Outdoor Action Guide to
Developing a Safety Management Program
for an Outdoor Organization
by Rick Curtis
This article is designed to provide a short outline of the areas
that should be evaluated in order to develop a comprehensive Safety
Management Program for your organization. [Note: A number of legal
issues are referred to in this article. Specific legal issues
are far beyond the scope of this piece and because laws differ
from state to state you will need to secure specific legal advice
about these matters.]
I prefer the term Safety Management over Risk Management (which
has a number of connotations). Safety Management has the more
positive connotation of taking an active role to manage the safety
of your program. At the same time, you can't have a safe program
without being aware of the potential risks and managing them as
well as possible. Things happen out there. No matter how well
prepared we are, there will be accidents. By having a thorough
Safety Management Program, you can significantly reduce the Accident
Potential and the number and severity of accidents. [If you are
not familiar with the Dynamics of Accidents Model developed by
Alan Hale, please read the OA Guide to Outdoor Safety Management
Every program is different. There are college and University outdoor
programs, secondary school programs, professional outfitters,
and recreational activity clubs (ex. Happy Hikers Tramping Club).
Some have paid staff while others are all volunteer. Each organization
will need to determine the amount of resources that can be reasonably
allocated to a Safety Management Program. In order to determine
the type of Safety Management Program to implement, every outdoor/adventure-based
organization needs to do a thorough Risk Assessment Analysis.
Some might question the need for such an assessment. A recreational
activity club might say, we only inform people about trips and
all our folks are experienced, they sign a waiver and the club
assumes no responsibility for them. My answer to that would be
one still needs to do a thorough Risk Assessment. If, after that
assessment, the club feels that it's current policies and practices
are sound, so be it. However, many clubs have simply adopted such
practices by tradition without doing a thorough analysis.
As an outdoor program director, I feel that offering outdoor activities
to client groups entails a responsibility to provide as safe an
environment for enjoying that activity as possible. This is as
true on a paid trip as it is with a free club trip, as it is when
we go out with friends. I believe that those with greater knowledge
and experience about the wilderness have an ethical obligation
to share this knowledge with others to improve their capabilities
to enjoy the wilderness safely.
1. Program Analysis
Safety Management begins with an in-depth program analysis to
identify the areas of possible risk. This analysis should be performed
on each activity that is offered. [In some cases, you might decide
to do the analysis of your leaders first and then, based on the
skill levels of your leaders, determine what activities you can
offer at what levels (see below).] The analysis should include:
- Activities - the types of program activities (canoeing,
hiking, rock climbing, etc.) will all have different types of
Environmental Hazards and potential accidents
- What are the risk management factors in the activity? Which
can be controlled and which cannot be controlled?
- What skills are needed by participants?
- What skills are needed by leaders?
- What equipment is needed?
- What training in the use of the equipment is needed by leaders,
- Populations - there are a number of factors in the
populations that you program for that can have impacts on safety.
- Age of participants
- Previous experience - programs that are introducing new people
to outdoor activities versus programs that are providing activities
for experienced outdoorspersons or program with a mix of both.
- Physical condition
- Mental & emotional conditions
- Willingness to participate - voluntary (free or paying to
attend) versus required to attend
- Locations - the location of the activity is also an
- How much travel and what type is required to get to the activity
- How will the participants or group travel? Individual cars,
group vehicle, who is driving?
- How remote is the activity? Activities which are more remote
may require additional support and have less chance for rescue
in an emergency. This may require the group to operate at a lower
level of difficulty than in an area closer to "civilization."
For example, paddlers on remote whitewater rivers will often increase
the rating of a rapid by one class because of the remoteness (a
Class IV rapid would be considered a Class V in terms of the consequences
if something goes wrong).
- Weather - typical weather for the activity, location,
and season will be a significant factor in determining the experience
level, physical condition, age, and experience level of those
who are appropriate to go on a trip.
Who participates in the trip is important. There are a number
of factors that define different levels of "relationship"
between the participant and the sponsoring organization. As a
result, there are different levels of responsibility both from
an educational and ethical perspective and from a legal/contract
perspective that develop between the participant and the sponsoring
organization. These include:
- Is the participant paying a fee to go or is someone else paying
(such as a parent), or is the person going at no cost?
- Is the person providing all their own equipment or is the
sponsoring organization providing some or all equipment?
- How was the program advertised? Was it announced in some official
publication or newsletter? Did the participant have to sign up
or register in some way?
- Does the participant sign a waiver or release?
- What, if any, implied or explicit contract exists between
the participant and the sponsoring organization?
3. Leaders & Leader Training
Who "leads" a trip varies greatly from program to program.
In some cases there is a paid leader, in others the leader is
a volunteer, and in some there is no leader, everyone just meets
some place and goes (typically referred to as the "common
The common adventurer model is a format often used by recreational
activity clubs where no one is designated as a leader or officially
in charge. In some cases, where the experience level of all participants
is high, the common adventurer model works extremely well. All
of the participants have the knowledge and experience to do the
activity safely and clearly understand and accept the potential
risks. For many clubs however, the club serves to introduce beginners
to the outdoors and I believe this creates at least an ethical
obligation to structure activities to provide a safe environment
for participants who do not have the experience and judgment (yet)
to understand and protect themselves from potential risk. This
means that the organization is not just the activity (e.g. hiking),
it is about educating people about how to do the activity and
do it both safely and with proper respect for the wilderness.
This is the role taken on by the trip leader, teaching skills
to those with less experience and managing safety for the group.
In any activity in which a designated leader is provided, one
can identify certain base skills that that individual(s) should
have in order to safely lead the trip. Clearly, individuals who
are paid for leading trips can be considered professionals and
can be required by the organization to meet certain standards
for training and certification (such as having Wilderness First
Responder or Wilderness EMT) in order to lead trips. However,
what happens when the individual is a volunteer? How much training
can you ask or require that volunteer to have? This becomes a
real issue of balance. The volunteer is a paraprofessional who
can't reasonably be required to have the same skills as a professional.
However, if someone breaks their leg on a trip, the volunteer
may need a similar range of skills to be able to deal with the
situation. Each program will need to determine the reasonable
balance of skills and training necessary to lead trips safely.
It is essential to balance the difficulty level of the trip with
the level of experience and training of the leaders. Also, organizations
should always be striving to improve the quality of leader skills
Finally, there are some basic skills and equipment that should
be present on any excursion into the outdoors (first aid knowledge,
first aid kit, experience with the particular activity, etc.).
If the participants don't have the knowledge to do this, someone
has to take responsibility to provide these things, which falls
back to the sponsoring organization, and , ultimately, an identified
Based on these arguments, if a group is going to provide leaders
on an activity, you need look at the Base Skills that are required.
- Activity Skills - hiking, canoeing, backpacking, climbing,
- First Aid & Emergency Procedures
- Knowledge of the Dynamics of Accidents Model & Safety
- Leadership & Group Dynamics Skills
- Understanding the Philosophy of the Organization -
an understanding of the goals and philosophy of the organization
is important for trip leaders to both articulate why things are
done a particular way and to effectively enforce policies, procedures
and guidelines of the organization (see below).
In addition there are other issues that you will need to deal
with when working with a pool of leaders.
- Leader Skills Records - maintaining records on each
leader including such things as first aid and CPR training and/or
certifications, other trainings, field experience, and trips led
- Ongoing leader assessment - some form of feedback/assessment
is important both to the growth and development of the individual
leader and to the overall safety of the program. When an individual
is doing well, they nee positive feedback about their performance.
If someone is doing a poor job of leading, they can't be expected
to improve without honest, constructive feedback and direction.
Following that, if the person does not improve, someone in the
organization may need to tell them that they cannot lead until
they improve. This can be a difficult step, especially with volunteers.
However, failure to address a safety problem in leader behavior
could lead to an accident.
- Skill Updates - skills get rusty if not used on a regular
basis so some method of skill review/practice
- Manuals - providing manuals and reference material
to take into the field for additional information can be extremely
4. Pre-trip Information
Participants need to be informed about a number of things before
a trip goes out.
- Activity - type of activity, location, duration
- Skill level/Difficulty level of the activity - a measure
of the difficulty of the activity (such as a Class III river trip
or a Level C hiking trip). Having either some rating mechanism,
either universal, or developed by your organization or a detailed
description of the trip is essential to help participants select
a trip appropriate to their physical abilities and their experience
level. It is also invaluable in screening participants (see below).
In some cases the difficulty of the trip is not determined until
the participants sign up in which case you will need to do a careful
screening to determine what level of trip you can safely run with
- Equipment Needed - what the participants needs to provide
and what if anything the organization will provide. In some cases,
participants who do not have the proper equipment would not be
permitted to go.
- Policies - participants need to be informed in advance
of policies of the organization (such as no alcohol or drugs,
no non-members, etc.)
- Waivers, Assumption of Risk forms, etc. - any such
documents used but the organization should be administered to
participants before the activity begins when they have an opportunity
to read and carefully consider it and to decide whether to sign
or not. If they choose not to sign, the organization's policies
(see below) may indicate that the person cannot attend. Clearly
it is best to happen beforehand not at the trailhead.
5. Participant Screening
Pre-trip screening of participants is important both to maintain
safety for the individual and also for the rest of the group.
If someone has a problem on the trail, the other group members
may be called on to deal with it which could place them at risk.
Part of the screening process is to educate the participate to
decide whether a particular activity is right for them. If your
obese brother wanted to get in shape by running in a road race
you would not suggest he go out and do a marathon. Rather you
would guide him to work up at a reasonable pace of running until
he was ready for a short race like a 5K. Self-screening is very
useful which is why pre-trip information and a rating system can
be very important (see above). Screening also means that you need
to be able to "just say no" if you believe that person
is not ready for the activity at that level or that their participation
could create an unacceptable level of risk for other participants.
Participant screening should include:
- Medical History Information - in order to get accurate
information from participants it must be understood that this
information will be kept confidential. As a trip leader, I want
and may need to know that someone has a seizure disorder and understand
what to do if they have a seizure on the trip. At the same time,
the individual may not wish the entire group to know about their
condition. This is another reason why a designated leader is useful.
It establishes someone in the group who has responsibilities including
the need to maintain confidentiality. Some of the things you may
need information on include:
- Health History
- Dietary restrictions
- Required Immunizations
- Physical Condition - it is important to have an assessment
of the participant's current physical condition (basic aerobic
condition). This serves as a check on whether the person is physically
capable of safely participating in the activity at the indicated
difficulty level or, if the activity itself is based on the participants
who sign up, what level of trip should be planned.
- Previous Experience - a check on previous experience
with the activity, how much, how frequently, at what level of
difficulty and how recently is important. If someone signs up
for a Class IV paddling trip and they haven't paddled Class IV
in over 5 years, only a few Class II runs, you may want to really
check out that person before letting them go on the trip, or "just
say no." The most positive way to do this is to have the
person go on a Class II warm-up trip first and see how s/he does.
- Other Information -
- Address and phone
- Medical Insurance Provider
- Who to contact in an emergency
- Permission for medical treatment
- Equipment Needs
- Special Needs
6. Trip Planning
Trip planning is essential to operating a safe program. There
are a number of issues
- Equipment Needed
- Personal Equipment - what does the individual provide, what
(if anything) does the organization provide.
- Group Equipment - what (if anything) does the organization
provide such as first aid kit.
- File a Trip Plan - whenever a trip goes out, a trip plan indicating
the planned route and planned time of return should be filed with
someone. This person should be contacted when the group returns.
If the group does not return by a designated time, a procedure
should be in place for what to do (call the rangers, etc.)
- Who is in Charge? - it is important that everyone understand
who is in charge and under what circumstances. In the case of
a trip with designated leaders they would typically be in charge
unless someone else in the group has more experience( for example,
a participant with more medical experience such as a EMT or physician
might be the most appropriate one to take charge in the case of
a medical emergency). In the case of a "common adventurer"
trip there should be discussion about who is in charge in general
for the trip and/or who is in charge in an emergency. All serious
expeditions consider this an essential part of running a safe
- Emergency Protocols - there should be some understood protocols
for dealing with common emergencies (see policies, procedures,
and guidelines below).
7. Participant Training
Whenever some of the participants are less experienced than the
leaders or others in the group, education becomes an important
role for the trip leaders and an essential part of a Safety Management
Program. Your goal is to have the participants be looking out
for their own safety. One of the important things to do is to
teach the Dynamics of Accidents Model to all participants. There
are a number of things to think about when teaching skills:
- Teach the Dynamics of Accidents Model - this encourages participants
to actively manage their own safety.
- Utilize a Teaching Plan - develop a teaching plan that presents
skills in a logical an orderly manner, building on skills that
came before. This is important for successful skill mastery by
8. Policies, Procedures, & Guidelines
An important part of a Safety Management Program is defining policies,
procedures, and guidelines for operation. These are defined below
in descending order of strictness:
- Policy - a statement that establishes definitive parameters
for program operation. For example, all participants and leaders
on kayaking trips must where a life jacket or all trip participants
must sign an Assumption of Risk form. In general, something which
is important enough to be considered a policy should be adhered
to uniformly and consistently. Liability often arises from inconsistent
application of policies.
- Procedure - a method for acting in a particular situation.
Procedures are typically less mandatory than policies. For example,
when doing a stream crossing with a backpack, the hip belt should
be undone. Having this as a procedure gives some of the decision-making
to the trip leaders. If the stream has only got 6 inches of water
in it, this procedure may not be necessary,
- Guidelines - a recommendation for how to proceed in
a situation. For example, food should be hung in bear bags at
night (sometimes this may not be possible).
There should be policies, procedures, and guidelines for each
activity the organization engages in (hiking, canoeing, kayaking,
rock climbing, etc.,). What policies, procedures, and guidelines
to use varies greatly from organization to organization. What
one organization might use as a policy (ex. there must be two
leaders with first aid certification on each trip) might be a
guideline for another organization.
In terms of specific activities such as hiking, canoeing, kayaking,
rock climbing, etc., there are a number of policies, procedures,
and guidelines that are generally accepted within the outdoor
industry. It is important for all organizations to understand
that many of these exist as published standards. Regardless of
whether your leaders are paid or volunteer or common adventurers,
if you are doing an activity you will be held to that standard.
For example, if an Outward Bound group goes top rope climbing
and next to them on the cliff a Boy Scout group is climbing the
standards for setting up and operating that climb would be the
same regardless of the fact that the Outward Bound leader is paid
and the Boy Scout leader is a volunteer.
The most complete documentation for these standards is found in
The Manual of Accreditation Standards for Adventure Programs
published by the Association for Experiential Education. There
are also an number of agencies and organizations that provided
similar standards such as the American Camping Association and
the Girl Scouts of America for a broad range of outdoor activities,
and groups which set standards for specific activities such as
the American Canoe Association, the British Canoe Union for paddling.
You should also seek out organizations similar to yours to determine
what they are doing and how successful (or not) their policies,
procedures, and guidelines have been to their Safety Management
9. Incident Data Collection & Analysis
When an accident occurs, it is essential to collect detailed information
about what happened, analyze it carefully, and determine if there
are changes that need to be made in the program to reduce the
possibility of a similar incident occurring in the future.
- Accident Reporting - there needs to be a reporting
structure that includes a written report of the incident. There
also needs to be an established threshold for what should be reported
(obviously every Band-Aid or piece of Moleskin applied in the
field does not require a written report).
- Close Call Reporting - there are more close calls and
near misses than there are actual accidents. If you only analyze
accidents, you are missing the big picture and may be leaving
important safety issues unresolved. There should be a reporting
structure which may include a written report. For example, a kayaking
boat pin where no one was injured counts as a near miss and should
be carefully analyzed.
- Data Analysis - a structure should be developed for
routinely examining accident and close call reports to evaluate
Environmental Hazards and Human Factor Hazards that contributed
to the incident and to determine if there are policies, procedures,
guidelines, training, or equipment which could help either prevent
the incident in the future or give leaders a better ability to
respond to it if it happens again. In the kayaking pin example
above, this might mean that although pins can't be prevented,
leaders could be trained in river rescue techniques to extricate
a person from a pin. Often the data analysis is performed by a
Safety Officer or Safety Committee.
- Implementing Program Change - following data analysis
there needs to be structure for implementing the recommendations
into the trip operation. The implementation of program change
may be done by a Safety Officer, Safety Committee, or another
body within the organization.
The information provided here is designed for educational use only and is not a substitute for specific training or experience. Princeton University and the author assume no liability for any individualís use of or reliance upon any material contained or referenced herein.
This article is written by Rick Curtis, Director, Outdoor Action Program. This material may be freely distributed for nonprofit educational use. However, if included in publications, written or electronic, attributions must be made to the author. Commercial use of this material is prohibited without express written permission from the author. Copyright © 1995 Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University.