Safety in the Outdoors: Academic guidance for schools

Schools frequently take students on outdoor education activities as part of an extensive co-curricular program. Many parents are very supportive of such programs and, for some parents, the type and extent of co-curricular programs offered by a school can be an important factor in choosing a school for their child.

Unfortunately, there are sometimes serious accidents and even fatalities arising from these activities. This article summarises some of the findings of recent research into outdoor education fatalities and also highlights some aspects of the reports from coronial inquests into such deaths.

Should schools follow coronial recommendations and government school guidelines?

Following the death of a NSW non-government school student on an overnight outdoor hike, the NSW Coroner’s Court said that all NSW schools undertaking bush-walking activities should follow the NSW Education Department safe bush-walking guidelines.

Whilst this comment in the NSW Coroner’s report is not law, it highlights a few prominent issues:

  • there are no universal standards for all outdoor recreation activities, although many providers have their own standards to which they train staff and reference ‘industry’ standards when they do exist;
  • when things go wrong, schools will be judged against whatever ‘official’ standards or guidelines exist – such as the NSW Education Department standards; and
  • in most cases of student death or serious injury, official inquiries, inquests and any litigation that may arise from the death or serious injury, is very likely to reference government education body guidelines as a guide to best practice even though those standards are not mandated and it is unclear to what extent they represent expert opinion or industry best practice.

The question then is: should non-govenment schools follow government education department guidelines when conducting outdoor recreation activities? The answer is that non-government schools do not have to follow the guidelines, unless required to do so legally, specifically directed by their state and territory education authorities, or both. If schools choose not to follow these guidelines they should ensure they have sound, well documented reasons and a rigorous and robust risk assessment process that supports any program decisions they make.

Risk Assessments and Safety in Outdoor Education Programs

There has been much research in Australia and overseas into risk assessments in outdoor education activities. Some interesting issues raised by the research are highlighted in what follows.

Risk assessments need to address the areas most likely to cause death or serious injury, rather than just repeat a series of policies and procedures about how the group will get fresh water and set up fire circles for cooking (important though they are). The crux of the issue of risk management is to minimise death and disabling injuries (Allen-Craig).

Many risk assessments focus too much on how to keep the group comfortable, warm and dry. Instead risk assessments should focus on things that could really cause harm not just make students uncomfortable. Temporary discomfort should not be confused with risk.

Hogan describes what will kill or cause disabling injuries in the outdoors:

  • drowning;
  • impact with something solid;
  • exposure/hypothermia;
  • severe burns;
  • electrocution;
  • poisonous bite; or
  • pre-existing medical conditions.

Hogan suggests that risk management should identify the real risks that may fall into one of these seven categories and put in place control measures that address these seven issues.

Hogan goes on further to identify the dangers that may cause a risk to eventuate that can lead to death or disabling injury. These risks can be broken down into three main areas:

  1. Environment – factors that originate from the surroundings, such as weather terrain, availability of shelter, remoteness etc.
  2. People – attributes of the people including leaders as well as participants. This includes knowledge, skill, experience, health and fitness, age and fears etc.
  3. Equipment – resources that impact on the activity such as clothing, buoyancy aids, tents, clothing, kayaks/canoes, helmets, motor vehicles etc

Hogan says we overstate the risk involved in outdoor activities. He says the rate of injury for challenge courses (such as low ropes) is about 4.5 injuries per million hours of use. This is about the same as for real estate agents in their work. Meanwhile, the rate of injury for driving a motor vehicle is 60 injuries per million hours of use (Collard, 2000).

Rope courses are significantly safer than school physical education classes. Students are twice as likely to be injured playing rugby union than rock climbing and twice as likely to be injured playing netball than snow skiing. Hogan says there is a public perception that engaging in outdoor activities represents a much higher level of risk than is actually the case.

Research into Fatalities in Outdoor Education Programs

There were 112 fatalities on school and youth group excursions and camps between 1960 and 2002. Brookes’ research includes some of the following findings:

  • it is not true that fatalities are often accompanied by near misses in the same program and that preventing near misses will prevent fatalities;
  • a program running for years without incident is not a low fatality risk;
  • fatal incidents cluster around the following environmental factors – water, gravity and weather;
  • the two key areas for fatality prevention are:
    • supervision of young people;
    • specific knowledge of the environments in which outdoor education occurs; and
  • the overall ratio of accompanying adult fatalities to participant fatalities is 1:6. In half of these supervisor fatalities, the supervisors were in the act of supervising and rescuing participants.

One of the most significant patterns to emerge is the number of fatalities for teenage boys not closely or directly supervised, who make a fatal error on steep ground or around moving water. In some instances the lack of supervision was a deliberate aim of the program, in other instances, there were momentary lapses in supervision.

Some of the conclusions drawn by Brookes are:

  • indirectly supervised expeditions for teenagers present a clear fatality risk if there is a possibility of the group encountering moving water or steep ground;
  • tight supervision of a group that is required for abseiling or canoeing, for example, should be in place while students are near steep ground or moving water, not just while the activity is in progress;
  • changes in weather conditions are a major factor in all water based fatalities (sudden squall, rising water levels etc);
  • teenage males are more likely to be fatally injured than teenage females from falling;
  • incidents involving falling trees and branches are significant. Specific training is needed on how to select a camp site to best avoid this danger and to be able to identify trees that pose a risk;
  • the impact of fatigue and program pressures/stress is important; and
  • ‘tight coupling’ is an issue. ‘Tight coupling’ means requirements and conditions that leave little room for error. For example, a mix of both moving water and very cold water, or a mix of poor weather and complexity of task are examples of ‘tight coupling’. ‘Tight coupling’ can be a direct result of program pressures/stress (should have cancelled due to poor weather but did not due to the unavailability of leaders or participants at an alternative time).


Things to consider

Every excursion must undergo a risk assessment before it proceeds. Clearly some excursions will be riskier that others.  The research discussed in this article shows that some risks are more consistent than others. Risk assessments need to be appropriate for each excursion and focus on all risks that may compromise student health and safety.

About the author

Jonathan Oliver is a Senior Business Consultant at CompliSpace. He can be contacted here.

  • Jamie Bennett - President Outdoor Council of Australia,

    Thank you Jonathon for the interesting article. I would encourage all readers to also investigate a number of projects that are currently underway in the outdoor sector, these are:
    The Australian Adventure Activity Standards project – that is developing a voluntary best practice framework for safe and responsible planning and delivery of outdoor adventure activities with dependent participants. Go to http://australianaas.org.au/ for more details.
    and the Understanding and Preventing Led Outdoor Accidents Data Systems (UPLOADS) project. The goal is to develop a standardised, national approach to incident reporting and learning for the outdoor sector in Australia, and a corresponding national incident dataset. You can find the latest data on accidents and incidents at https://uploadsproject.org/
    The Outdoor Council of Australia is supporting these and other projects to improve safety in the outdoors across Australia you can go to http://www.outdoorcouncil.asn.au/ for more details on all projects.

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