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What We (Should) Talk About When We Talk About Safety (Updated for 2023)

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

Entering into its 30th 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 some of the 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. Barnes' talk inspired an entire chapter in our 2021 book, Beneficial Risks.

But despite our evolving paradigm, many programs (and mainstream society in general) 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. They stare into the past, in hopes of using that to predict (or improve) the future. But, they are looking at a very small piece of the big picture.

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 Sidney Dekker’s work illuminates. Dekker has studied safety and safety culture in great detail and he is a thought leader in expanding the way we think and talk about safety. In the health care industry, for example, Dekker tells the story of a nurse giving a patient the wrong medication and making the patient sicker. When we dig into that incident, we find a few issues that could have been contributing factors: poorly labelled bottles, over-worked staff, and a workplace where nurses were not allowed to question orders given by doctors. However, in analyzing all the other cases where patients were not mis-medicated, we find exactly the same contributing factors: Mis-labelled bottles, over-worked staff, and that same workplace hierarchy. So, what made all those cases go well, when the one case went wrong? What were the behaviors, skills, or capacities that allowed those nurses to do the right thing, despite the workplace environment?

In running an outdoor program, we can identify the behaviors and capacities that we value in our team, the ones that we want to promote and measure. For example, we might want to advise staff that it's always okay to ask questions pertaining to safety concerns. We might want to promote an organizational environment in which staff can always call "time out" to stop an activity when they have safety concerns. We might want to encourage staff giving safety-related feedback to their supervisors. Many safety issues in outdoor programs occur outside of the actual student program environment (e.g. after hours, at a basecamp, in the equipment storage facility, commuting between program sites, etc) so we might want to explicitly call for safety -related concerns pertaining to those locations. Another example could be giving staff permission to break a policy if doing so actually makes the participants safer. There was a recent example of this, in which a conservation corps in a remote area was abruptly threatened by wildfires, and made the urgent (and effective) decision to load participants into the beds of pickup trucks and drive carefully down the road to safety. While this broke their mandatory seatbelt policy, it almost certainly left them safer as a result of breaking this policy. The ability to use critical thinking and adaptive capacity to do what's best despite the rules is a great example of positive capacities, described below.

All of these behaviors are ones that Dekker calls positive capacities, examples of critical thinking, situational awareness, or innovation that help us overcome factors that might otherwise lead to an incident. In addition to measuring the rate of injuries or illnesses over time, which is a perfectly valid and useful step for an organization to take, we can also measure culture and shape it by identifying the positive capacities we want to see staff embody, and report on those rates over time as well.

Some practical concerns naturally arise with this approach. First, what to measure? In addition to the examples given above, each program needs to clearly identify and define the desirable behaviors, explain what constitutes a reportable positive capacity, and train to that standard. Another concern about this approach is that we make good choices all the time, and that if we stopped to document each one, that we wouldn’t have time to do our actual jobs. This is valid and true, and the intent is not to get in the way of getting our work done, but to actively identify positive capacities when relevant and helpful, and to positively reinforce those behaviors so that they become cultural norms.

In other words, it may be impossible to measure all the positive capacities that we embody as we go about the complex work of making decisions and running an outdoor program, but accurately measuring them is not as important as identifying them, training to them, and perpetuating those behaviors to promote the culture that you are seeking. There is more to safety than the absence of negatives, and each organization has an opportunity to define for themselves what those positive capacities are that they are seeking in their risk management culture.

It has been said that we can't understand marriage by studying divorce - likewise, we can't understand safety by only looking at instances that were not safe. We must evolve to consider what goes well, not just what has gone wrong.

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