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What We (Should) Talk About When We Talk About Safety

January 10, 2018

"May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears." - Nelson Mandela

 

Entering into its 25th year, the Wilderness Risk Management Conference is an annual gathering of outdoor professionals who come together to share their learning and practices with each other. It’s a collaborative community where outdoor professionals, wilderness medical providers, lawyers, insurance agents, and equipment manufacturers converge, a rising tide that raises all the ships in the outdoor industry. I was not involved in the conference's early years, but I've been told that conversations tended to talk about risk management in terms of what we were going AWAY from:  liability, injuries, lawsuits. 

 

Over time, conversation at the WRMC has evolved and we started talking about what we are going towards, rather than defining our goals by what we wanted to avoid.  Rather than seeing risk as a negative thing, we started promoting discussions about the benefits of appropriate risk-taking. As conference mainstay Reb Gregg likes to remind us, “The Law Says Yes to Risk” and Christopher Barnes delivered an impassioned opening address about “Advocating for Risk in a Risk-Averse World.” Instead of talking solely about safety (defined as “free from harm or risk", an impossible goal to actually achieve), we mostly talk about risk as existing along a spectrum, which invites organizations to clarify and articulate their own risk tolerance – what kinds of risks are acceptable (or even valuable) for their program. Our paradigm, and how we talk about risk, has evolved. We now talk about how managing risk starts with running a quality program.

 

But despite our evolving paradigm, many programs continue to define safety as the absence of negative things, rather than the presence of positive things. What if a doctor’s only goal for her patients was to avoid death, rather than to promote healthy life?  What if an architect thought his job was to simply build structures that would not collapse, rather than building efficient, aesthetic ones?  What if a librarian’s system was designed so that books would not get lost, rather than one in which books could be easily found, or read?

 

Are We Measuring the Right Things?

 

Now, imagine a risk manager staring at a spreadsheet, showing incident data from the past three years. The data detail rates for injuries, illnesses, behavioral incidents, and near-misses, and show tiny fluctuations from one year to the next, with no clear pattern or trend. She may come up with some theories about what caused the changes in the rates. She may attribute the fluctuations to specific policy changes, new training curriculum, or changes in the organization’s medical screening procedures. In the end, the numbers invite us to interpret, to make sense of the complex factors that go into how we think about managing safety in the field, and they provide a valuable opportunity to meaningfully reflect and learn – but they fail to provide us with any insight at all into what went right in the field, they only measure fluctuations in what went wrong. 

 A Different Way of Viewing Safety

 

It's time for the greater outdoor education community to start talking about safety as the presence of something positive, and not just the absence of something negative. This is an idea other industries have started to pursue, as