Beyond the leader, the rain and the harness… assessing risk in the outdoors

by Clare Dallat, PhD Student (Human Factors), University of the Sunshine Coast Accident Research Centre

This video was recorded at a presentation by Clare Dallat and Natassia Goode at Hillbrook Anglican School.

Over the past decade risk assessments have become a non-negotiable part of outdoor programs. This is partly driven by WHS Legislation and increasing interest in organized outdoor activities from regulatory authorities, but also by a realization within the sector that a proactive approach to hazard identification and risk management is required to prevent serious injuries. Despite this, confusion remains at the planning and practice level regarding the most appropriate process to take. How can we ensure risk assessments are meaningful and not simply futile compliance exercises in ‘ticking the box’?

As a practitioner for the past twelve years in a risk management role I have experienced significant challenges around risk assessment. I have seen first-hand our adversarial legal system through expert witness and defendant duties and interacted with WHS inspectors. I’ve also worked regularly with schools and organization’s conducting outdoor excursions throughout Australia. Based on my experiences, the following questions seem critical:

  • Is it possible or practical to engage all program participants in risk assessment, including students, parents and staff?
  • Where do we start and stop in relation to hazards and risks?
  • What if an incident happens and I hadn’t identified that it could have occurred in the first place?
  • How do we enable staff to discuss hazards and implement the risk controls that are likely to reduce the potential for harm and injury on programs?
  • How do I know if what I’m doing is ok?
  • How do we achieve both compliance with relevant legislation and societal expectations and empower our staff to make decisions based on what is occurring around them? Are both possible?
  • How do we move from a fear-based approach (e.g. “What will a court say”? or “There’s no way I can send this risk assessment to a parent because they wouldn’t send their child if they saw it!”), to one of collaboration, where the aims of the program and the resulting hazard management processes are both successful and where compliance has been achieved?

The ‘Systems Thinking’ Approach

Exploring a ’systems thinking’ approach may provide answers to some of these questions.  Fortunately for me, the opportunity has arisen to embark on a full-time PhD with Natassia Goode and Paul Salmon at the University of the Sunshine Coast Accident Research Centre (USCAR) to explore these challenges further.

It is now widely accepted that incidents are caused by multiple interacting factors across the overall system of work. This means that an incident reflects a systems problem and there is no such thing as a root cause. Accidents aren’t caused by individuals, they are caused by systems.

If, for example, we were to apply this ‘systems thinking’ approach to risk assessments in our own sector, additional layers outside the commonly focussed upon categories of ‘people’, ‘equipment’ and ‘environment’, would be viewed as providing potential causal factors and therefore in need of consideration.  These additional layers, for example, would include:  the role of the overall risk management processes and procedures, supervisors and wider organizational factors, parents, schools, Adventure Activity Standards (AAS), CARA/DEECD/DET guidelines etc., and VET and University training programs (that train future staff in risk assessment). A systems thinking approach would consider the potential risks at all of these levels, and importantly how they might interact together to create accidents.

Interestingly, this lack of systems thinking in risk assessment is not limited to the outdoor sector. The literature across other safety critical domains (e.g. aviation, healthcare, transportation) is not populated with significantly alternative approaches to risk assessment than what we find in our own domain. The inescapable conclusion is that risk assessment processes have not kept pace with what we know about accident causation. In short we are not assessing all of the risks present within our systems – we are just scraping the surface.

Across many domains, there continues to be a substantial focus on the work performance and hazards at the ‘sharp end’ – the people directly involved with the task. Within our own sector, this is generally the instructors and staff directly in front of participants, the environmental conditions and the equipment used.  Whilst these elements are obviously vital in the overall program, there are, as we now know, multiple other contributing layers and ‘actors’ in the system which require consideration in any risk assessment process.

The aim of this PhD project is to design, develop and trial an alternative systems approach to risk assessment for application in the outdoor sector; the project having, as its ultimate intention, the reduction of injury-causing incidents to participants and staff on such programs.

Over the next few years, we will be looking for schools and organization’s to collaborate with us and assist in the development of the project. If you, or your organization is able to be involved, please contact me directly at or 0428 306 009.

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Posted in Events, Risk assessment
One comment on “Beyond the leader, the rain and the harness… assessing risk in the outdoors
  1. […] Dallat – development of a risk assessment process for outdoor programs (Click here to read about Clare’s PhD); […]

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