Core Skills, News & Features — 6 October 2013 at 4:19 pm

Risk Management for Adventure

As medics, we assess risk all the time. However, we rarely do it formally and ‘doing a risk assessment’ can seem an alien part of planning an expedition. So, Adventure Medic asked expedition leader Dom Hall, manager of Training Expertise, to give us some advice.

Flying from Petit Combin in the Alps (Matt Wilkes)

Even amongst the general public just the words risk assessment are enough to create a range of reactions from a scowl, a yawn or even an angry growl. So trying to use the words amongst the fun loving, live and let live, freedom and self-determining adventure world can be a real challenge. Images are conjured up of crags closed to rock climbers, remote mountain sides strewn with ‘Mind the Gap signs’ and mountaineers huddled over laptops writing risk assessment spreadsheets as the weather draws in. At best it can be seen as a paper pushing nuisance and worse still as a barrier to people’s passions and dreams or even to their safety.

As an outdoor instructor and expedition leader over the last 15 years I am in many ways no different. I have seen a huge change from my first expeditions which were armed with little more than an envelope of money, a list of participant names and communications amounting to an occasional visit to the village community phone or a sat phone which was used more as an onion chopping board than as a communication device. Expeditions and outdoor activities can now can be awash with paperwork and on occasion over burdened with rules, regulations, systems and paperwork which is not only alien to the practical, hands-on approach of many of its participants, but at worst can hamper the common sense approach which is key both to the purpose of these activities, and their safe execution.

So it perhaps has come as rather a surprise even to me that I have spent much of the last five years as a proponent, you could even say evangelist of risk assessment. My role involves training people from school teachers and expedition leaders to exploration geologists and university staff and students in practical safety management on school trips, expeditions and field work. Perhaps much of my conversion to the risk assessment process has come through a realisation that risk assessment is far more than the piece of paper that we normally associate with the words, it is a way of thinking, a conscious process and very much contains the common sense, dynamic approach which people too often feel is superseded by the paperwork.

If you want to plan an adventurous expedition to a remote mountain range it would be pretty foolhardy to set off with no prior planning, to jump on a plane, with no kit or equipment, no idea what to expect, what the conditions are likely to be like etc. (Though this may sound like the archetypal adventure and is the picture some adventurers try to paint if you look a bit closer you’ll normally find even the wildest of true expeditions started with a fair bit of reading, planning and researching!). This phase of the trip is your pre-planning risk assessment phase – you may not call it that but if you are considering issues such as what the weather may be like, and what equipment you’ll need to cope with that, what climbing conditions to expect, plan routes and alternatives, and consider some of the things which could go wrong, plan ways to minimise those risks and decide on appropriate kit and equipment to reduce those risks or deal with their occurrence – you are risk assessing – long before you go near a form or a spreadsheet.

At the same time it would be equally fool hardy to expect that pre-planning to be one hundred percent accurate, or to answer every eventuality. When you arrive you will assess on a daily basis the weather conditions, the terrain you find on the mountain, your fitness and that of others in the team and 101 other factors. This is your dynamic risk assessment, applying the research you did in advance alongside practical, common sense decisions based on your skills and experience in that environment. This is very much the way risk assessment should work – good sensible pre-planning with creation of a plan, equipment list and a way you want the trip to run. But this plan must be executed alongside good dynamic decision making – both elements together are a powerful and effective combination but try making dynamic decisions without full information or, worse still, blindly follow your pre-planning without sensible and flexible changes and you will come unstuck.

Doing  a risk assessment

There is no one way to do a risk assessment – the important bit really is the thought process you go through but from a legal point of view you need something written down to demonstrate that thinking has been done, to give an idea how the risks have been assessed, which were considered the most serious, and how you propose to manage them. This normally results in some kind of table showing at the most basic level – hazards, risks and control measures:

HazardRiskControl Measure
Road traffic collisionInjury or deathUse a recommended taxi firm, ensure seat-belts are worn at all times

However, the above is quite generic – the same line could appear on any risk assessment and therefore you may wonder how it will really help you to run a safe trip. If you can make it more specific it will normally make it more useful:

HazardRiskControl Measure
Road traffic collisionInjury or deathWe will use ACME Taxis, a recommended taxi firm. The road from the airport to town is a known accident blackspot, we will ensure arrival at airport for mid-morning to ensure the journey is done in daytime and outside of rush-hour

It is also common to try to quantify the level of risk, normally in terms of likelihood of an incident (rated for example low, medium, high or with numbers 1 to 5) and severity (for example minor injury, major injury, death). Obviously the most serious are situations in which we have both high severity and likelihood – think perhaps of Felix Baumgartner jumping from space!

However that doesn’t necessarily stop you doing things – Baumgartner afterall did jump from space – and not on a whim but in a highly thought through, corporately sponsored venture. Of course the key then is to come up with practical, implementable control measures to reduce the severity and likelihood to levels at which they become acceptable when set against the benefit to be gained from the activity.

Top tips

This principle is pretty simple but can be difficult to apply in practice so some top tips for risk management for adventure:

  1. Particularly if you are planning or running adventurous activities or trips for others you must have a written risk assessment – it’s your legal proof that you made sensible and reasonable steps to do it safely
  2. But remember it is just that – sensible and reasonable things – don’t try to write down every possible eventuality or reams of paperwork, it should be a usable, practical and most importantly flexible document
  3. Think of practical and simple ways to build dynamic risk assessment into your every day activity, keep your eyes open for changing circumstances, use team meetings to discuss changing plans, or keep an expedition diary or log
  4. Involve everyone in practical solutions for risk management – it is a culture and not a piece of paper.

Dom Hall manages Training Expertise, a training company specialising in preparing people to work in the outdoors and in remote environments. They run unique and innovative training in field safety, outdoor first aid, wilderness first aid and driver training. If you’d like more information about what they do you can have a look at their website or get in touch on