’re running any sort of excursion, camp, sport, overseas trip or any other sort of school activity which requires you to produce a risk assessment, you need to be trained in risk management. It’s no good just to copy and paste what the last untrained person produced and put your name to it. That’s a dangerous precedence which will come back to bite you.
Risk management training isn’t about putting you to sleep for two days. It’s about giving you clarity and confidence through practical experienced-based training on how to run effective and safe programs. Get in touch with us today to see how you can build this training in to your professional development schedule to ensure you’re running the best programs possible for your students.
As soon as you read the title of this article, you either thought ‘hmmm how interesting’, or ‘wow this is going to be boring…’
One of my frustrations as an outdoor ed teacher and director has always been the quality and timelines of incident reports. They’re often too brief, fail to mention important details and arrive days after the event through a great deal of chasing! Sound familiar?
This comes down to a few things, which include the level of training and experience staff have had in responding to incidents and injuries, the culture within the organisation and the type of reporting methodology being used.
Training is an interesting one, as first aid training doesn’t usually cover the how and why you should do an incident report. Some of them do, but often it’s fairly basic training to call emergency services and let them handle things from there. However, if you’re responsible for students, you’d know that’s quite impossible from a practical point of view. More often than not, it’s not even a case of calling emergency services. It’s more about handling the situation at hand yourself. Therefore, some level of training is needed around what you should be putting in a report. Details such as time, location, circumstances, supervision, weather and others involved all become important to the equation. So if you haven’t read up or done anything around reporting, it’s definitely time to do that.
The second area is culture. Is there an expectation that you need to report? If not, I’d be concerned about the organisation. Legally, in Australia and most likely all other counties, you need to report any injuries or incidents as you have a duty of care within your organisation. Having said that, I’ve worked for places in the past that had a very casual approach to this, until something happened. Then it was a major drama, chasing reports and asking all the wrong questions way after the fact. Hence there needs to be a culture of reporting. Even if something were a near-miss. where no injury occurred, but could have been potentially catastrophic, you need to report it! I can’t stress this enough. There’s so much value that can be gained by reviewing near misses and incidents to develop better systems and practices for your organisation.
The last area is methodology. The harder it is for staff to do an incident report, the less likely you are to get one. Interestingly enough, this occurs at all levels of an organisation and just because someone is a manager, doesn’t mean they’re more likely to report. In fact, it’s the opposite. They’re less likely to report incidents which occur, maybe because they think ‘they’re in charge’ and don’t need to, or more likely, they address the issue and end up too busy with other things and forget about it. When nobody is chasing them the same way they chase others, then you can see why there’s an increased likelihood they won’t report something. This then feeds straight back into the cultural issue and has an overall negative impact on the organisation and its risk and reporting profile. This can end up with things just ‘slipping through the cracks’ to the point that the organisation suffers a major incident.
So basically from that, make it easy for yourself and everyone in the organisation to do a report. It was this arduous and cumbersome reporting process at one school I worked for which led me to designing and building the Xcursion platform. Basically, I had to solve my own problem to try and help what was in my opinion a dangerous and dysfunctional organisation get up to speed with its reporting. As a result, teachers could then have fast and secure access to student info and complete an incident report on their mobile which was sent back to school as soon as they hit the complete button.
Making this process easy for staff, not only massively improved the speed of reporting, but it steeled teachers through exactly what they needed to report. Consequently, this made a huge difference to the organisation’s attention to incident and injury reporting and helped to start building the culture of risk management which was so desperately needed.
Ask yourself, ‘How does your organisation look in terms of incident reporting? Is it easy and timely to do, or is it a time consuming pain? Is there an expectation that everyone reports incidents and near misses alike? Does everyone feel confident in the training they have to identify, manage and report on incidents as they happen?’
If you're not confident of your response, then maybe it's time for some staff training and new systems to be put in place to ensure that you are.
As soon as people hear risk assessment, most people switch off! I could say whatever I liked from now on and nobody would be any the wiser. Once, I kidnapped a dolphin from Sea World and kept him in my swimming pool for weeks. We had several massive pool parties and it was awesome! So many people came and just swam around in the pool with him. We named him flipper! (Ok, so not very original for the name, but between him, Skippy in the back yard and Caramello living up the tree, once you start kidnaping animals as a hobby, you just go with the names everyone knows!)
See what I mean! If you actually made it to here, then you would understand my pain, or you think I'm mental or both! The fact is that most people would've stopped reading after the first line. It’s like when someone tells you they’re an accountant… The conversation usually ends there. However, risk assessment and risk management is a real issue that’s not just making sure you have your paper work done. It has to be an active process that’s taken seriously by everyone and not just something which makes people switch off and start looking for Pokémons with their phones.
The reason for adding in my wild dolphin parties was actually something I did as an exercise once with the program staff. It wasn’t a dolphin party, but how cool would that be! Anyway, I digress. I'd reviewed and updated the entire risk manage framework and needed to get everyone up to speed with the changes. This required everyone to do some reading. I was suspicious to begin with that nothing would be read, so I handed out the documents and unbeknown to them, this version of the risk assessments contained a bunch of massive errors. Some of the risks for a canoe expedition were: Attack by Hobbits, running into Cerberus (the demonic multi-headed dog that guards the gates Hades), being overrun by fluffy bunnies and drowning in chocolate syrup! To my disbelief, three people signed off on this risk assessment!!! I asked them again if they had any concerns or anything to add, ‘No, all good!’ was the standard response. “Really…,” I said, before asking each of them if they were happy to rely upon everyone being saved by Eagles when attacked by hordes of orcs? Stunned expressions turned to embarrassment when I provided a highlighted copy with all the glaringly obvious fake bits.
So does anybody read this rubbish? Basically, the answer is No! They don’t read it and it’s often a massive task to get anyone to write a risk assessment. Most are inappropriately copied and pasted from someone else’s work and don’t even match the real risk profile of the activity. Who would’ve thought that teaching is a hot bed of plagiarism!
Whilst I’m not saying don’t do it, I am saying there’s a massive problem that needs fixing here. What’s the point of wasting time with the creation of something that has very little value and nobody is actually using. What needs to happen is far different from what is actually happening in many schools when preparing for an excursion. The danger is that you’ve copied something that doesn’t make sense and submitted that as part of your official documentation. If this is the case and something goes wrong, this is just as bad, if not worse, than having nothing at all, because it demonstrates a complete disconnection from the awareness implementation of effective risk management strategies.
Ultimately no single person should be responsible for the risk assessment and management. It’s up to everybody on the team to contribute and turn those mindless pointless risk assessment forms that may contain attacks by mythical creatures, into functional living documents based upon industry best practices and a culture that proactively takes risk management off the page and continues to put it into action. Whilst I’ll revisit this later in some more detail, I must go and catch a plane, as my house has just been raided by National Parks and Wildlife. I might need to find a new hobby!
Ok, so I’ve been watching all of the hysteria over the Coronavirus. Whilst this is no doubt a highly infectious virus which has spread quite rapidly, we also should put this into perspective as to the effect of this virus. Most sufferers are not dying from this. Most are recovering quite well, as with any other cold or flu. There is a mortality rate currently between 1% and 4%, depending on country, age and healthcare standards. In terms of a monumental threat to life as we know it, it’s really not that bad.
Therefore, why are so many people going crazy? Why are the supermarket aisles stripped of toilet paper and tissues? Why are people having punch-ups over things which you could live without? It’s weird, isn’t it. It often takes a crisis for us to remember how stupid some people are. The whole notion of people being able to think for themselves seems to go out the window and is replaced with this insane ‘mob mentality’. This fear and anxiety is far more contagious and dangerous than the virus itself, as people then turn on each other for no real reason.
The media hasn’t helped either. Whilst it’s good that it’s being reported, as are all bad stories, the media just latch on (kinda virus-like) and suck the life out of the story. I saw one media outlet which I won’t name, (but they have a track record of idiotic headlines and stories written and aimed at angry bogan 10 year olds). That organisation is running an infection counter on its website, as if it’s some sort of doomsday clock. I think this is horrendously irresponsible and only fuels the fear of those toilet paper toting hoarders.
From a risk management point of view, I understand the hand sanitiser, even the paracetamol to fight off the infection, but what the hell are you going to do with car-loads of toilet paper? We don’t import it, so it’s not as if it’s going to be stopped and be sitting on a dock somewhere. If I were going to go hysterical and start hoarding things, I’d be going for tinned food, bottled water, some fuel, gin, tonic, limes and a few good books to read. The TP is really not even on the list. So why is this the thing for which people have rushed out? To be honest, I have no idea! It really makes no sense at all, but it’s fascinating behaviour to watch how irrational people can be when fear sweeps over them.
Whilst in the past we would talk about the fight or flight mechanism we have built into us, perhaps that needs to be extended to the fight, flight and flush. Whilst the coronavirus is a concern, as is any communicable disease which can kill people, the far more dangerous thing at this point in time is the fear and anxiety which is being fuelled by media and mob behaviour.
Before we all rush out, knock over a few old ladies in the desperate effort to buy a roll of toilet paper, take stock of the reality of the situation. The virus can be prevented and avoided by social distance and ensuring you have good hygiene and wash your hands properly. Doing this will help stop the spread of this virus. Here’s a great video from the WHO about that exact thing:
In Australia, we’ve just experienced the most horrendous bushfires in living memory. The size and scale of these unprecedented fires has shocked the world. In the 1980s we had musicians performing at the live-aid concert to raise money and awareness for the famine in Ethiopia. Today we have some of those same musician (and a whole stack of others) raising money for us, a first world country with an extremely high standard of living.
Whilst contributing factors to the fires include a long running drought, this was well-know for some time and the complete lack of preparation and any sort of pre-emptive large scale response has been nothing short of pathetic. Whilst this is not a criticism of the rural fire service, as they’ve done everything they can to put the fires out, this is a criticism of the complete lack of forethought in preparation to respond to what so many people predicted was going to be a horror fire season. Why don’t we have a standing fire fighting force with sufficient aircrafts on hand to battle these fires when we know they happen every year? Why don’t we have thresholds for triggering a military response in these scenarios? Why did it take so long for anything to happen on a federal level until hundreds of homes were destroyed, lives lost and hundreds of millions of animals wiped out?
Is this a case of fundamental incompetence at a federal level? Is the current government so useless that if they were to plan anything for a scenario like this, they may be seen to be admitting that climate change is real and the magic clean coal fairies of future power production utopia they currently believe in don’t actually exist? The fact is that so many narrow minded bafoons in federal politics have banged on about the ‘safety’ of the economy and ‘dangers’ to our prosperity by acknowledging climate change and if they did then it could cripple our way of living.
Well news flash idiots, the magic fairies of clean coal don’t exist, humans are having an impact on the world’s climate and by denying it and doing nothing we’ve been smashed by devastating fires which have already significantly impacted on the Australian economy and will continue to do so for years. Sadly the federal government will continue to do nothing, other than some pathetic window dressing or an expensive and pointless ‘inquiry’ into a major issue that has not only impacted our way of live for months, the impact of the destruction of native animals, habitat, farm animals, pastures and our international tourism industry has a far greater impact still to come. The impact on healthcare services is also unknown as the air quality on peoples’ respiratory systems is still unknown and the cost of managing the PTSD which will come from the shattered communities and those first responders who have been on the ground for months trying to put these fires out and protect life and property.
For a government who claim to be ‘good economic managers’, they have failed dismally in any basic risk management of the economy and the well-known environmental powder keg of bushfires of which they were warned months earlier in April 2019. This complete incompetence has already costs billions, lives and irreparable damage to us as a nation and for what?
As a country we’ve failed ourselves and this has to be a tipping point for real action on climate change and understanding the impact the modern world has on the natural environment. Nobody wants to live in an apocalyptic desert world fighting for the last glass of water or gallon of gasoline, but weeks of living under dark and dirty orange skies being rained upon by ash has left me feeling like we are heading in that direction. If we just keep pretending there’s nothing going on and nothing to see here then the Mad Max future will be upon us faster than we could ever have imagined. The federal government may believe there’s no such thing as climate change, but at the same time, they also have no idea of the political climate change that has just happened to them in an instant in Australia.
Sadly it always takes a massive disaster or catastrophic failure like this for people to take action. Let’s just hope this is the wake up call we need and it’s not just another thing that will be soon forgotten and dealt with through political spin. The climate is changing, it is impacting on our way of life and if we don’t do anything about it, it will devastate our economy and way of life, not to mention the complete destruction of the natural environment. It’s time we all started to actually do something about this because nobody wants to live in a world in which you simply can’t breathe.
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.
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.