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How "Safe" Do We Claim to be?

The Importance of Clarifying Risk Tolerance for Outdoor Programs

Clarifying your organization’s risk philosophy is a nuanced but foundational aspect of any risk management initiative -- and one that is easily misunderstood or oversimplified. Unless explicitly taught to do otherwise, many people take a well-intended but unsophisticated stance around risk management, defaulting to truisms such as “safety is our highest priority” and “safety first.’ Recreation law attorneys have spent decades educating the outdoor industry about how untenable it is to achieve (let alone promise / guarantee) “safety,” defined as “freedom from risk of harm.” NOLS made a decision back in 1994 to stop talking about “safety” and start talking, instead, about risk management. The industry's leading conference on these issues is not the wilderness safety conference, it's the Wilderness Risk Management Conference. It is impossible to run an outdoor program while achieving 100% safety, meaning freedom from risk of harm. Rather than defaulting to a simplistic philosophy -- “we put safety first!” -- we recommend articulating a more nuanced view that acknowledges risk while striving to manage and intentionally utilize it to achieve your mission. This begins by articulating your organizational risk philosophy.

Outdoor programs will have to determine for themselves if they want to use terms such as “risk appetite,” “risk philosophy,” or (the more traditional) “risk tolerance.” The answer to this question is rooted in your organizational culture, values, and mission. Risk philosophy could rightly be articulated or explored by considering “risk benefit.” Risk is not just something to be tolerated, but rather, an ingredient that adds essential value to an outdoor experience and to running a successful outdoor program as well. This brings us back to the origins of the English word risk, from the Italian risicare, meaning "to dare." In this context, there is an element of pursuing/choosing risk as a means towards one's goals.

Being clear about risk tolerance helps us navigate complexity

Erin Gloeckner (Non-Profit Risk Management Center) describes the value of a risk philosophy (which she calls risk appetite) as follows:

"Defining risk appetite can provide guidance to staff members who need to make decisions and judgment calls each day. If risk appetite is not well defined at an organization, then individual team members must infer it each time they make decisions. Joe in accounting might be averse to risk-taking, whereas Jen in programs might be very willing to risk financial assets in order to explore a new program or service that could potentially benefit the local community. With every staff member taking risks (or not taking risks) based on their own personal perception, you can see how the inconsistency could spell trouble for a program.

Risk appetite is really focused on how the organization takes risks; this means that a well-crafted risk appetite statement can empower staff to take informed risks that offer opportunities to advance the organization’s mission and goals."

Dr. Jeff Jackson adds, “Risk (philosophy) is intuitive and highly subjective, creating challenges in putting it into words.” While it may be challenging to put into words, it’s important that organizations grapple with the challenge of doing so in order to align their values and philosophy with corresponding practices and operations.

Legal implications of a written risk philosophy statement

At the same time a risk philosophy statement can provide guidance and help you manage risk proactively, it can also create a legally discoverable statement that may be used against you. Your risk philosophy statement creates a specific benchmark against which you can be measured, and the irony is that this is a benchmark or expectation that you established yourself. If you aren’t mindful about how you articulate your risk philosophy, you might end up over-promising something which you fail to deliver. For example, stating that “Safety is our top priority” when in fact, your organizational planning, budget, staffing, and actual emphasis is not focused on safety, then you might have a hard time explaining why you set your participants up to believe one thing, and actually delivered another. It's easy to imagine some of the questions which you've essentially handed over to the prosecuting attorney in this case...

"So, your website states that safety is your TOP priority..."

Contrary to popular belief, and self-imposed marketing pressures, over-promising (or worse, guaranteeing) safety can increase your actual liability and decrease your ability to legally defend yourself. Developing a thoughtful and intentional risk philosophy statement can create handrails for staff and provide clarity to participants, stakeholders, and parents about the program’s inherent risks and risk management goals. If one of the legal strategies for your program is to achieve informed consent, then starting by being clear and transparent about your approach to risk management can be a very effective starting place.

Avoiding the Zero Paradox

Ironically, overreaching with your risk philosophy statement may not inspire staff to pursue safety, but may instead have unintended consequences in terms of their ability to “buy-in” to the philosophy. While some corporations (working in a controlled environment) or states promote safety initiatives targeting “zero accidents,” (for example, Washington State has a traffic safety goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2030 ), defaulting to “zero accidents” as your outdoor program’s goal may not be realistic and may even be counter-productive on multiple levels.

Clearly, the intent of programs who promote “zero accidents” as their goal is to promote and inspire an environment and culture that values safety - an admirable and aspirational goal. However, setting an explicit goal of zero will almost certainly impact people’s ability and willingness to be forthcoming about incidents that have occurred, and may create unrealistic expectations about the program’s ability to “ensure safety.” Workplace safety author and researcher Dr. Sidney Dekker’s research has shown organizations that enact a “zero tolerance” for safety are more likely to have critical incidents: “(Setting a goal of) zero harm can foster a climate of risk secrecy and structural learning disabilities, in which workers will be reluctant to share near misses or injuries and accidents that can be easily hidden.”

A Structural Learning Disability: Who wants to report the incident that will set the accident clock back to zero again?

This counter-intuitive “backfiring” of a zero goal is referred to as the “Zero Paradox,” which should be avoided by outdoor programs looking to establish a risk philosophy which goes beyond optics to actually help people manage risk. In a related inverse correlation, a study conducted by MIT in 2000 showed that passenger mortality risk is highest in airlines that report the fewest incidents. Outdoor programs that have shifted away from a "zero" goal have found that their staff are much more likely to report not just incidents, but near-misses as well - increasing their window into what's actually happening in the field, and how to improve.

Conclusion - Lessons from Willi Unsoeld

Willi & Devi Unsoeld - Ira Spring Photo

Acclaimed mountaineer and wilderness educator Willi Unsoeld had a famous exchange with a parent in the 1970's when he was speaking to a school group about the outdoor program he was running at the time. The mother asked if he could "guarantee" the safety of her son on the wilderness program. Unsoeld's response, while surprising to the parent, was perhaps ahead of his time in terms of being clear about the program's risk tolerance:

“No. We certainly can’t Ma’am. We guarantee you the genuine chance of his death. And if we could guarantee his safety, the program would not be worth running. We do make one guarantee, as one parent to another. If you succeed in protecting your boy, as you are doing now, and as it’s your motherly duty to do, you know, we applaud your watchdog tenacity. You should be protecting him. But if you succeed, we guarantee you the death of his soul!”

Unsoeld's description - while vivid and perhaps even overly-dramatic - leaves little room for misinterpretation, far from the "safety is our top priority!" or zero paradox fallacies described above. What I take away from his famous exchange with this parent is the connection between risk and the program's purpose, the inextricable relationship between risk and personal growth, where safety may be a value but not a guarantee, and where growth, learning, and risk are inter-twined. When we are clear about our risk philosophy, we make those connections vivid and tangible for our participants , staff, and stakeholders as well.


Click Here to Take a Self-Assessment Quiz

on Risk Philosophy for Outdoor Programs

or contact us to discuss how we can help you articulate a risk philosophy statement for your outdoor program.



Barnett, A. and Wang, A. (2000). Passenger Mortality Risk Estimates Provide Perspectives About Flight Safety. Flight Safety Digest, 19.

Dekker S., Long, R. and Wybo, A. (2016). Zero Vision and a Western Salvation Narrative. Safety Science, 88.

Gloeckner, Erin. Lessons from a Risk Appetite Exercise. Nonprofit Risk Management Center, 2017.

Jackson, Jeff. Managing Risk: Systems Planning for Outdoor Adventures. Direct Bearing, 2011, p. 46.

Miles, J. C. and S. Priest (1990). Adventure Education. State College, PA, Venture Publishing.


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