Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Outdoor Education Fatalities in Australia 1960-2002 Part 3: Environmental Circumstances

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Outdoor Education Fatalities in Australia 1960-2002 Part 3: Environmental Circumstances

Article excerpt


This article, the third in a series, examines 114 outdoor education-related fatalities in Australia in the period 1960-2002. It reviews the environmental circumstances in which fatalities have occurred and the extent to which environmental circumstances contributed to fatal incidents. All of the accidental deaths (105) could be linked to particular environmental circumstances. Patterns of environmental circumstances that have been associated with fatal incidents are reviewed. The paper concludes that in outdoor education, knowledge of particular environments is more important for fatality prevention than knowledge of outdoor recreation activities (although the latter may imply the former in some cases). At least one-third of the accidental (non-motor vehicle) deaths appeared preventable given specific local knowledge. The study shows that there is a geography of fatality risk, and that improved prevention requires more attention to regional or local considerations. The study provides no support for the contention that more general approaches to fatality prevention (national rather than state or regional) would be intrinsically more effective than more local approaches; the opposite appears true.


In the first article in this series (Brookes, 2003c), I discussed the role of case studies in developing fatality prevention strategies in outdoor education and provided a summary of 72 outdoor education-related incidents in Australia since 1960, involving 114 deaths. Further, I provided a brief description of each incident, grouped by immediate circumstance. The incidents are summarised in Table 1.

The second article in this series (Brookes, 2003d) considered the role of adult supervisors and examined first aid and rescue considerations. I examined 'supervision' rather than alternatives such as 'leadership' or 'instruction' because supervision is not confined to the periods in which students are undertaking specific activities in the outdoors. A number of fatalities have occurred on the fringes of the organised program of activities. I found no incidents in which it could be said that inadequate first aid contributed to a fatal outcome, although clearly supervisors should be proficient in basic first aid, especially CPR. Rescue time, on the other hand, was potentially critical in a number of incidents. Training in first aid beyond the basics would apparently not have prevented any of the deaths in this study; more planning devoted to potential rescue may have prevented a number of deaths.

In this article I consider if and how particular environmental circumstances have contributed to fatal incidents. Most of the deaths in this study were accidental (105), and can be grouped according to environmental circumstances: drowning in lakes or pools (12); drowning in moving water (18); drowning in open water (11); falls (8); falling objects (24); fire/lightning (4); hypothermia (5); motor vehicle-related (23). Two deaths in this study were homicides, one was undetermined (possibly accidental) and seven were from natural causes. Death sometimes occurs in the outdoors - one can die anywhere; however, deaths in which the outdoor education situation was not a factor accounted for less than one in ten of those studied. Even allowing for the fact that there were deaths from natural causes or other reasons such as suicide that I did not discover, outdoor environments have contributed to most outdoor education fatalities.

Understanding environmental hazards is therefore central to fatality prevention in outdoor education:

1. While some hazards are diffuse and unpredictable - a tree may fall on a windless day as someone walks underneath, a swimmer may have a seizure and drown at any time - most hazards occur in specific, recognisable circumstances.

2. Given sufficient expertise - particularly, but not exclusively on the part of supervisors - most environmental dangers can be avoided or neutralised. …

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