Attitudes Towards Risk

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Attitudes towards risk varies dramatically in individuals. Some people love extreme sports, others don't even like to change the channel on the TV. Whilst these are two extremes of the spectrum, we must manage risk in our own lives on a daily basis. However, what happens when assessing and managing risk is part of your work? How do we avoid diametrically opposed views on risk impacting on effective risk management?

Do we let the mathematicians do the stats for us and tell us why we can or can't do an activity? After all, statistically eventually everything happens! If we’re purely relying on statistics though, more young people die on our roads from vehicular accidents than anything else. The government then jumps up and down and says that they’re having a blitz on road safety, but this just means more speeding fines. It doesn’t deal with the core issue that young males are massive risk takers. What we need to be doing is dealing with core issues, not randomly managing the symptoms.

In any organisation, you want to avoid the extremes. This is especially when working in experiential education. You can have people there who are so risk averse, they don't want to leave the building. However, the far greater risk is the problem of staff who have the attitude, “Don't worry about it, it’ll be fine!” These people either don't understand how to manage risk, or they're so full of their own self-worth, they have the idea that it will never happen to them. Therefore, they don't need to do anything to manage risk, because nothing like that will ever happen!

If you have someone like this in your organisation, you need to get rid of them as they're a danger to themselves and everyone around them. This is worse than the ‘expert’ blind spot where someone fails to see risk due to their experience, as this person fails to see risk due to their lack of experience and lack of understanding. They will disregard anyone else's opinions too.

Not long ago I was running a canoe expedition up into the Shoalhaven Gorge. This is a magnificent area. Remote, pristine and rugged. It forms part of the Etrema Wilderness area and is accessible either by the lake, or by helicopter. Therefore, there’s little margin for error. We were about to set out on our journey when a flotilla of canoes came paddling in. It was a school group, most of whom weren't wearing life jackets and the staff seemed ill-prepared.

We briefly engaged in conversation with one of the teachers and he told us that they'd never been here before. They just hired some boats and canoed up until they found a campsite. I didn't ask what sort of safety equipment they brought. One of them was running around with a mobile phone, trying to get a signal. I informed him there was no point as the closest reception was 16km away. It would be silly for me to have suggested they use their satellite phone, but I did all the same, to which they replied, “No, we don't have one of those. We didn't know there wasn't any reception down here.”

I decided to explore this situation further and asked a few more questions. They'd only decided in the last week they were going to bring the group of kids out. It was a co-ed group with no female staff. They had done a recce, but it was in a completely different area and because someone had seen a snake there, they thought it too dangerous to go. I was totally gobsmacked by this, thinking that these are the sort of people who end up costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars because they take no responsibility and end up getting into trouble, not being able to manage it and having to be evacuated.

I quickly realised I was talking to idiots and so I politely extracted myself from the conversation and went to do some final checks before we departed. Away we went up into the magnificent Gorge and paddled for almost three hours until we reached the campsite. I hadn't thought any more of that group until we were setting up camp. One of the boys threw a piece of paper onto the fire pit in preparation for the evening’s campfire. All of a sudden I smelt smoke… the paper burst into flames. As the paper burnt out, I put my hand over the top of the fire pit. It was still hot! The idiot teachers from the other group had done nothing to make sure the fire was out. It would've been at least 6 hours since they'd departed the site and the heat coming out was enough to reignite.

Thankfully I don't run into too many people like this, but it highlights such a lack of concern and understanding of risk. Did they even do a basic risk assessment? Even if they did, what was the point? This is a failure on so many levels of an organisation. To manage risk effectively, it means you need to develop a culture of risk management within the organisation. This doesn't mean become risk averse. It means working together as a team to proactively work out what real risks are and how they can be effectively managed. It's vital that you have an experienced operator providing oversight and not just a classroom teacher who's been promoted beyond their talents, or an in house lawyer who's never been outside of the office. These people might understand an aspect of risk, but don't know how it translates into the real world.

With the right leadership promoting an open and honest culture of risk management in which discussions can occur on a regular basis about risks, hazards, incidents and near misses, you ensure you set and maintain the highest of standards for the safe operation of all of your programs. It is through this culture of awareness that we can continue to run safe and effective programs.

Mistakes Of Risk Assessments

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This is something everyone seems to hate doing, which I understand, because it can be quite an involved and time consuming task. As a teacher, you're always under a lot of competing time pressures. Whilst effective risk management needs to be a culture within your organisation, for the moment I'm just going to focus on the paperwork.

There's also often confusion between the development of risk assessments and their practical application. Risk assessments and management systems (RAMS) are living documents, not something that you write just to make the principal happy and then file it away until something goes wrong, at which point everyone scrambles for the dusty document.

RAMS embody what dangerous risks there are for an activity or location and how those risks are managed or mitigated to reduce or remove the dangerous elements of that risk. Consequently, when you put it into practice, they result in well-planned activities in which the participants come back essentially the same way they left, but having experienced something new, unique and awesome.

There are three key areas of risk that you're always looking to effectively address:


As each of these elements can be extremely fluid and dynamic, generic risk assessments that are not tailored and considerate of the specific location, group involved, time of year, potential weather conditions, equipment being used and type of activity is a recipe for disaster. So don't do this. It's really bad practice and potentially exposes you and your organisation to a massive legal minefield.

One time, I was auditing the risk management systems for a school and it quickly became apparent that all their risk assessments had simply been blindly copied and pasted from one activity to another with absolutely no regard for the content.

I'd read only two paragraphs of the first document and it was obvious that the title and activity listed had absolutely nothing to do with what was written below. They were two completely different things.

I had a whole pile of documents to work through. Each one had a different title and date at the top. Each one was signed and dated at the bottom, but the exact same risks were listed for hiking, as they were for canoeing, as they were for rugby, as they were for tennis, as they were for every sport and activity the school did. They not only didn't make any sense, they jumped around here, there and everywhere so much so that if they were subpoenaed by a court, the school would have been found completely negligent and laughed out the door.

Not only had someone written a far too general and poor risk assessment to begin with, everyone else had just blindly copied and pasted it word for word. Nobody had checked it at all and some of them dated back over three years, which I suspect was the point of origin.

Thankfully, most schools I've assessed haven't been like this, but it highlights the danger of the copy and paste approach to risk assessments. The reality is that if you sign off on that document, then you are responsible and potentially liable for what's in that document.

This doesn't mean you need to start from scratch every time. What it does mean though is that you need to develop a specific risk assessment for each individual activity. There may be similar elements from one to another, but be careful that only the similar elements get written in and not just massive slabs of pointless nonsense, so you can make it look as if you've covered every risk possible in the world!

Rather than trying to think of every risk and throwing it for the sake of it, ensure you cover the three key elements that relate to your specific activity:


What are the potential risks and hazards that each of these elements bring to the activity? What strategies are you then going to use to reduce or remove these risks?

Bush fires are for example, a considerable risk in the hotter months, so controls to consider and manage where to hike need to be in place. Controls over campfires need to be in there and active monitoring of information from the rural fire service is a must.

In the colder months, bushfires aren't as much of a concern, whereas exposure of staff and students to cold is. Therefore, a compulsory piece of clothing would be thermals. As each risk is considered, you connect it with a way in which you're going to manage that risk.

The more you write into the document however, doesn't always mean the safer your activity will be, because each risk and control must relate to the specific activity or location. The risk of drowning for example playing tennis would just be stupid and also render the document in the laughable and unreliable category (Yes, that was in one of the documents).

At the end of the day a good risk assessment comes down to your ability to understand the activity you're running and the document you've written and how you and the other staff implement this when running the activity. It's this direct correlation between proactive planning and good practice that will make your risk assessments stand up against rigorous tests and challenges if they were ever called into question. Ultimately though, it's not about the paperwork itself. It's about helping you make every one of your activities safer and easier to manage.

Getting Shot At Work

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Now thankfully this isn't something that happens every day, but it does happen. Given the fact that my first job was at a gun club, shouldn't mean the chances of being shot increases. Whilst many bleeding hearts will tell you the dangers of shooting, it remains one of the safest sports you can do. I've had far worse injuries from hockey than anything else. Mountain biking and skiing are right up there for the most dangerous sports. However, once again, I digress and so back to the topic.

I'd got my first job as many teens do at 15. However, it wasn't a fast food joint. It was a shotgun club. My job was to put the skeets on the hopper and fire them up so that people could shoot at them. It was a fun job that paid really well. Most of the time I just sat inside a concrete bunker waiting for the buzzer. When I heard that, I'd load the clay and off it would go. This would be followed by the sound of a shot gun and depending on how good a shot they were, it either shattered the clay pigeon, or it would gracefully sail back down to land in the field nearby. The only real hazard of the job was when a clay shattered inside the bunker as it flew out. You'd be shielding your eyes as you were peppered with tiny ceramic fragments as they ricocheted off the solid concrete walls.

The job was fun and often I'd get to shoot a few clays afterwards too, which added to the excitement of it all. One day however, we were on a different range. It was the field and game range. At this range, it wasn't the traditional skeet tower and bunker configuration that we usually worked with, meaning the clay pigeons would be fired from either a tower, or the bunker. Instead, we used a whole range of different styles and sizes of clays which could be bounced along the ground, thrown up into the air, down a gully or every which way possible. It added a remarkably different sort of challenge to it all.

That day, I was stationed high up on top of this rock. When I heard the buzzer, I'd fire two clays up over this rock and the shooter would see them as if they were birds through the trees. This was no worries at all as I was high up and protected by a rock. However, the next range over, something was being fired across the gully and unfortunately I found out the hard way that this side wasn't so well protected.

There had been a few shots now and then where I'd heard the leaves in trees above getting sprayed through with shot, but thought nothing really of it. I was protected by a rock. It was way above my head as it should be. It was all good. However, just as I was loading a double clay, I heard a boom and whipping sound coming at me. My arm suddenly stung before a hot painful burning sensation took over. I grabbed my right shoulder with my hand. Looking down I could see blood, lots of blood and my upper arm dimpled with telltale signs of a spray of shotgun pellets.

I don't remember screaming or crying in pain. It all felt so surreal. One second I was loading clays. Next I'd been shot in the arm and bleeding profusely. I felt my right hand release the clay hopper and I shot the two clays up into the air. It must have surprised the range officer, as I'd let them go too early. He was on the radio to see what was happening.

I said, ‘I think I might need some help. Can you come up?’ I remember the reply was one of grumbles, as if it were so much effort to get up the hill. (Actually, for most of the club members it was, given the fact that they weren't the fittest group of individuals.) However, when he got up there and saw the blood, his attitude changed. Thankfully, someone in the club had some idea of first aid and it wasn't long before they stopped the bleeding and revealed some nice neat pellet holes in my right shoulder.

Whilst today, I'd be seriously looking into their risk processes and procedures to find out why there was such an horrendous failing in their safety, back then. After I realised that the wounds weren't too deep, the pellets had all been removed and I was ok, it now felt so cool to have been shot at work and as compensation, they gave me an extra $50. All in all, a great day at work.

Kids Perception Of Risk

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I've touched on the topic of kids’ differing perceptions of risk before. However, it's not a one off issue that can be easily dealt with. It's an ongoing concern that requires constant attention, as the adolescent brain doesn't perceive risk in the same way an adult brain does.

To highlight this point, on my recent visit to the US, I was struck by this problem at a bus stop. I was in Park City, which is in the mountains in Utah and to say it was cold would be an understatement. It was around -20 deg C. The late afternoon air bit viciously every time you drew a breath. I was rugged up in two layers of thermals plus another four layers on top of that.

I'd just been shopping for some supplies for dinner. Walking along the pavement, I noticed two teenage girls huddled together at the bus stop. I could see they were shivering and not wearing much at all. They each appeared to be wearing some leggings (tights or something like that) and a light top. With their teeth chattering, they were debating if they should keep waiting for the bus or go inside and risk missing it.

Listening in for a few moments. It became apparent that they'd ducked out of the house to quickly go to the shops and didn't think they’d need a jacket (or pants). At this point I started thinking about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but I quickly dragged my mind back from this. I rustled in my pocket and thankfully it was still there. I had a pair of hand warmers which I'd taken with me up the mountain. Once it hits below about -5, I like to keep my hands warm.

Pulling them out, I offered them to the girls. They thanked me and grabbed the hand warmers. Clutching them in their hands, they then hugged them close to their pale faces. Another five minutes went by. I chatted with the girls to try and keep their mind off the cold. They sounded increasingly despondent as the bus was running late.

“Why don't you duck inside over the road?” I said, pointing to a restaurant opposite. “I’ll signal when I see the bus.” The girls looked at me, looked at each other, then the restaurant. It was an easy decision. They dashed across the road and into the warmth of the building.

Another 10mins of waiting in the freezing cold and the bus finally arrived. I waved to the girls, who ran over and jumped onto the heated bus. Huddled together at the back, still shivering, that was the last I saw of them.

Whilst I'm sure they were ok in the end and I did ask if they were ok to get home, it does highlight a serious problem with teens’ attitudes towards risk. I see it time and time again with activities I run, be it skiing, mountain biking, canoeing, hiking, whatever the case may be. I’ll see a student without a helmet, without a jacket, no PFD and when you challenge them on it, you get the excuse, ‘but it's only just…’ and therein lies the problem. The idea that (in the girls’ case) it's only just down the street, (so I won't need a jacket), unfortunately follows through to everything else that teenagers do. They have this complete lack of awareness to risk. This is different from risk taking behaviour where they're seeking our risky activities. This is just a total lack of forethought. Everything in the adolescent brain is purely focussed on reward, or the outcome. It's not worried too much by the details in between.

Whilst all of this poses a massive challenge for a teacher from a risk management point of view, it also provides some great learning opportunities too. I don't mind when kids do things like this (within reason), because it teaches them a valuable lesson. For example, one ski program I worked on, we spent a lot of time briefing and preparing the kids for the first day. However, no amount of clear instruction will ever be enough for some people. They need to experience everything first hand.

With snowboarders, one of the most frequent injuries that occurs, is the broken wrist. To counter this, we instruct all our snowboarders to wear wrist guards. Most do, however, one boy in 10th Grade, it being the first time he'd ever snowboarded, decided not to wear them. It was the first run of the first day of a 10 week program. He slipped, fell forward, put his hand out, landed on his wrist and broke it. I asked him, when we got to the medical centre, ‘Where were your wrist guards?’
‘Umm… I had them on me!’ he said defensively. ‘They were just in my pocket!’
I looked at him and I'm pretty sure he knew what I was thinking, ‘so what valuable lesson do we learn from this?’ I said rhetorically.

Even though, as teachers, we go to great lengths to manage all sorts of risks, we can never underestimate kids inability to perceive risk in the same way adults do. Even though the ‘only just’ excuse frustrates me to no end, it provides a great learning opportunity through debrief and reflection.

As a result, we need to use these opportunities where kids disregard risk and ignore their own safety, not as disciplinary issues, but as learning experiences. It's not about getting someone in trouble to prove that you're right. It's about giving them the opportunity to reflect on what they did, or didn't do and what happened as a result, in such a way that they can learn from the mistake and not repeat it in another more critical or dangerous context.

Three Elements Of Risk

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In every outdoor activity there are countless risk factors that must be considered and effectively managed to ensure safe operations and enjoyable experiences. Whilst it's easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of risk management and the enormous task of trying to think of every risk possible, from falling tree branches to unprovoked possum attacks, generally in outdoor ed, risks fall into three main categories. These create a nice triangle which could be used on a pretty PowerPoint presentation, for the world dominating purposes of the illuminati, or to make lots of money mysteriously disappear into places such as Bermuda. Whatever the case may be, the three components which make up the triangle are:

People Risks
Environmental Risks
Equipment Risks

Again, broadly speaking, a failure of one of these area is problematic, but manageable. A failure of two of these areas is dangerous, as the ability to effectively mange the situation seriously diminishes and failure in all three could be catastrophic.

Over the years, I've experienced some interesting situations where one of these areas of ‘normal’ operation becomes compromised. For example, when environmental conditions have unexpectedly turned for the worse, I've found myself in the middle of storms, freezing cold nights, ragingly hot days, white outs, blizzards and everything in between. However, each and every time the situation hasn't been a problem. It's not only been manageable, but it's also been character building for those involved. So why's that?

If the environment itself is the only failing component of the risk triangle, it means you have the right equipment and people are following instructions appropriately, therefore you're just experiencing discomfort, rather than anything else more serious. As a result, the discomfort can provide great learning experiences for the group and not adversely impact on safety.

I will however, qualify something at this point, because someone’s bound to say, ‘What about lightning?’ Let’s take lightning out of the mix for the moment, as getting caught in a thunderstorm is dangerous no matter how you look at it. Supercharged bolts of electricity randomly shooting down from the sky is something you really don't want to be in, especially if you've upset Zeus, Thor or …. at some stage in your life. If you have upset any of these mythical gods for some reason, basically you’re on your own from here on in.

Excluding the wrath of angry gods and severe storms that should be picked up by your weather monitoring practices, getting caught in bad weather is not generally dangerous. However, let's see what happens when we throw a spanner in the works and another component of the triangle becomes compromised. For example, inadequate or poor quality equipment!

On one trip I was leading many years ago, it was late winter and had been raining all morning. We were running a program in the southern highlands of NSW. The hike was around 8km and the forecast was for more light showers. On the surface, not a problem. However, during the lunch stop, we decided to do an equipment check, as most of the students were wearing cheap useless ponchos that their parents had misguidedly bought them to ‘save’ money. This sort of thing will last two minutes in the bush and be torn to shreds in no time at all. You may as well not bother and you’re better off spending that money on an overpriced coffee, as it will have more of an effect on your comfort and well-being than the rubbish poncho. Despite the inadequate rain protection, this wasn’t the major issue, as the most important thing for the students to have was their thermals. This was on their packaging list, but untrusting of the parents and their poor decision made on the rain gear, we thought it best to double check. The result was three pairs of thermals were being carried out of 28 students! This was without a doubt an Epic Fail!!!

Suddenly, we had two components of the risk triangle in play and actively compromised, so our risk profile just shot up dramatically! Hypothermia was at the forefront of my mind and the fact we didn't have any vehicle access to the area only added to this. Given the poor quality of equipment, the lack of essential clothing and the potential for students to be carrying useless summer sleeping bags, we had two options. Accept the high-level of dangerous risk involved with continuing, or modify the plan… Needless to say, we modified the plan, extended the day trip and returned to base.

In stark contrast with this, another trip I led, we were completely smashed by rain, far worse than anything we had experienced the day we had to pull the pin, but the difference was that everyone had thermals and was wearing Gortex jackets. With no epic equipment failure, the situation was uncomfortable for everyone, but completely safe to continue with as planned.

Importantly, the way these three components interact with each other is the determining factor for the real level of risk with which you're working. Many risk assessment schemes fail to take this into account and are focused on writing everything down, but without the understanding of how risk may increase as one or more of these components become compromised or fail. However, it's critical that this is understood and is factored into the risk assessment and management processes and practices for the organisation.

This brings us to the People component of the risk triangle! Unfortunately, there’s no material safety data sheets, engineering limits or forecasts when it comes to people and how they’re going to act, react and behave in any given environment or situation. Even though it’s the most unpredictable and complex factor in the risk triangle, it’s often the least considered and most underestimated. There’s no shortage of stupid people in the world. In fact, many people excel in this area every day of the week and should certainly not be trusted with open flames or power tools, or anything without smooth edges.

The problem is that when you're responsible for people like this who are unpredictable, or taken to doing idiotic thing, it's vital that you watch them and actively manage them. Unlike finding a faulty or damaged piece of equipment and replacing it with a new one, the people risk is far more emotive and complex.

If you can exclude a student from activities who simply will not listen or engage, that could be the best solution as they drag everyone else down with them. However, often schools are reluctant to take definitive action and sadly, sometimes as leaders, we’re stuck with a compounding people risk until their idiocy negatively impacts on the group and someone higher up in the organisation suddenly realises that what you said in assessing the participant risk has now come true. This is not a situation you want to find yourself in and it’s worth having good behaviour management strategies in place, such as higher staff to student ratios or modified programs when the people factor has the increased potential for producing adverse risk to the staff and the group.

As with any other individual component of risk, behaviour alone isn’t necessarily critical and with a good leader more often than not, like every other risk factor in isolation, is not a major concern. However, throw in a bit of bad weather, forget or misuse some vitally important piece of safety equipment and you’re now shaping up for some major issues.

When you’re reviewing your risk management systems it’s well worth considering the interaction of these three components in the context of your organisation and how you can best address them when running any sort of program. Being aware of how the level of risks escalate as one or more are compromised, will help you to build far greater situational awareness. This keeps your risk management practices alive to ensure safe operations and great educational outcomes.