S1 E15: Managing risk in the outdoors, with Steve Smith

In this podcast, Sarah speaks with Steve Smith, an expert in outdoor risk management. Steve has worked for many years teaching, leading, planning, and consulting about ways to manage risk in the outdoors. Steve recently presented at the 2020 NOLS Wilderness Risk Management Conference.

Steve begins by explaining the difference between safety and risk management, and why this distinction is necessary when it comes to taking people into the wilderness. Every day we take risks and some degree of risk is not only unavoidable, it’s a necessary part of being human. Sarah and Steve discuss many of the benefits of how outdoor education and recreation translate to life skills, personal and social growth. Steve speaks about the history of Outward Bound and founder Kurt Hahn who taught about the importance of educating the whole student and encouraging them to explore beyond their comfort zones. It is an important component of developing and managing outdoor education programs, looking at the beneficial risks and identifying and mitigating the undesirable risks.

Sarah raises the topic of duty of care when taking care of young people in the outdoors. Steve points out that a robust risk management program is even more important when working with children. He points out that because Lyme disease is a very serious illness, accurate risk assessment and robust risk management strategies are needed. An important part of these strategies include having a plan in place to respond when events do happen.

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Steve sees risk management programs in terms of layers which start long before the adventure begins. He describes a risk management model introduced to thim by one of his mentors, Charles Reb Gregg, called “analyze – manage – inform”. This model involves analyzing hazards, managing them and informing people about potential hazards. He touches on the importance of informing participants in advance to avoid legal action. He describes some ways to analyze risk in relation to Lyme disease such as knowing the local tick activity. Managing the risk could include wearing bug repellant, avoiding tick habitats, and doing tick checks. Another important aspect of the strategy is knowing what to do if a participant finds an embedded tick, and knowing the symptoms of Lyme disease. Steve reiterates the importance of informing participants and/or parents about the risks involved. 

It’s not about eliminating the risk altogether, it’s about managing that risk.
Steve Smith, Experiential Consulting, LLC

Steve explores some of the legal aspects involved when planning outdoor activities, and refers to a lawsuit relating to tick-borne encephalitis. He talks about the importance of hiring qualified staff, providing adequate and ongoing training, having written policies and procedures, and reporting and learning from incidents when they do occur. He emphasizes the value of reporting and analyzing “near misses” in order to learn from them and prevent similar incidents. Similarly, Steve finds that reflecting back on a trip with those who are running it is a great way to learn and make improvements for future programs. 

Emphasizing the overwhelmingly positive aspects of outdoor education, Steve reminds us of how a solid risk management strategy (and corresponding policies and procedures) enable these programs to continue. He urges us to keep learning from our adventures and highly  recommends the NOLS Wilderness Risk Management Conference for those running outdoor programs. Thank you Steve for sharing and helping us manage risk in the outdoors!

“We definitely have a big responsibility in taking care of all of our people when we’re on these adventures, and the younger they are, the more the responsibility shifts from the participant to the leaders or to the program itself.”
Steve Smith, Experiential Consulting, LLC
Steve Smith and Sarah Cormode on episode 15 of Looking at Lyme.

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