Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

The Crux of Risk Management in Outdoor Programs - Minimising the Possibility of Death and Disabling Injury

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

The Crux of Risk Management in Outdoor Programs - Minimising the Possibility of Death and Disabling Injury

Article excerpt


Risk management has become a much-discussed topic in the outdoor education literature in recent years, and a number of approaches to it have been proposed. When I started my career in outdoor education the term risk management had not yet entered the vocabulary. We did, though, talk about safety planning and its prime aim was the protection of program participants from harm. The term 'risk management' is now very much part of the jargon in all organisations and the sort of risks that one is expected to consider within an overall risk management plan seem to have considerably increased.

The focus has shifted too. The emphasis in the current standard (Standards Australia and Standards New Zealand, 1999) is very much the protection of organisations themselves from 'something happening that will have an impact upon objectives'. A recent advertisement for a web-based risk management tool for schools CLASSRooM(TM) 2001 (DETE, 2001) illustrates this point;

The potential consequences of an inadequate school risk management program are significant - financial loss, decline in enrolments, loss of reputation, litigation, personal liability, damage to careers, injury and even death.'

The possibility of serious physical harm seems very much tacked on the end in this description. I'd argue that in a hierarchy of adverse consequences, death or serious injury to persons involved is right at the top of things we want to avoid. Minimising the risk of death and disabling injury should be the number one outcome of any risk management plan or strategy in outdoor programs.

There is no doubt, though, that all the other harmful consequences listed above can follow for any organisation in the aftermath of serious injury or death in a program, particularly where it is subsequently shown the incident may have been avoidable. Look at the well-publicised suffering of the victims' families, the demise of the responsible adventure company, and the personal costs to company directors and employees in the Swiss canyoning disaster.

Historical Approaches

Historical approaches to risk management in organised outdoor activities have centered on the adoption of guidelines or 'standing orders' on aspects such as;

* minimum experience or qualifications of leaders,

* minimum &/or maximum number of persons in a group,

* maximum number of participants per leader,

* prior experience required of participants,

* minimum equipment tandards, and

* intra-organisational approval processes.

These are an important part of approaches to risk management that form the basis of plans many organisations still use today.

There have, though, been questions asked about the effectiveness of generic activity guidelines. Take for instance the drowning of the two adult leaders and two teenage scouts when a Venturer Scout Group was struck by gale force winds when kayaking across Lake Alexandrine in South Australia. The scout group and the state association responded to criticism, of the activity by stating that the organisation had adequate standards, that the kayaks had all passed their annual safety inspection, all persons were wearing life jackets and that the leader held the required scout qualifications. Moreover the spokesman argued, the group had not planned to kayak in the lake, as this was an area prohibited to scout groups, and they must have been blown off course or become lost. The Coroner found however that buoyancy had been removed from the kayaks, that the leader had ignored weather forecasts, and also the prohibition in paddling across the lake in the interests of taking a short cut. In this case some rules had clearly been breached, but also the coroner found the association standing orders did not address all potential hazards, particularly necessary prior experience of participants. Over half the group had not kayaked before.

While in that case there were real questions of compliance, it does not necessarily follow that adherence to guidelines will always prevent incidents. …

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