Safety

Staff Exhaustion

Staff Exhaustion - Camps

This week, it's time to cover burnout and exhaustion on programs. Having done four straight weeks of Year 8 camps, despite having two days off in between each camp, this weekend I feel totally and utterly exhausted! Thankfully I have the next week off to recover before we start the Year 9 program. However, if the staff didn't have this recovery time, a serious number of dangers and increase risks for activities can creep in!

It's often the case that management don't figure in burnout to the overall risk assessment of programs. It might be thrown in as an idea on a risk management form, but is it really taken seriously?

After the past month of intense programs, without a week off to recover, I doubt very much that we’d actually have any staff left to run the next program. I used to work for one such school, who on the one hand said staff need to be looked after, but in reality, they didn’t. Staff exhaustion and burnout were common place and it resulted in massive staff turnover. Because the school could never really decide what they want to do with their program, they did a bit of everything and a bit of everything meant a lot of everything. Half the staff did the majority of the work whilst management sat around scratching their heads not really knowing what was going on. The core of issue of burn out in that situation came down to the nature of leadership within the organisation. After four years in that job I was one of the most senior staff on campus, people just got sick of working ridiculous hours without any real break and they simply left, which ultimately costs more in the continuous recruitment, induction and retraining processes than it’s worth.

So how do you avoid burning out your stuff and churning them over so many times that there’s no history or culture left with in your school or organisation? The first approach is to value the work that your staff are doing. Simply acknowledging the fact that they’re not off on vacation is a good start. The work outdoor ed teachers do is different. It’s not in a structured classroom environment where you can set and forget half way through the lesson. It’s in a fluid, risk filled world that requires constant attention to detail and vigilance. Camps and activities can be all consuming and over this period of time staff have to make sacrifices including being away from family, from home and all the conveniences of the modern world. For one thing, I miss good coffee!!!

The acknowledgement by senior management that this is above and beyond what most staff do, is essential in reinforcing positive and proactive culture within the school and encourages others volunteer and organise other trips themselves, which ultimately enhance the student’s educational experiences throughout their schooling.

The danger of staff exhaustion is that the tiredness, isolation, time away from family can creep in and start to impact on staff morale and staff judgement. You want teachers and instructors at the top of the game running your excursion! You want them exercising the best judgement, constantly monitoring the group, the environment and any third party risks that may arise. What you don’t want is having your staff thinking, ‘When am I getting off this activity?’ ‘When can I go home?’ ‘Why is this job so relentless?’ All of these negative thoughts and distractions mean that your staff aren't focused on the task at hand of running high quality activities and providing continuous operational management and risk assessment for activities.

It's important to balance everything. Some programs are longer than others. Some run on weekends and some run for weeks on end. All of this costs times and money to provide quality educational outcomes, but it’s all worth it in the holistic educational development of students in functional and effective young adults. In the overall risk management of excursions, it’s vital to consider the fact that staff are humans and need real breaks from children and all the demands that come with the responsibility of looking after other people's kids for extended periods of time. Always ensure that your excursions have sufficient staff not only to cover statuary ratios, but also to figure in the 24 hour supervision needs and the contingency plans if something goes wrong. By doing this it means you’ll have the most proactive and effective operational management in place for your excursions. Keeping staff happy, kids safe and providing the best framework for everyone to have a wonderful, memorable experience when away from school.

Finally Relaxing In Front Of The Fire!

Finally Relaxing In Front Of The Fire!

The Right Person For Safety

Right Person For Safety

I've previously written about the need for having a designated safety officer as part of your operational management plan. The safety officer is your backup and support for all field operations and as such, should be a key component of your risk management strategy.
 
However, this isn't a token honorary role for someone to sit around and do nothing, or ‘do admin’. The person has to be experienced, competent and switched on, ready to respond to anything from small hurdles and emergencies, to full-blown crisis and critical incident management.
 
When do incidents happen? Any time, any place and to anybody! Consequently, the safety officer role must be taken extremely seriously and be done by someone who is capable of quickly responding and adapting to what can be fluid, chaotic and evolving situations.
 
Unfortunately, I've seen the other side where organisations and individuals haven't valued the safety officer role, nor taken it seriously and those put in the position of safety officer have thought it to be a nice, cushy, quiet ‘day off,’ which it's not. I could run through several examples of the disastrous mess that's occurred when organisations and individuals have taken this approach, however, I’ll stick with just one for now.

It was a weekend like any other at our residential outdoor education campus. We had 60 students in the field and 20 onsite. My group was the one onsite, so I had an insight into everything that was going on. I was told my help wasn't needed, but I made sure I remained informed and kept my finger on the pulse, just in case things changed.
 
I'd seen the safety officer, who was part of the admin staff and not really experienced in field operations. He'd been causally wandering around campus and saying how he was looking forward to finishing up and going home, as he didn't like working weekends. It had basically been a trade off. He had to work a weekend as did everyone else, but rather than be out on a trip, he decided the best place for him was in the office ‘doing safety.’
 
At around 3pm, a call came in from one of the groups. One of the boys had been bitten by a snake… They weren't sure what sort…

The near comedic chaos that followed demonstrated that not only do you need someone on safety. You  need someone who is switched on and competent. Maps were being pulled out, madly opened and juggled about to work out which way was up. A worried and panicked expression had set into the safety officer’s face and a general state of confusion gripped the air.
 
This really wasn't the confident basis for a swift response and to say things took a long time, would be a serious understatement. The lack of mental preparation by the safety officer and the limitation of knowledge and understanding as to what was going on became immediately apparent.
 
Fumbling through the whole messy process, what should've been a simple pickup from a trailhead ran from 3pm until just after 8pm when the boy was finally transported to hospital. There was no hiking. No 4WDing involved. Everything was accessible via sealed roads and the nearest town was 20mins away. As evacuations go, it was a fairly simple and straightforward one. So why did it take so long?
 
The main factor was the safety officer wasn't switched on to the fact that something could go wrong. He had the attitude that all he was doing was having a nice quiet day in the office, where he might have to answer the occasional phone call. He was also already thinking about going home. Because he wasn't mentally prepared, when circumstances changed, he didn't shift his thinking into response mode. Instead, he immediately went into panic mode, which consequently turned everything into a chaotic mess, dramatically increasing the potential for further harm.
 
At the end of the day, the boy finally got to hospital and thankfully, after tests were done (and the fact that it had been hours since the bite and no obvious signs of envenomation had emerged), the doctors found he hadn't been poisoned and was treated for the puncture wounds and sent home. This result was sheer dumb luck and if the boy had been poisoned, the outcome could have been far worse.
 
The bottom line is, don't rely on dumb luck, or inexperienced staff to get you through an emergency or crisis. If they're not experienced enough to be in the field, then they're the last person you want acting as backup and operational support. As part of your standard operations, you need to effectively plan and prepare for contingencies and most of all, ensure your safety officer is the right person for the job. When things go wrong, they go wrong quickly and your safety officer needs to be able to react and respond just as quickly and effectively.
 
By doing this, you ensure the right framework and resources are in place so that in the unlikely event something adverse happens, it can be swiftly contained. Good response can prevent any further injury or damage can be minimised. Right person, right place, right time, isn't dumb luck, it's good planning.

I get knocked down, but I get up again!

Head Injuries & Concussions

After talking about how awesome Twisted Sister were, I might have got you excited about the classic Chumbawamba song Tubthumping! Such a great song, but again another one-hit wonder that now occasionally finds its way to be played at awkward school reunions and trivia nights.  However, as interesting as random bands are and as pointless as school reunions are, I am not going to talk about either. Instead, let’s talk head injuries!

Whilst for many people, a head injury might be preferable to going to their school reunion, I don’t want to seem blasé about one of the most significant issues with which we have to deal  as teachers, coaches and outdoor instructors.

Concussions are what I would describe as a hidden injury. Whilst sometimes it’s extremely obvious that someone has suffered a concussion, when they’re struggling to remember what you said to them 30 seconds ago, there are also times where the injury goes quite unnoticed. Sometimes, after a hit to the head or a massive body collision, a proper assessment isn’t done and the student continues to play on.

One of the biggest problems with concussions, from a first aid point of view, is that the signs and symptoms are not blatantly obvious. If for example someone breaks an arm, especially if it’s a protruding injury, you can see it’s broken from satellite imagery. If it’s graze or laceration, there’s usually lots of blood and so it’s time to glove up and stop that bleeding. There is a reason why people say “bleedingly obvious,” and you’ll understand exactly what they mean, if you’ve treated someone with an open wound, let alone someone who’s taken a dive in a bed of oysters… but that’s a story for another time.

Head injuries and concussions however, that don’t involve lots of bleeding, aren’t always so obvious and nor is the recovery process. When you’ve broken that arm at right angles and passers by with no first aid training feel nauseated just looking at it, it’s obvious you need to get that looked at by a doctor. The process is quite clear from now on in. You go to the hospital, the triage nurse looks at you and goes ‘Oh woah! That’s broken!’ The old lady you sit down next to in the waiting room goes ‘Oh woah! That’s broken!’ and finally after a 6 hour wait in emergency, the doctor said ‘Oh woah! That’s broken, but we’d better get it X-rayed just to be sure!’

However, with head injuries, it’s not so clear cut. Because we can’t see an obvious trauma, we can often risk not even considering that an injury has occurred. The student after all got back up and is playing again. The student might not feel too bad, just a little dazed… but can ‘walk it off’. Unfortunately, inside the student’s head, the brain has just been bounced around and is suffering the effects of a mild concussion. If however, a student has a major concussion, it’s far easier to notice and remove the student from the field or activity. Thankfully, our awareness of and attention to major concussions has improved dramatically in recent years. However, it’s the mild concussions that worry me, as they can remain hidden for an extended period of time.

When someone suffers a concussion, they should seek medical advice and have a clear recovery plan laid out for them. However, with a mild concussion, medical advice is not always sought and the student doesn’t rest and recover, but instead, goes to the next training session increasing the risk of more significant trauma and then onto the next game, once again at increased risk. A concussion on top of another concussion, on top of another one can have a massive multiplier effect and lead to further damage to the brain being caused. Traumatic brain injury and/or CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) can result.

As I’m not a doctor, and there’s far better medical information and advice on the specifics around TBI and CTE I won’t go into all the details here. But as a first teacher, coach or instructor and often the first responder, we should be ensuring we are baseline testing our students prior to commencing high risk activists such as extreme sports and contact sports. We should be mandating helmets or head gear wherever possible and also remaining situationally aware throughout the activity or game looking for big hits to the body or head that might result in the mild concussion that can be so easily overlooked as it’s not bleedingly obvious to the old lady in the emergency department. It’s easy to test for a concussion, but much much harder to deal with the fallout if you don’t.

As educators, we want to challenge our students and help them get the most out of sports, the outdoors and every other opportunity that school affords them. We want them to out-live us and be forced to go to those awkward school reunions, so they can pretend to be far more successful than all the people they hated at school and claim they invented the ‘Post It Note’ or are now an internet Billionaire having invented ‘Fake Block’. Making our students suffer awkward conversations at school reunions to which we don’t have to go, is good! However, letting them suffer from a traumatic brain injury or CTE from multiple concussions when we can so easily check with something like the International Diagnostic tool, is unacceptable.

We do have a very high duty of care for our students and being aware of the risks involved in concussions and also how we can effectively respond and manage them, is vital for us as teachers, coaches and instructors. If you haven’t done so already, do some research, go to a seminar or listen to a podcast on this. The more we understand about concussions, the more we can do to recognise and treat them as we would any other traumatic injury.

For more clinic information speak with your doctor and a few useful resources below:

CTE

https://concussionfoundation.org/CTE-resources/what-is-CTE

 

Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist History Podcast

https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/burden-of-proof/id1119389968?i=1000412178526&mt=2

 

Pocket Concussion Recognition Tool - updated 2017

http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/bjsports/early/2017/04/26/bjsports-2017-097508CRT5.full.pdf