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.
The contingency plan is one of the most vital things to have as part of your overall excursion management plan. I can't stress enough how vital this is, as well as the ability to be flexible with it. Often when things are going wrong, there's usually not just a simple straight forward option for plan B. So it's good to have plan C & D up your sleeve just in case, to ensure you’re never cornered into thinking there’s only one alternative!
The reality of taking kids anywhere is that things happen. No matter how well you plan, something can come out of left field, like bad weather, vehicle breakdowns or random acts of God, which can often be hard to predict and can escalate quickly. Recently we had one such program where every which way we turned it was one chaotic weather front after another. It got to the point where we had multiple contingency plans for every single day! If one didn't work or was unfeasible, then we were ready to with the next one! Throughout the program we were constantly using C, D & E. Whilst there’s no real value going into the details of each and every plan that we had to work around and how or why they each did or didn’t work, the key issue here is about the ability to change and adapt, which’s the most important thing.
If you ever end up reading serious incident reports into accidents on excursions, there’s a pattern that emerges each time. It usually starts out with a poor decision being made about weather, an activity, the skill level of a group or leadership abilities. This is usually followed by a second poor decision, which starts the unravelling process towards the ultimate major trauma that occurs. What often becomes glaringly obvious when reading the report is that there was no contingency plan! So what happens if things don’t go to plan? Well, don’t force the issue and try to make everything work for the sake of it! Regroup, rethink and adapt. This will let you and your group do another activity safely and not end up facing an inquiry.
When planning your excursion and assessing the risk profile, make sure you build in a Plan B & C if things don’t work out. Then if you have to enact a secondary plan, be flexible in its application and simply cancel if need be. At the end of the day the safety and well being of the group, far exceeds the need to just do an activity!
Working in risk management, this is one of my biggest concerns and ongoing frustrations. Why don’t people take action, manage and reduce risk until it’s too late? Far too many schools and organisations wait until they’ve had a major incident to ensure they have systems in place and the right people in place to manage risk.
Why is this? Are we all wired to think that everything is going to be ok and run exactly to plan? Is it the unconscious incompetence that comes with being new to something? Or is it not really caring?
To be honest, I really don’t think it’s not caring. Generally, people are in education to help others achieve goals and consequently tend to care about what happens as a result. However, the focus of teaching and teacher training is on classroom practice and although many lessons don’t go to plan, there’s not really a need to mitigate against this risk other than to make sure you plan your lesson. Yet when planning an excursion, trip, activity or sport outside of the classroom, the same level of preparation rarely goes into it.
The problem is that the management of risk and the actual risks inherent to the activity, excursion or sport is rarely understood, especially if the main focus of someone’s training and employment has been unrelated. Just because someone can teach and manage a group in the classroom, doesn’t mean he or she can facilitate and manage a group in an unstructured and unregulated environment. The result of this usually ends up with most things going to plan, but when something doesn’t, it can go pear-shaped very quickly and generally when this happens, the response is just made up as they go. This can exacerbate a problem or an incident and needlessly escalate it, which can result in further damaging consequences for staff and students.
Once a teacher, administrator, school or organisation has gone through this experience, they then suddenly start to think about risk management in a meaningful way. However, this is too little, too late. The horse has already bolted and it’s not coming back.
The first school I worked for unfortunately had to go through a fatality for them to realise that they had a risk management problem. I was one of the new staff employed after the fatality and the fall out from this lasted for years for some and a lifetime for many others.
Whilst a fatality is thankfully a very rare occurrence, there’s many other incidents which still regularly occur that are completely preventable. There’s enough knowledge, experience and technology available to prevent so many incidents from occurring year, so why don’t people do anything about it until it’s too late?
More often than not, it’s what’s referred to as unconscious incompetence. You don’t know what you don’t know. How can someone be expected to manage something, if they have no idea about what they’re managing nor why they’re supposed to be managing it.
All programs and activities start with good intentions to create great educational outcomes. However, good intentions don’t always translate to good management. Therefore, specific training is essential in general risk management for school activities, sport and excursions, as well as more focussed individual activity risk management training. This sort of initial training helps move people from the unconscious incompetence, to the conscious incompetences skill level and can be quite confronting and eye-opening for most people. Suddenly, they realise the holes, gaps and risks in the programs for which they’re responsible and start to do something about it.
Experience and further training at this stage then moves a person from this conscious incompetence stage into the conscious competence stage. At this point, the person understands risks, controls them and continues to actively manage and work towards risk management goals and develop a culture of risk management within their organisation. It’s at this point you actually get good risk management systems operating within schools and organisations to ensure quality practices are always in place and being used to run great educational programs with the risks minimised.
The final stage persons is unconscious competence. Essentially, they understand a whole range of risks and actively manage them without thinking. If you don’t have anyone in your school or organisation like this, with this skill set, then you’re just treading water before something terrible happens. This shouldn’t be the case as again, there’s enough knowledge, experience, training and technology available to ensure risks are well managed within any organisation.
It’s way too late to do this after something has failed and you can be assured that dealing with a crisis and the fall out from that is far more difficult than a bit of training and implementing good risk management systems.
To avoid the inevitable train wreck of a situation in which lives, careers and reputations are damaged, get some risk management training today so you can build and leverage the right systems, processes, equipment and technology to consciously and competently manage risk within your school or organisation.
COVID-19 is a significant global pandemic issue and has been running since the end of 2019, when it was first discovered in Wuhan, in China. Now, this has ravaged the world and there are some serious considerations to be made when planning any sort of school excursion or activity around the impact that this may have on one of your programs.
The way in which you should be treating COVID-19 is the same way that you should be treating any other highly infectious disease for either your campus or school activity. So it shouldn't be done in isolation as a separate issue. It should be done in conjunction with your other risk management considerations and concerns. What's really important, though, is that the focus on COVID-19 shouldn't detract from the other risk management principles and practices you have in place to manage risk for whatever the excursion or activity is. If the management of COVID-19 were to compromise the management of risk in another area, then it's critically important that you review the appropriateness of doing that activity at this point in time.
The safety of one activity shouldn't be compromised by the implications of another. And for an example of this, I can imagine doing a belayed climb. You may have an instructor who is up close to one of the students or several students where they have to check harnesses, and then you're belaying on a rope. Now, this can be done safely and you can apply control measures such as face masks and also social distancing. However, where that social distancing is not possible, then maybe it's worth reconsidering the activity itself until later down the track. But critically important, just as a reminder, don't compromise any of the other safety of your activities for the management of COVID-19. Now that's not to say don't manage COVID-19. I think I really need to make a clear distinction there. But if the risks are too great for that activity, as a result of having to manage another contingency and another hazard, then discontinue that activity at this point in time.
I think that's really the most important outtake from this. It is really important to expect that all of your instructors are up to speed with what the virus is, how it is transmitted, and control measures. It's really important to provide this information to the school administrators, the teachers involved, the parents, and the students. And clear communication is critically important. Just because it's been on the news every single day for the last 8 months or 12 months, or however long it's been, it's really important that you still go through the causation and the control measures, and be very clear with staff about this. It's really important that prevention is absolutely critical to the safe running of your programs.
As an indication of some of the different levels of risks you may encounter and how to manage them, we'll just run through some of the high and medium level risks where you may need to look at other personal protective equipment and other controls to be in place for this kind of activity. For example, an instructor providing first aid to a student, generally, you would have your standard and absolutely, you would have your standard of gloves on to handle any patients. But in addition to that, you should also look at having face masks on both parties and ensuring that if you can't maintain that social distancing of around six feet, then you must have those personal protective equipment and devices in place to prevent that or reduce the risk of that transmission. So that's one of the high-risk activities is applying first aid. Also, if you have teachers or teaching assistant who are working with higher-need students. Say if you have students with disabilities or any other provisions where they need a carer and the carer may be in close contact, again, this is where that personal protective equipment is critically important as these would be considered a high-risk activity in the scheme of things in the current environment.
In terms of some of your medium risk activities, all of those instructors and students and staff on any of the trips should be considered a medium risk. So as this medium risk may involve handling cutlery, handling dishes, also being on vehicles or in vehicles together, then you really need to consider the cleaning regimes and the monitoring of this as a critically important part. What we've done is we've put together a document which steps you through these different contingency plans to help guide your approach, to getting school excursions back out and running again.
This online guide is to be used in conjunction with the latest recommendations from the CDC, as well as the recommendations from your school administration, their legal counsel, and their insurers. So please ensure that you cover all of these different bases because the most important thing is to safely get our students back out and doing the sorts of school excursions and activities and camps, which they love, and they learn so much from. So it's really important as an additional consideration to your risk assessments at this point in time, and certainly for the foreseeable future, to be really focusing on how you are going to effectively prevent the virus coming onto your program. And if so, if a case does occur on the program or a suspected case, how are you going to quickly isolate that student or that staff member or that instructor, and then make contact with authorities to let them know so that contact tracing can start to prevent the wider spread of the disease.
When we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re expected to have answers or manage risk, this is a massive problem. How can we be expected to put systems in place and plan for contingencies if we don’t understand the situation or context of what we’re expected to be doing.
Many teachers find themselves in this exact situation and are expected to plan for something about which they know nothing. At this point, the major activity and operational risk comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing, rather than the potential inherent risks of the activity itself. Do we let inexperienced drivers get behind the wheel without any training or supervision? Thankfully not. Yet why are so many teachers allowed to run sports, excursions and activities with no idea, training nor experience in what they’re doing?
It literally makes no sense at all to allow someone to take on a role which requires them to plan for and mitigate risks, if they have no idea themselves. The increased risk here comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing at all and they’re simply making things up as they go, which is never good in terms of risk management.
A number of years ago we came across one such group on an expedition. We were in Kangaroo Valley and just starting out on an expedition when we came across a group just finishing an expedition. In talking with them, we quickly realised they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. Their whole risk management plan was apparently based upon the fact that one of the teachers went for a walk and saw a snake, therefore they went canoeing instead because the risk of the snake was too great. I really want to laugh at this point as on that exact same river, I saw a 3 metre Eastern Brown Snake in the water and then it slithered up onto the place we had just had lunch, so seeing a snake in the wild and basing your decision on risk management around a single sighting of a snake seems quite idiotic to be perfectly honest.
Essentially these guys had been out on a multi day canoe expedition with no canoe instructors, no maps, no communications devices and no backup plans. Everything has to run perfectly for them to be ok, which relying on luck for your management of risk, is never a good thing.
One wonders how this group was even allowed to go out on this trip with such a poor basis for the management of the inherent risks, let alone the operational risks which were so obvious to this trip. Unfortunately, trips like this go out every day with no idea what their real risks are and the consequences of this can be horrendous if something goes wrong.
The only way that this sort of situation can be avoided is through training and experience. If any organisation is sending staff out untrained and unprepared in terms of risk management, then they deserve everything they get if something goes wrong. Schools don’t allow untrained teachers in the classroom, so why do they allow untrained teachers in the field.
Whether the teacher is running the trip or not, they need to understand what they’re doing to ensure they’re capable and effective in managing the risks involved outside of the classroom. Therefore, they need to be trained and experienced in general risk management, as well as activity or program specific risk management, so they can minimise the risks involved. The risk of not knowing what you’re doing is far too great and negligent when there’s so many opportunities to get trained and get up to speed with factors of which you should be aware and doing the right things to ensure you’re running awesome, experiential educational programs.
If you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t understand the risks involved or just need a refresher, then get some training today so that you can confidently manage risk no matter what the situation or context. Thus, always run awesome, educational programs for all your students.
One of the biggest problems in any outdoor program is the blindness of experts. They’re generally people who are experts in their specific field or activity and become over-confident and blind to situations in which risk can be quite dangerous to themselves and others. However, I’m not going to be covering that right now. Instead I’d like to coin the term, ‘The Idiot Blind Spot!’ What happens when inexperienced and incompetent people think they know what they’re doing when they truly don’t?
The idiot blind spot is a dangerous place in which to be operating, as there’s actually no consideration of risk at all. It’s merely given lip service and no real implementation of any considerations about risk are thought about nor are there any systems in place to manage risks. These are the people you want to avoid like they plague. They are your classic copy and paste crew who think that a risk management document is what risk management is about and once you have that document (copied and pasted from someone else), that whatever you do after that is ok.
The ‘whatever you do after that is ok’ approach can be a strange and nerve wracking experience for someone who is able to read situations. Sadly, if unaddressed, the idiots involved tend to end up in front of coroners having caused life-shattering damage to those they should have been protecting. They will then make excuses for their behaviour and lack of judgment.
I’ve experienced a few idiots over the years and despite going to great lengths to explain the reasons why we should or should not do something, they would invariably not see reason. In fact, they would get quite defensive and hostile at the suggestion that what they were considering was perhaps not that well thought out.
Unfortunately, I can think of a number of occasions that this has happened. One was a rafting exercise where the activity was being conducted in a tidal creek, which had a sucky mud base and was murky to the point that you couldn’t see 10cm below the surface. What better way to run a raft building exercise than to have students testing their make-shift crafts in this environment with no life jackets on. But wait, there’s more! Not only were there no personal flotation devices being used, the activity spontaneously changed into students wrestling with each other on the makeshift rafts attempting to throw each other off into the murky water. For someone with at least half a brain, you could reasonably foresee problems with this activity. Sadly, the idiots running it could not.
“Why didn’t you stop the activity?” I hear you shouting in disbelief!!! Well, I wasn’t actually there. The idiots had filmed all of this and could be heard encouraging the wrestling on the dodgy rafts. I already had my doubts about these members of staff, and now here we were seeing their stupidity in full-flight. Operating your risk management based upon pure luck is not something that should ever be done. Nor is letting an idiot run an activity such as this, with no regard for even the most basic notions of student safety. The difficulty in this situation was that the person running the activity was my boss, which only added to the dangerous nature of the organisation’s idiot blind spot.
On a number of different occasions, I’ve found myself in a bizarre arguments over weather warnings, equipment usage and group dynamics, all of which materially impact on safety. However, there’s a difference between a robust discussion with experienced and knowledgeable colleagues versus complete idiots, especially when the complete idiots think they’re amazing and know what they’re doing. No advice is better than any advice from someone who knows nothing about risk management. A very dangerous mix, which if left unaddressed has the potential to put you in front of the coroner. Sadly, it’s usually the death of an innocent child that the coroner is investigating and not the idiot whose lack of judgment and understanding led to the accident.
If your organisation has people like this in it, get rid of them as fast as possible. They’re not going to benefit from any sort of professional development or training, as they completely lack the understanding and ability to understand risk and how to be situationally aware. It’s often not until an activity or expedition is in motion that risks (which were copied and pasted on that dusty document) become apparent. Being able to read situations is critical to good risk management and ensuring that all your activities and programs run well and are beneficial to everyone involved.
Before you let any staff loose on programs with any level of risk, then they’re well trained and are mentored along the way. It does take time and experience to develop situational awareness. However, once you’ve detected the idiots, you know they have to go. You don’t need the idiots. They contribute nothing other than red flags and an immense danger to you and everyone around you and the faster you can understand their blindness to risk and take them out of the mix, the better off your organisation will be.
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.
Let’s be honest! Nobody likes writing incident reports. They’re kind of annoying, time consuming and just another bit of paper work that you have to do on top of everything else! Added to this, so many schools and organisations make it difficult for their teachers and instructors to complete.
Consequently, when you combine added work with difficult to complete, this results in poor reporting, late reporting and quite often non-reporting of incidents. Ironically, WHS research has shown that the more senior a staff member, the less likely they are to complete a report. Added to this is the deterioration of memory that adversely impacts the accuracy and validity of any report. No matter how good someone thinks their memory is, the longer they delay in writing an incident report, the fuzzier and less accurate it becomes. Important details can be overlooked and left out. Such details about actions taken, mitigation or treatment, could become vitally important years down the track and without a rock-solid incident report, the person and the organisation can be massively exposed to a variety of potential liabilities. However, everyday things happen. The writing of an incident report is put off until ‘later’ and when ‘later’ comes, the events of yesterday or last week are nothing but a distant memory in amongst a busy life of work, family, traffic and cups of coffee.
Yet incident reports are critical to our understanding of what happened, causation, consequence and how to avoid it happening again. The ‘bury your head in the sand,’ ‘it’ll be right’ and ‘I’ll do it later’ options are not options at all and all incidents, no matter how seemingly minor or insignificant, need to be reported in a timely and accurate manner. Consistent and timely reporting can highlight patterns or risks which might otherwise have been missed.
With so many potential negatives of trying to get someone to write an incident report, no wonder they’re done so poorly. Add remoteness or overseas to the equation and you’re not getting anything wonderful or insightful anytime soon. The end result is an unintended exposure to liability and the inability to learn vital lessons from what went wrong. It was this exact situation and combination of factors which led me to develop the Xcursion software platform. I didn’t want to be doing incident reports at the end of a multi day expedition when I was tired and about to have a day off. I wanted to have it all done way before then. However, at the same time as a director of outdoor ed, I wanted incident reports sent to me from the field as fast as possible, so I could understand what had happened and help provide an appropriate response. Hence, I built the Xcursion mobile app to solve both my problems at once and in doing so, came up with a solution that made it easier, faster and a far more reliable way of doing incident reports.
What was the result? Suddenly, there was an increase in incidents!!! Well that’s probably not quite true. There were the same number of incidents, but now they were actually being reported. From this we could finally understand the prevalence of the type, severity and causation of incidents, with some reliable level of detail and accuracy, rather than… nothing.
Essentially, as soon as you make something easy for someone to do, then you have a greater chance of it being done. The more difficult and complex the task, the less likely you are to get anything. It baffles me that something so important is often such a low priority until a major incident occurs and everyone is demanding answers. Why not make it easy on everyone? No more inaccurate hand-written reports which are days or weeks old that you have to scan and file somewhere. Just leverage a bit of mobile tech to do it all for you and what can often take ages or not get done at all, could just take a couple of minutes and give you more detail than ever before, helping protect the first responder, students and with greater insight, help you reduce risk for every activity you do.