Outdoor Action Logo

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 first.]

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:

2. Participants

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:

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 adventurer model").

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 and training.

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 trip leader.

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. These include:

In addition there are other issues that you will need to deal with when working with a pool of leaders.

4. Pre-trip Information

Participants need to be informed about a number of things before a trip goes out.

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:

6. Trip Planning

Trip planning is essential to operating a safe program. There are a number of issues

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:

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:

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 Program.

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.

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.