08 Jun

Risk Disclosures in Polar Tourism

I came to expedition leading by way of private expeditions to Antarctica but have worked almost all my adult life in outdoor education, training leadership, guiding and accident investigation. I’ve been fortunate enough over the last 12 years to not only work with some wonderful staff and colleagues, but to work on a variety of small yachts and private expeditions that meant I got to ‘sit-in’ on other peoples landing operations and had an opportunity to see how other people run things. And from my personal interest how they manage risk.

Managing risk is a corner stone for anyone working in the outdoors whether they are running a school camp, guiding Denali or leading a Deception Island hike.

I would like to consider the nature of risk and risk disclosure – the act of acknowledgement of risk. I’d like to focus on smaller scale on-shore type activities that we all do and I’d like to define risk in this area as ‘exposure to the chance of injury or loss’.

Let’s assume the moment a passenger steps onto a zodiac with you and your staff they have put themselves in a position of risk greater than that encountered in their everyday life. You are now responsible for that person and have just become a full time risk manager and therefore must take all reasonable steps to ensure their safety.

We will assume there are no absolutes and the extent to which risks can or will be controlled will vary according to the:

  1. degree of adventure associated with the activity
  2. experience and resources available to the staff managing that risk
  3. experience of the participant
  4. willingness, or not, of participant to accept the risks as outlined by staff

Let us also understand that risk management is not a stand-alone activity. It is not separate to any other activity and is, or should be, intrinsically and organically linked with all we do. It does however, have recognised structure and formal frameworks and this is the area I see most commonly lacking in polar tourism.

We all have access to site guidelines, company standard operating procedures (SOP), IAATO route plans and other resources for information and assistance. However, the risks and how we control them will be very specific to the circumstances ‘on the day’. This is what makes working in polar region fun and challenging.

We work in a very ‘non-standard’ environment. It’s the nature of our beast. Standard operating procedures, while necessary for groundwork and transparency, soon become obsolete when conditions, remote logistics or polar nature/weather intervene. By this I mean – the weather/conditions on your hike are suddenly outside anything you have dealt with before, ice blocks your beach exit, the number of people you are left to deal with in your ‘group’ is well outside any professional industry norm, the range of abilities in your group is enormous, your easy zodiac driving assignment is now a whitewater hell-storm. All the books, site guidelines, company regulations and SOP’s are of little help. It is crucial that you identify this and understand how important it is for you as EL’s or staff to switch gears – you are on your own and have to think on your feet – and you are responsible for what happens in a non-standard environment.

Risk Disclosure

Your disclosure of risk (normally included in a briefing) needs to be thorough and understood.

Disclosure is not only important for your passengers to make decisions for themselves (see points 1,3,4 above) but also as a first line of defence for you should an accident occur.

To ensure thoroughness and comprehension consider having other staff present to add anything missed or to give you feedback (some people have suggested recording briefings. Personally I think this is setting a dangerous precedent. It poses the question “why record that briefing and not all the others?” and opens a can of worms)

If a particular activity is more ‘risky’ than ‘normal’ operations consider have your risk disclosure/safety brief separate from general information. Give it a headline verbally so it is a stand out topic.

Disclosure on its own is not your ticket to immunity. Understanding is. It’s all very well having what you think is the greatest briefing in the world but when a coroner asks questions of staff or passengers and no one can remember anything, or they didn’t understand what you meant, or you speak to fast – that’s your problem not theirs.

There are many solutions to check for understanding these are a few:

  • Review your presentation/delivery skills such as emphasis, repeating key points as simple bullet points and asking questions for clarification.
  • Seek feedback from other staff that things were clear and understandable.
  • Consider physical queues that tie an important message to something concrete to separate it from all the other blah blah that goes on in ship life.
    For a full passenger group I might ask for a raise of hands to indicate they understood the issues I just briefed them on, or ask for a verbal ‘yay’ that they agree to buy into my/my staff rules for this activity which has been acknowledged as riskier than other things we do. In a small hiking group I might have stopped by a particularly slippery piece of ice and warned them about it, told them a plan for crossing it and getting buy-in for that plan to do exactly as I say – then look them in the eye for a nod of understanding and acceptance – you are getting an informal contract for a macro part of a particular activity.

Some of these strategies might seem strange at first but with experience they should fit seamlessly into your ongoing discussions and interpretation on a walk or hike. But – the risk disclosures need to be isolated somehow for possible recall at a later date.

To check myself sometimes I might ask a passenger who was on a particular activity what I warned them about at a certain point – I want to know what they would recall for a coroner or investigation.

Incident inquiry and investigation assumes there are no accidents. Everything has a causal sequence of events (causal sequences do not apportion blame they simply identify events). It is the job of peers and an investigator to identify events where deficiencies occurred and what constitutes ‘reasonable’ care and how that fits with best practise and the law.

Our job, (or the coroners job post accident) is to ensure ‘all reasonable steps’ were taken to mitigate risks. The ‘all reasonable’ becomes the grey area that all adventure activities have to work with, it’s the nature of uncertainty (and the reason why it is so much fun). It’s far better that we, the industry and people within it, take the steps and responsibility for defining ‘reasonable’ and ‘best practise’ because only we understand the condition we have to work under. If we don’t someone outside will apply ‘one size fits all’ rules and our adventure and fun is gone. Understanding the nature of risk, what it means to manage it and where good disclosure fits is a start.

Be safe – have fun.