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For 25 years I have been taking groups outdoors and leading adventurous activities and for the last 15 I have been coaching, training and assessing other leaders to do the same. One of the great things about the outdoor industry is its reputation for managing risk, a reputation that is well deserved and based on a proactive approach to research, using contemporary knowledge and sharing best practiceStanding on the shoulders of giants I feel pretty qualified to share some thoughts on safety that I introduce to new outdoor leaders.

Firstly, safety is a culture, it is a way of thinking, a way of interacting with other people and a way of going about our daily business. Until recently, we thought only adults were truly capable of managing their risk, however modern neuroscientific techniques of research have shattered this illusion. We now know that youths think far more about risk than those over 21, the difference is that while an adult will walk to the edge of a cliff and quickly make up their mind to step back, the youth will take far more time contemplating the pros and cons and will incorporate social reasoning into her or his decision. Their prime modus operandi is, “What will my friends think?” As I said it is a cultural piece. 

Another piece of evidence for this assertion comes from the concept of risk homeostasis which suggests that we all have our own individual threshold to risk. Let me explain through the best documented example. When Sweden changed from driving on the left to the right side of the road they expected a spate of accidents to occur. The reality was exactly the opposite. So why were there less accidents when there were so many more opportunities for making mistakes? People were apparently wary. They realized the potential to make a mistake and be involved in an accident and operated accordingly. As drivers became comfortable with driving on the new side of the road, they relaxed their guard and Sweden was back to the same number of annual road traffic accidents. Subconsciously we choose how much risk we are willing to accept and then act to fit that constraint. Coincidence or culture?

Risk is a part of a well lived life and I am a firm believer in embracing it, the thing is to do it from a place of intention and information. So lets look at some useful tools for managing risk.

Risk is both a positive and negative thing, we can risk gain (R+) and we can risk loss (R-). The secret is to make sure that the R+ significantly outweighs R-. If we can not explain to someone else the benefits (R+) of engaging in something that might lead to loss (R-) then perhaps it is time to rethink.

In adventure education we talk of perceived and real risk and the industry often engages in providing experiences with plenty of the former and avoiding the latter. Along with this we make sure that we elucidate the benefits that will be experienced with each activity. Think of a roller coaster ride which provides an incredible buzz without having to put your life on the line. The thing is as an outdoor educator I need to be able to describe the gains far more clearly than merely calling it “a buzz”.

The idea of real and perceived risk also ties in nicely with that of risk homeostasis. Road traffic accidents in Sweden decreased because drivers perceived a higher risk when driving on the opposite side of the road. They reached their risk threshold even though the real risk had not risen so dramatically.  

Evaluating if a risk is real or perceived is a good starting point when making a decision about whether to do something or not. There is a simple formula which helps me to make this decision and I believe it is the crux of managing risk. Risk is the product of consequence and likelihood. My students will be found on top of a rock looking down and vocalizing the consequence, “broken ankle; six weeks with a cast, 12 weeks before I am back to speed” and the likelihood, “low for me if it is dry, or not windy, higher for feisty kids”. And here is one of the key concepts of risk management, it is different for everyone and varies with circumstance. If my five year old son falls out of a tree he bounces, my 75 year old mother will not fare so well but then again my mother is hardly likely to be in the tree. The thing is that when a consequence is high, we can often mitigate the likelihood and still make it worthwhile. It is a balancing act. If both are high we need to recognize it as a fool hardy venture or we need to find a way of reducing one factor or the other. Using a red, amber and green light system helps eases the decision-making process

Here are some more truths regarding safety. “Shit happens” and in the same way that wise people keep an emergency fund tucked away, it is a good idea to stash resources for when things go wrong. By planning a budget that allows us to operate without cutting corners and putting systems in place so that we are prepared when things fall apart we are less likely to have to deal with catastrophes. Another reality is that some people are plain lucky, while others are not. Again preparation goes a long way to dealing with the issues of this truth.

One of my systems is to repeatedly ask the following questions: Am I in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment and the right people?

As I stated in the beginning, risk management is a culture. It is far more than a manual, and it works best when systems are created collaboratively by all involved and they are regularly discussed and renegotiated based on recent experiences. If we want our workplaces to be safe it is not enough to have someone come in and tell us how to do things. We need to examine what we do, identify the hazards, create a measure for the consequences and likelihood and then decide what needs to be addressed and or mitigated. We need to value this process. We need to make it part ofour culture.

Finally, remember that, no man is an island. It is worth asking for help in this arena and that help often comes best in the form of someone who asks questions rather than gives answers. It is better when safety is coached rather than instructed.

Be safe,


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One thought on “Safety is a Way of Thinking

  1. Very insightful and informative article. In the culture of the modern business world we deal with risk so automatically that we seldom take the time to analyze precisely what it is we are doing. It is extremely useful on occasion to step back, consider the process, and to evaluate potential improvements in our individual risk analysis methods. I believe this article provides a perspective that can help do exactly that.

    Great Article, Wil.

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