Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Outdoor Education Fatalities in Australia 1960-2002. Part 1: Summary of Incidents and Introduction to Fatality Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Outdoor Education Fatalities in Australia 1960-2002. Part 1: Summary of Incidents and Introduction to Fatality Analysis

Article excerpt


This paper presents a summary of outdoor education fatalities in Australia between 1960 and 2002. It discusses the importance of incident analysis in fatality prevention. Major sources of systematic bias in reviewing cases are discussed, and a distinction made between risk management, safety management, and fatality prevention. The paper is the first in a series presenting the findings of a research project that sought to examine all available information from public records, mainly newspaper reports and coronial documents, on outdoor education fatalities since 1960, with a view to (a) ensuring cases for study were more consistently available to teachers and teacher educators and (b) examining past incidents for common elements or patterns.


Accidental death is a major contributor to what is a low death rate for young people in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2000). As would be expected, deaths from accidents and other causes have occurred on camps and excursions organised by schools or youth groups. This study, based on publicly available information, presents a compilation of fatalities occurring on school and youth group camps and excursions since 1960. Most involve deaths from external causes. With hindsight, many were preventable. I hope that this research will help ensure that, as a mother who lost her 13 year old Daughter at Lal Lal Falls put it, "something positive" (Smith, 1990, p.3) comes from these tragedies.

The research, of which this article is part, has two main threads.

(1) To provide a compilation of fatalities that will assist outdoor teachers, leaders, guides, and those who train outdoor educators, to develop case studies from newspaper reports and inquests. No such compilation previously existed. I have provided sufficient information for readers to locate newspaper articles relating to most incidents. Usually newspaper reports will contain the names and dates necessary to request the findings of an inquest, if one was held. Inquest reports are usually public documents, although access is not automatic, because the public interest must be weighed against the privacy of those named in the reports.

(2) To consider what can be learned by taking an overview of many fatalities, and the contexts in which they occurred, over four decades. There are lessons to be learned from the set of fatalities. 'Freak' events in the life or career or any one individual or institution may be seen to fit patterns only evident from this wider perspective. I will examine some of these patterns in more detail in later articles, but some are clearly evident in the summary of incidents presented here.

The role of studying incidents in safety management

Reviewing and circulating incident reports, including informal 'story-telling', is an essential part of safety management. I am not aware of any safety-oriented culture that does not include cautionary tales or example-based safety analyses.

Reviewing cases is essential because experience and common sense alone will not prevent all fatalities:

(1) fatalities (on camps and excursions) are rare. Most of those who conduct camps or excursions, even if they do so full-time, will never experience a fatality under their care.

(2) Lessons accumulated from 'near misses' or non-fatal injuries are essential to safe practice, but are not sufficient--not all fatalities are preceded by, or associated with, warnings in the form of recognisable near-misses (cf Brackenreg, 1997).

(3) Lessons accumulated from everyday experience of outdoor education are essential to program quality. But fatalities can arise from specific circumstances that may be absent in otherwise poorly-run programs, and present in otherwise exemplary programs. Recognising these circumstances is not a matter of common sense.

Fatality prevention requires a specific effort to enquire beyond the experience of individuals and the record of individual programs to learn from fatalities in programs sharing some common elements. …

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