Risky Business

By Dave Gwillam – One Degree West Outdoor Learning

As outdoor learning professionals, we are often working in remote or potentially hazardous areas, or engaged in so-called risky activities. To ensure that all involved stay as safe as possible, we spend large amounts of time preparing, adapting and reviewing risk assessments.


It is important that any risk assessment is fit for purpose, and should reflect the many aspects of the activity, whilst still enabling all participants to learn and develop. It is a tricky balancing act.

Activities can be reflected on objectively, based on experience and research. Pre-visits and recces can facilitate a site or location assessment. River levels and weather conditions can be monitored and assessed based on experience, or set parameters. Group sizes and mixes are often externally sanctioned.

All of these feed into a benefit/risk analysis…

The one area that is often the most difficult to integrate is the one area that we should be focussing on…the members of the group we are working with. At this point, the numbers of variables begins to grow exponentially!

One starting point is to request medical information from the person, or their family. But how valid is this information? If they are an adult a person can declare for themselves, so what are they not telling you? We have all worked with people who inform us at the last minute of an allergy or a previous injury. Parents may understate, forget or overplay medical issues for their children, in good faith.

Face to face interviews may enable information to be gathered directly from members, but often we only meet a group at the time we aim to start the activity, and even then will answers be clear; no-one want to miss out, do they?

But having accurate, up to date, medical information ON our clients helps to develop a more useful risk assessment FOR our clients!

Add to this those having a bad day, tired after a late night or feeling well out of the comfort zone…

It is a tricky balancing act…

I have worked with a huge range of risk assessment systems; Activity Operating Procedures; Site Working Cards; Risk Analysis Matrices; Generic and Specific Risk Assessments; Dynamic and Fixed Assessments.

The vital factor is that reasonable and foreseeable risks and hazards are set against the benefits that the activity can develop, and that any strategies developed are implemented as and when applicable and useful. Often one strategy to reduce a risk may work one day, but not on another, one way of handling a situation may be suitable for one person, but not another….this is why any risk assessment for the outdoors often cannot be a rigid set of rules, what if it is raining, snowing, blazing sun? The person is deaf, angry, hungry?

Currently I am interested in who we produce risk assessments FOR? Lawyers, managers, ourselves, or the group of people we are working with?

Often we are working alone, in a remote area, on a hazardous activity with a group of less-competent others. We have risk assessed, we have medical information, we have a plan B (&C).

And yet all of this is in our heads.

The first aid kit is in a drybag, in our pack.

The charged mobile phone has a screen lock to stop it from calling, in a drybag, in our pocket.

What happens if…. we get injured?

The next stage of managing risk in the outdoor arena could be one of the most important, and the most empowering to all participants. Tell somebody! Make your clients PART of the risk management process, help them to assess their own activities, share the strategies to deal with hazards…

What do our clients need to do if you are incapacitated?

This could be an emergency checklist, or a working card for the location you are going to.

A spare, basic, unlocked mobile phone, with important numbers on speed dial. Locations of phone signal availability?

Basic first-aid instructions with the first-aid kit. Seems obvious really.

Most importantly, do your group know where this information is to be found? Is it in your pack? Top pocket? Bottom of the pack?

The most effective outdoor learning takes place when all are involved in the learning, and surely managing risk is one of the most important learning benefits we work towards. Involving our clients directly in the process; rather than making them passive recipients of our expertise, can only develop us all as we reflect more on the effectiveness of our risk assessment systems.

It is a trick balancing act…