The risk triangle
In every outdoor activity there are countless risk factors that must be considered to ensure safe operation and an enjoyable experience. David Gregory suggests a triangle of threats need to be managed – and that this analysis can be applied to other types of risk management.
Problematic, dangerous or catastrophic?
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, generally in outdoor ed, as in everyday life risks fall into three main categories, which comprise a triangle of
- Environmental risks
- Equipment risks
- People risks
A failure in one of these areas 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.
1. Environmental Risks
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 as from the gods, is something you really don’t want to be in.
2. Equipment Risks
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, it was late winter and had been raining all morning. We were running a program in the southern highlands of NSW and that afternoon we were going to hike down Meryla Pass into Kangaroo Valley. It’s about a 6km hike 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 clothing will last two minutes in the bush and be torn to shreds in no time at all. Despite the inadequate rain protection, this wasn’t the major issue, as the most important thing for the students was 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, curtailed 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 as planned.
3. People Risks
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 foolish 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 something idiotic, 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 sometimes as leaders, we’re stuck with a compounding people risk.
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 increased the potential for producing adverse risk to the staff and the group.
However, as with any other individual component of risk, behaviour alone isn’t necessarily critical and for a good leader more often than not, like every other risk factor in isolation, “people risk” 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.
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. It is critical that this is understood and is factored into the risk assessment, and the management processes and practices for the organisation.
Being aware of how the level of risks escalate if one or more are compromised, will help you to build a far greater situational awareness. This keeps your risk management practices alive to ensure safe operations and great educational outcomes.
Leadership and the triangle
And of course, the same is true of pretty much all areas of human activity in which there may be potential problems. Using the “risk triangle” to analyse and manage a range of threats is something all leaders might find useful.
David is an experienced outdoor education teacher from Australia who’s worked on various domestic and international programs for over 16 years. David has planned and led outdoor education programs for students from primary age, through senior school. David’s a keen snow skier and outside of the outdoors he enjoys museums and art galleries, his favourite being the V&A in London.
For more about his work, click the picture or see http://www.davidgregory.com.au/