Toward safer led outdoor activities: why we need systems thinking, why systems thinking needs systems data, and why now we need you!

It is well known that incidents, regardless of severity, are caused by multiple decisions, actions, and conditions that interact with one another in a way that enables adverse events. This is the case in highly complex systems such as aviation and rail, just as it is the case in led outdoor activities.

For the outdoor education, recreation and adventure sector, this ‘systems thinking’ tells us that there are many things outside of the participants, instructors, and the activity environment that contribute to incidents during activities. There is far more to it than just the things close to the event. These contributory factors might include issues related to procedures, risk management systems, training programs, policy and legislation, recruitment and staffing, supervisors, managers, CEOs, auditing, regulation etc. The list goes on and on; incidents in this sector are a complex beast.

So what can we do about it? For incidents prevention efforts it is critical that we use systems thinking to cope with this complexity, to tell us everything we need to know about why incidents are happening. We need to find out more than just ‘slippy terrain’, ‘participants fooling around’, and ‘poor instructor judgement’. What else played a role…days, weeks, even years before the incident? Only then can we make the kinds of changes that will truly prevent incidents.

Though it is tough, thankfully it is not impossible, to understand some of this complexity. The first step involves accepting that incidents are a systems problem. Most of the sector has already embraced this (and if you are reading this you are probably one of the converted).

The second step involves collecting appropriate information so that we can understand what the systemic problems are. Systems thinking needs systems data. This is the difficult part. We need the right tools to help us collect the right information that will enable us to develop an in-depth understanding of the causes of incidents. This will show us how certain things interact with one another to enable incidents. From the outset back in 2009 the goal of the UPLOADS program of research has been to provide those working in the outdoor education, recreation and adventure sector with the tools to enable collection of systems data.

After much blood, sweat, and tears (and plenty of good solid research) the UPLOADS system is finally ready. We have reviewed, specified, developed, tested, evaluated, argued, tweaked, refined, and improved the prototype to a point where we can do no more. It is time to hand it over to the sector for a full scale trial. This is both exciting and scary at the same time, but the excitement far exceeds the trepidation. This is because we are about to get the data that systems thinking needs. The data that the sector needs. Systems thinking can only work when there is systems data. This is what UPLOADS is all about, and because of UPLOADS we are about to better understand all kinds of incidents.

So here it is. Take a look around the website, read all about UPLOADS and how it works, look at the publications and presentations describing its development. But more importantly, sign up for the UPLOADS national trial. Buy in from the sector is critical. So far you have made a fantastic contribution, a huge contribution. UPLOADS would not be here without it. But now is the time to make the contribution that really matters.

We need as many organisations as possible across Australia, large and small, to use UPLOADS. Simply put, the more data we get, the more injury incidents we better understand. The more injury incidents we better understand, the safer we can make led outdoor activities across the board. Over to you!

Paul Salmon

 

Natassia’s research is concerned with the application of systems theory to enhance accident analysis and injury prevention efforts in safety-critical domains, such as occupational settings, transport and organised outdoor activities.

Posted in Systems thinking
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