Adventure Training Consultants – Denmark, Western Australia and Beyond

Maintaining adventure whilst ensuring safety

Date: 29th November 2017

(This article was first published as an abridged version in the Australian Education Reporter – term 4 2017 issue)

Maintaining adventure whilst ensuring safety

 The varying definitions of adventure will be very familiar to most of us, as will the positive and enriching experiences that outdoor education and adventure activities can provide, though where we have potential for great positive outcomes, we also have equal potential for negative experience.

The unknown outcome or new experience is all part of the adventure, however, within the context of outdoor education and adventure activities provided to students, returning safely and unharmed should be a certainty.

Quality Safety Management Systems are the critical component to maintaining adventure whilst ensuring safety.It is common to see very different approaches to safety management, the focus for some is on risk and negating liability, for others compliance, documentation and paper trails are key.

My background and experience is in technical skills training and the delivery of adventure activities across a broad range of the industry, through the practical application of risk management and safety management systems, I have developed an insight into those principles that are realistic and effective, within this article, I will discuss both what I believe the important overarching principles to be and why application of these principles can improve the quality and safety of programmes provided.

(My technical expertise is within outdoor adventure activities, not law, there for the thoughts I express should not be taken to have any bearing on issues of legality or liability)

 Important overarching principles

Prevention of serious injuries and fatalities

At first look, this may seem too obvious to mention, it should be constantly in our thoughts though and should direct our actions within everything we do. Through focusing on safety management (as opposed to risk management) and preventing significant injury and fatalities it keeps in our minds on what we should be doing, that is, taking responsibility for our actions and looking after those who are dependent on us.

Documented Safety Management System

Again, this appears to be another obvious aspect, it would be worrying if anyone operating within the outdoor education or adventure activity industry didn’t have written risk assessments, standard operating procedures, emergency action plans etc.

Importantly though is how credible and relevant is our documentation? What is it based on (Adventure Activity Standards, department policies, national organisation safety guidelines, international standards), who created it / who has reviewed it and what relevant technical expertise do they possess, does it outline all important processes (leadership and management, roles and responsibilities, induction and training, hazard identification and management, staff qualification and competence, dynamic hazard management, incident management, continual improvement, to name just a few).

If our processes and documentation are well developed then we should also be looking at how realistic they are, are the documented systems applied practically and consistently? Do the documented systems and processes genuinely improve safety?  Would they stand up to scrutiny?

Practical application of Safety Management Systems

Outdoor education and adventure activities are practical by nature, which means the ways in which we apply our safety management systems are critical, even with the best will and documentation in the world, if the processes aren’t followed practically or the staff delivering programmes on site do not have the experience, competence and qualification for the operational environment then safety will be compromised.

The spectrum of operational areas is large, at one end of the scale we have largely controlled and constructed environments (such as on site multi activity camps, indoor climbing walls), which have limited or controllable variables. On the other end of the scale we have uncontrollable, unmodified environments (Whitewater rivers, remote bush areas, mountain environments), with many constantly changing variables.

The systems used and the way in which we apply them need to be appropriate for the area of the spectrum we operate in. One size definitely does not fit all.

Common themes and good practice

 There is a vast amount of information available globally on safety management and good practice within outdoor adventure environments. Each country has its own approach that reflects it cultural values, experiences and populations acceptance of risk and consequence. Approaches range from zero controls through to highly regulated and legislated requirements enforced through government intervention.

Whether applied through voluntary schemes or government regulation, there are a number of common themes and approaches to good practice that significantly improve the safety of participants of outdoor adventurous activities.

Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have all had their own investigations into near miss incidents or major accidents, in each country different government organisations have taken an in depth look at the processes applied to ensure safety in the outdoors, then proceeded to make recommendations, in both NZ and the UK this has extended into varying degrees of legislation and enforcement to ensure adoption of the parts deemed most important to protect public safety.

Whilst each of these countries have differences in application there are also recommendations all three have in common, applying these common themes to our safety management systems is a good start to improving safety standards.

Australian recommendations (Taken from near miss incident report written by a governmental department)

  • Review aquatic guidelines with activity experts to ensure they address the risks presented in these activities
  • Take into account safety guidelines published by AC (Australian Canoeing)
  • Review the process of allowing staff to document and assess alternative qualifications and experience or expertise in lieu of activity specific certification or accreditation
  • Review whether it is appropriate, that approval of alternate qualification, experience or expertise in lieu of activity specific qualification can be adequately assessed and approved by teachers, principals or school councils that do not have high level understanding of the risks of a particular activity

New Zealand requirements (To gain consent to operate)

  • Have a fully documented safety management system, informed by activity specific technical experts, appropriate to the level of operation and inherent risk
  • Staff that have appropriate current competence, experience and qualification, if nationally recognised / professional association qualifications are not used then a process to show at least equal training / assessment requirements must be shown.
  • External audit (initially and ongoing) of documented safety management system and practical application of safety management system, the audit team includes a recognised activity specific technical expert.

UK requirements (to gain a AALA licence, has a specific application though used widely as quality assurance)

  • Have a fully documented safety management system, informed by activity specific technical experts, appropriate to the level of operation and inherent risk
  • Staff that have recognised activity specific NGB (National Governing Body) awards and work only within the scope of their qualification
  • External audit / inspection by AALS inspector, consisting of review of operational safety documentation and practical delivery of activities

The summaries outlined above show some very specific common themes, if these common approaches are properly applied then quality and safety of outdoor programmes is improved. I would collate and list these critical aspects as,

  • Involvement of activity specific technical experts – The importance of input from people with technical expertise (both within the documented processes and practical delivery) cannot be overstated, as I have heard it put simply before “you don’t know, what you don’t know”. Without an in depth understanding of an activity and the real risks involved it is unrealistic to try and make judgements on safety management strategies, staffing and emergency planning. The technical expert could be internal or external to the organisation, the important aspect is that they have credible technical expertise. There are differing definitions of technical expert, the one I tend to favour is “A person with high level qualification, extensive knowledge and experience”
  • Staff with Activity specific qualification – Again extremely important, the staff delivering the activity are the ones who are ensuring practical safety and quality onsite, in real time, it is those staff who are continually monitoring hazards and adjusting activities to ensure the safety of all involved. Having a credible activity specific qualification is the best way to ensure they have all the required attributes, current competence, experience and qualification. Without appropriate qualification, we open staff up to being in situations where they do not have the required experience or competence to make good judgements.
  • External review / audit – Having our documented Safety Management systems, and our practical application of those systems reviewed / audited by an external organisation gives us another element of quality assurance, it is all too easy to overlook important aspects or to be unaware of change within the industry, review by external organisations with technical knowledge can improve our systems and disseminate good practice throughout the industry.

Good practice approaches

There is more than one way to achieve a quality safety management system, aiming towards what would be considered “good practice” though should be our goal.

Much like the wide spectrum of operational areas that exist within the outdoor industry, there is a wide spectrum of providers of outdoor education and adventure activities, at one end of the spectrum is private recreation and volunteer based clubs, at the other is commercial providers. The nature of participation and expectation of duty of care is different depending on where on this spectrum the provider sits.

If I was participating in (or allowing children I was responsible for to participate in) an outdoor adventure event run by a volunteer based organisation or recreational club I would be doing it based on personal knowledge and trust of the individuals within that group, whilst I would expect them to look after our safety I would ultimately be responsible for it as I am aware that it is essentially private recreation. Many clubs will aim towards professional standards of safety management, to expect that as standard though is unrealistic as they are essentially private recreation organisations.

On the other hand, if that participation in an outdoor adventure event was with commercial provider or education provider to whom I had paid money, or participation was in some way required (through being part of the curriculum) then I would expect the highest of professional standards, my participation would now be based of paying for a professional service (or through curriculum requirement) and there for my expectation on the duty of care owed to me would be significantly higher.

What would be accepted as good practice for your organisation? If you have a high expected level of duty of care for your participants then good practice would be incorporating the widely established professional standards of the outdoor industry.

  • Fully documented safety management system, informed by and adhering the safety guidelines and standards of leading professional associations with specific input from people with credible technical expertise
  • Staff who have activity specific qualification, experience and current competence, that work within the scope of their qualification (operational area, weather conditions, ratios etc.)
  • External review / audit of both documented safety management systems and the practical application of those systems, the review having the involvement of someone with appropriate technical expertise.

When we ensure that the expected level of duty of care we owe our participants is met by an appropriate level of good practice we improve programmes for all involved, the documented safety management system expresses high level management commitment and responsibility, which provides the structure and support operational staff require.

Operational staff, that possess activity specific qualification, experience and current competence have the abilities and knowledge to not only look after participants, but also to structure and run quality inspirational sessions. This gives participants a safer and better adventure experience.

External review provides the quality assurance and independence of thought that disseminates thoughts on changes to good practice and allows the industry as a whole to progress and improve.

Posted in: Adventure Training Blog