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Thursday, August 2, 2018

Safety and risk management in the outdoors

Risk and safety. I think about these two separate things pretty frequently. In part because I spend a lot of time leading novices in the outdoors, and I need to balance the two. If I run a course and it doesn't offer some level of risk, it is deemed boring. But If I crank up the risk, my students/participants may think it's exciting but to a level that makes the outing no fun. Essentially it becomes too scary to be enjoyable. This is a hard thing to balance and even more so for inexperienced individuals on their own trips. Without a good understanding of risk management, you may ramp up the risk way too far, and endanger your own safety. But at the same time, no one wants a trip to be boring. right?

On an almost daily basis I see people doing things that are unsafe. Particularly paddling. The problem is not perceiving that there is a risk occurring at a particular moment. I have had people tell me that they don't wear a PFD because they don't perceive the risk, or the danger. Not perceiving the risk doesn't mean it doesn't exist, it just means you don't have the experience to perceive it.

A sentence I hear all the time, "I've done it this way a hundred times, so it must be safe" The response to this - whether spoken or not - is, no you just haven't been caught yet. Doing something repeatedly doesn't imply safety, really what it implies is luck. You have just been lucky.

Playing in the outdoors is inherently dangerous. At the beginning of class I ask my students to assess the risks we are facing, I ask them "what bad things could happen today?" This is an interesting exercise because it tells me a) what people are afraid of, and b) how aware of the risks they are. The answers vary wildly from "I will flip the boat, get stuck and drown" to "We could get struck by lightning." Both are real risks, but the former doesn't happen, and the latter happens more often than you can imagine. But if you ask a novice paddler which is more likely, invariably they will say it should be the other way around.

So, how do we learn to perceive the risk, assess it, and respond accordingly? Experience, evaluation, and adjustment.

We have to get out into the world and have adventures. We have to go and do the things we enjoy doing, and have experiences in the outdoors. Because actual real world experiences become the fodder for step 2. Step 2 is the thing no one does. It should be a regular part of every outing.

Step 2, evaluation (some call it reflection). We have to evaluate all that happened on our outing. Good and bad. We need to assess as many aspects of the experience as possible.

When step 2 is completed - remember step 2 is the hard part - we move on to step three. Step 3 is adjustment. We have found the issues from the previous outing, and we can make adjustments for them.

On one of the last NOLS sea kayaking courses I worked, we were doing Independent student travel. This is a particularly difficult thing to pull off on sea kayaking courses. There are just too many things that can go wrong for relatively novice students. We can do it two ways. The instructors stay at the back of the group, just close enough to see what is going on, where there can respond if they have to. You can also break the students into small groups, and put an instructor in each group. The instructor isn't allowed to speak unless there is a risk management issue. On this particular course we were running it this way. I was at the back of a group of four, minding my own business while keeping an eye on the ever changing water environment we were paddling in. they were making the decision about which direction to paddle and how to do an exposed section of water. They spent a few minutes discussing it, before I opened my mouth. I said "ladies, you have 30 seconds to make a decision and then we have to move." They forced the issue and made a call. then proceeded to follow their plan. They did a great job, and the rest of the day went without incident. That night I got a visit in my camp site from one of the students who felt that I had overstepped my bounds by forcing their hand to make a decision. They were processing the data, and were taking their time. I shouldn't have rushed them. I explained why I had rushed them. They didn't realize that as they were making their decision, they were drifting backwards, and in 30 seconds we would have been pushed onto exposed rocks. They didn't notice this because they didn't have the experience. They were locked up in route finding without looking at the rest of the situation. She said now she understood, and accepted my actions. I didn't expect her to be aware of all that was going on, it was why I was there. They didn't yet have the experience to be aware of everything that was happening. Honestly, people rarely look behind them.

After looking at what transpired, you need to adjust the way you do things.

In the outdoor industry we evaluate incidents that occur on classes. Incidents come in three varieties, An incident with a fatality. An incident with an injury, and a near miss incident. I have never had to deal with a fatality on a course. I have handled some injuries, but never anything too bad. I have probably three near misses a season. Frequently weather related. I have a handful of people that I discuss these with, who I trust - in addition to discussing them with my employers. I am actively seeking to learn from my experiences, and if we work or play in the outdoors, you should too.

Lately I have been realizing that the less frequently incidents occur, the more likely we are to overlook the signs that it is possible. Or, the more likely it is we are about to suffer an incident. Just because my company has never used an epi pen on a course doesn't mean we never will, and are probably more likely to have an incident. We are due.