Safety and Risk Management at Summer Camp

A Practical, Science-Based Model for Managing Risks at Camps and Outdoor Adventure Programs

The summer camp session had been going smoothly, until the camper wandered into a wooded area at the edge of the camp, found some poison hemlock growing at the edge of a stream, picked a handful, and ate it.

The camp had been operating for many years, but had just moved to a new, rented facility. The camp counselors were teenagers, mostly 16 years old—some were familiar with the story of Socrates killing himself by consuming hemlock, but none could identify the plant. And nobody knew this deadly poisonous vegetation was growing on the grounds of the camp.

Kids will experiment with eating random plants

It’s the kind of incident that camp directors everywhere think about: seeming random; certainly unexpected. Why was the presence of this extremely dangerous plant unknown? How was it that the camper was unsupervised, wandering through the forest at the camp’s edge? And what on earth compelled the camper to pick that plant, above all the others, and eat it?

We know that safety incidents will occur at camp, and at other outdoor, experiential, and trip-and-travel programs. What we can’t tell is what kind of incident will occur, or when, or where, or who will be involved.

It’s this unpredictability that poses a challenge to leaders of outdoor and experiential programs. How do we anticipate the unexpected? How do we guard against unforeseen breakdowns in our safety system—full of policies, procedures, and documentation designed to prevent mishaps from occurring?

Camps aren’t the only organizations to struggle with preventing safety incidents. Airlines strive to avoid plane crashes. Nuclear power plant operators work to prevent meltdowns. Hospitals seek to eliminate wrong-limb surgical amputations.

Aviation, power generation, healthcare and other large industries have invested heavily in researching why incidents occur—and by extension, how they can be prevented. They have funded research scientists to conduct investigations, develop theories of incident causation, and establish models that represent those incident causation theories. There are academic journals, conferences, and an ever-growing literature in the field of risk management.

Camps and other outdoor programs can learn from the work that springs from these investments in advancing safety science. Just as the highest-quality camps pay attention to the best thinking in human development, experiential learning, and environmental education pedagogy, camps can benefit greatly from keeping abreast of the best thinking in safety science across industries, and applying cutting-edge risk management theories and models to helping keep kids safe and having fun at camp.

Let’s take a look at safety thinking, and the risk management theories and models that have evolved over time. We’ll explore how safety science has advanced over the last 100 years. And we’ll examine how the most current thinking in risk management—revolving around the idea of complex sociotechnical systems—can be applied to improve safety outcomes at camp.

The field of risk management includes career specialists in safety science, a wide variety of theories and models, numerous academic journals, and PhD programs in risk management. From this, best practices have evolved that can be applied across industries—from aviation to outdoor education and recreation.

A variety of academic journals on safety and risk management exist.

The Evolution of Safety Thinking: Four Ages

Let’s begin by briefly considering the trajectory of safety science from the Industrial Revolution to the present day.

The evolution of safety thinking can be broken down into several eras, each representing a distinct approach to understanding why incidents occur, and how they might be prevented. The model below illustrates four separate eras of safety thinking:

  • The Age of Technology,

  • The Age of Human Factors,

  • The Age of Safety Management, and

  • The Age of Systems Thinking.

The Age of Technology

In this model, adapted from Waterson et al., we see the 1800’s version of safety thinking as a mechanistic model. The predominant understanding of incident causation was a linear one—the “domino model”—where incidents were seen as resulting from a chain of events.

This linear chain-of-causation thinking is exemplified in the following 13th century nursery rhyme:

For want of a nail the horseshoe was lost.

For want of a horseshoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

Root Cause Analysis was a core element of safety thinking at this time: if one could only identify the originating cause of the problem (want of a nail, in the example above), then the incident (loss of a kingdom) could be prevented.

The Age of Human Factors

If we fast-forward to a time 50 years ago, we see that human behavior—and specifically, human error—is seen as a major cause of incidents. If we can control people’s actions, why, then we can prevent incidents from occurring!

This “Age of Human Factors” brings detailed policy registers, procedures handbooks, operating manuals, and rulebooks of every sort. Control human behavior—the most significant, yet most unpredictable, element of any safety system—and you control risk. This marks the advent of rules-based safety.

It’s important to note that each step in the history of safety thinking represents a cumulative advance of wisdom regarding how to prevent incidents. The older theories and models are not to be discarded; they are to be built upon. As safety thinking advanced from a mechanistic search for incident causes through Root Cause Analysis, it’s important to recall that Root Cause Analysis can still be useful—but, crucially, more sophisticated and effective tools have been added to the safety manager’s toolkit.

The Age of Safety Management

It didn’t take long, however, for management to recognize the fact that—surprise!—people don’t always follow the rules. And, rules cannot be invented to address every conceivable situation, every possible permutation of circumstances where risk factors appear.

We then see, in more or less the 1980’s, the evolution of a recognition that the use of procedures and inflexible rules has to be balanced with allowing people to use their good judgement, and to adapt dynamically to a constantly changing risk environment.

This is the birth of “Integrated Safety Culture”—combining rules-based safety, which provides useful guidance to support wise decision-making in times of stress—with the flexibility for individuals to make their own decisions, even if that means not following the documented procedures or the pre-existing plan.

The Age of Systems Thinking

Nuclear power plants are big, complicated things. They have lots of mechanical components, and are operated and maintained by large teams of personnel. Although much attention is put towards their safe operation, dangerous meltdowns continue to occur—the Three Mile Island reactor partial meltdown in 1979, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011.

Damage to No. 3 reactor building at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, March 2011

It became clear that despite detailed engineering systems, extensive personnel training and oversight, and many other safety measures, managers seemed simply unable to understand and control the enormous complexity of a nuclear generating station. The system was too complex. The safety models that were in place to prevent meltdowns simply weren’t 100 percent effective. A new, more sophisticated model of incident causation, that could account for the complex mix of people and technology, was needed.

This led to the development of complex sociotechnical systems theory.

Complex sociotechnical systems theory combines a recognition of the profound complexity of “systems”—whether they be a nuclear power plant or a summer camp. It attempts to understand how people and their behavior influence safety, and how technology—from pressure release valves in a reactor, to PFDs on a canoeing trip—influence safety outcomes. And it seeks to understand the interaction of people—the “socio-”—with the technologies and items they interact with—the “technical”—within a system that also has outside influences and is constantly in flux.

Systems thinking—the application of complex sociotechnical systems theory—represents the most current and most advanced approach to risk management. It is, however, more abstract and challenging to understand than simpler, albeit less effective models. It’s therefore important to invest in understanding what complex STS theory means, and how it can be applied to the camp setting.

One of the principal ideas of systems thinking is the recognition that we cannot have full awareness of, let alone control of, the complex system of an airplane, a hospital operating room, or a summer camp. We therefore need to build in extra safeguards and capacities so that when an inevitable breakdown in our safety system occurs, the system is resilient enough to withstand that breakdown without catastrophic failure.

This has been termed “resilience engineering,” and is a fundamental approach to applying systems thinking to the camp environment. We'll further examine the resilience engineering concept, as it applies to camp safety, shortly.

The Evolution of Safety Thinking: Incident Causation

Let’s continue exploring how ideas of risk management have evolved over the decades. But this time we'll look at how thinking around how incidents occur has become more sophisticated, and an increasingly accurate representation of the factors that lead towards a mishap's occurrence.

The Single-Cause Incident Concept: A Simple Linear Model

The idea of what causes an incident—at camp, or anywhere—was in the past considered to be due to a single causal element. The boots fit poorly, and thus caused the blister. The blister popped, which caused the infection. The infection got worse, so the camper ended up in the hospital. The root cause: ill-fitting boots. The sequence: a linear one, from root cause leading to an unanticipated mishap, leading to an injury or other loss.

In the image below, from the Safety Institute of Australia, building off the work of Hollnagel, we see this illustrated as the “single cause” principle of causation, which is part of a simple linear model of how incidents occur. The chain of causation is a simple linear sequence.

Adapted from: Safety Institute of Australia

This idea gained popularity in 1931, when Herbert Heinrich published the first edition of his influential book, Industrial Accident Prevention.

Heinrich used a sequence of falling dominos in his text to show how an accident came about:

Credit: Industrial Accident Prevention

Simply eliminate one step in the chain, and voila! No accident:

Credit: Industrial Accident Prevention

Another simplistic, linear-style model is the Fault Tree Analysis. The Fishbone Diagram is one example.

Here we see all the factors that came together to lead to a camper slipping and falling on a trail. The camp counselor was naïve and inattentive; the culture on the trip was "shut up and keep hiking;" the trail was slick and ill-maintained, and the camper's sneakers provided insufficient traction.

The Multiple-Causes Incident Concept: A Complex Linear Model

Later, it became increasingly clear that multiple factors were involved in causing an incident. An event occurred—a person went on a hike wearing too-small boots. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to an infected blister. Perhaps the trip leader asks hikers to check for hot spots. Or the program instructs campers to break in their boots before camp, during which time the poor fit could be discovered and rectified.

But if the trip leaders are not well-trained and proactive about safety, and if the camp does not provide a detailed gear list with instructions well in advance of the camp session, these “latent conditions” can combine with the event—the inadequate footwear—to cause an incident.

This is the “epidemiological” model. It features one or more events, plus one or more latent conditions. The “epidemiological” term references disease modeling, where, for example, a person hikes into the forest in search of wild game (the event), and encounters an animal such as a bat or civet cat that harbors a pathogen (the disease reservoir). The person then comes back into a populated area, leading to an outbreak or epidemic of disease.

This incident model is still a relatively simplistic, linear model, but it also was one of the first to represent incidents as happening within a system of elements.

The epidemiological model gained prominence in 1990, after James Reason published a paper on the topic in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Reason described risk management systems as a series of barriers and defenses. If a hazard were able to get past each of the barriers and defenses by finding a way through the holes in those obstacles, then an incident would occur. Only when all the conditions lined up right would the hazard successfully pass the obstacles and cause an incident.

Reason’s conception, with the easy-to-remember name “Swiss cheese model”

This model, while being superseded by complex systems models that more accurately represent incident causation, uses evocative symbolism and is still in the public consciousness, being cited in the New York Times in August 2021 on COVID-19 safety.

Incident Causation as Taking Place within a Complex System

Finally, risk management theoreticians arrived at what represents the current best thinking in incident causation: the complex systems model.

Here, a complex and ever-changing array of social and technological factors interact in impossible-to-predict ways, leading to an incident. This is the idea of complex sociotechnical systems, as applied to risk management.

Examples of complex systems include the global climate crisis; issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion; and the summer camp setting.

Examples of complex socio-technical systems

Complex systems are characterized by:

  • Difficulty in achieving widely shared recognition that a problem even exists, and agreeing on a shared definition of the problem

  • Difficulty identifying all the specific factors that influence the problem

  • Limited or no influence or control over some causal elements of the problem

  • Uncertainty about the impacts of specific interventions

  • Incomplete information about the causes of the problem and the effectiveness of potential solutions

  • A constantly shifting landscape where the nature of the problem itself and potential solutions are always changing

This model is the most accurate we have to date. However, it’s also the most difficult to conceptualize and work with.

A variety of terms have been used by safety specialists to describe complex STS theory applied to risk management: Safety Differently, Safety-II, Resilience Engineering, Guided Adaptability, and High Reliability Organizations, among others.

Books exploring risk management through complex STS theory

A panoply of terms has been employed in efforts to impose order and structure on the idea of complex systems:

Perhaps the best-known model, however, is the “AcciMap” approach, developed by the Danish professor Jens Rasmussen, whose pioneering work in nuclear safety has been adapted for the outdoor education/recreation and other contexts.

Rasmussen saw different levels at which safety could be influenced:

  • Government, which can pass and enforce safety laws;

  • Regulators and industry associations, such as the American Camp Association, which can establish detailed standards;

  • Organizations, like summer camp operators, which can establish sound operating policies to manage risk;

  • Managers, such as camp directors, who can develop work plans that incorporate good safety planning;

  • Line staff, for example camp counselors, who perform day-to-day activities with prudence and due care and

  • Work tasks, such as running a rock climbing site, which have been designed to have minimal inherent risks.

AcciMap adapted from: Risk Management In a Dynamic Society: A Modelling Problem. Jens Rasmussen, Safety Science 27/2-3 (1997)

Rasmussen gave the example of a motor vehicle accident in which a tanker truck rolled, spilling its contents and polluting a water supply. The analysis identified causal factors at all levels--government, regulators/associations, the transportation company, personnel, and work tasks--that contributed to the incident.

Rasmussen’s AcciMap of a motor vehicle accident leading to water pollution.

But AcciMap, and the AcciMap variants that have evolved over the years, are far from the only models which seek to represent complex sociotechnical systems theory applied to risk management.

For instance, the Functional Resonance Analysis Method models complex socio-technical systems in an intricate web of interconnecting influences. Primarily used in large industrial applications, it’s less likely to be useful for safety management in the camp context.

FRAM: Too abstruse for the camp context

The Risk Domains Model

A model exists, however, that adapts the complex sociotechnical systems elements of AcciMap and similar frameworks, and applies them to the contexts of summer camp and related outdoor, adventure, wilderness, travel, and experiential programs.

This is the Risk Domains model, pictured below.

Here we can see eight “direct risk domains:”

  • Safety culture

  • Activities & program areas

  • Staff

  • Equipment

  • Participants

  • Subcontractors (vendors/providers)

  • Transportation

  • Business administration

Each of these areas holds certain risks. For example, a waterfront program area may harbor risks of sunburn or drowning. The participant domain brings risks of campers, for instance, who are poorly trained, fail to follow safety directions, or who are medically unsuitable for the activity.

In addition, there are four “underlying risk domains:”

  • Government

  • Society

  • Outdoor Industry

  • Business

Here, we see that sound government regulation can support good safety outcomes; a society that values safety and human life encourages good safety practices; industry associations like the American Camp Association can provide powerful support for good risk management, and large corporations that feel a civic responsibility will not impede the government’s capacity to enforce sensible safety regulation.

Risk in any of these domains can combine to directly or indirectly lead to an incident, as we see illustrated in the web of interconnections between each risk domain and an ultimate incident.

Managing risks within the context of the Risk Domains model has two components.

First, in each risk domain, risks are identified that may apply to an organization.

For example, a camp may recognize that it must intentionally develop a positive safety culture each summer with its new crew of enthusiastic teenage camp counselors, lest pranks and risk-taking get out of hand.

And a camp office may need to invest in business administration-related protections to secure medical form confidentiality, protect against embezzlement or other theft, and guard against ransomware and other IT risks.

Policies, procedures, values and systems should be instituted to bring the risks that have been identified in each risk domain as potentially present, down to a socially acceptable level.

Policies might include, for example, a rule that safety briefings are held before each activity, or that incident reports are generated after all non-trivial incidents.

Procedures might include the appropriate way to send a camper down a zipline, or how to sanitize cookware in the camp kitchen.

Values might include, for instance, the value that safety is important, and should be taken seriously.

And systems might include medical screening, staff training, or equipment maintenance systems.

The idea is not to bring risks to zero—that would paralyze any camp operation—but to bring them to a level where, if an incident occurs, then stakeholders, such as parents, newsmedia, and regulators, understand that reasonable precautions were taken against reasonably foreseeable harms, even though an incident did occur, as is inevitably the case from time to time.

Risk Management Instruments

In addition to instituting specific policies, procedures, values and systems to maintain identified risks in all relevant risk domains at a socially acceptable level, there are broad-based tools, or instruments, that can be applied to manage risks across multiple or all risk domains at the same time.

These risk management instruments are:

  1. Risk Transfer

  2. Incident Management

  3. Incident Reporting

  4. Incident Reviews

  5. Risk Management Committee

  6. Medical Screening

  7. Risk Management Reviews

  8. Media Relations

  9. Documentation

  10. Accreditation

  11. Seeing Systems

Risk Management Instruments, which can manage risks across multiple risk domains

Risk Transfer refers to the presence of insurance policies, subcontractors who assume risk, and risk transfer documents like liability waivers.

Incident Management refers to having a documented and rehearsed plan for responding to emergencies.

Incident Reporting means documenting safety incidents and their potential causes, analyzing incidents individually and in the aggregate, and then developing and disseminating responses (in the form of revised training materials, safety reports, new policies, etc.) to respond to the incidents, and the trends and patterns they illuminate.

Incident Reviews means having a process for the formal review of major incidents, by internal or external review teams.

Risk Management Committee indicates a group of individuals, including those from outside the organization, who have relevant subject matter expertise, and who can provide resources and unbiased guidance.

Medical Screening refers to structures to ensure that campers and staff are medically well-matched to their circumstances.

Risk Management Reviews are formalized, periodic analyses of the camp’s safety practices.

Media Relations refers to staff who have the training and materials to work effectively with newsmedia in the case of a newsworthy safety incident.

Documentation refers to written or other guidance that records what should be done (e.g. in the form of field staff handbooks or employee manuals), and what has been done (e.g. incident reports, SOAP notes, check-offs, and training sign-in sheets).

Accreditation refers to recognition by an authoritative body, such as the American Camp Association, that widely accepted industry standards have been met.

Seeing Systems refers to employing complex sociotechnical systems theory in the design and implementation of camp safety practices.

Together, the application of policies, procedures, values and systems to manage identified risks, along with the use of broadly effective risk management instruments to address risks across many risk domains, can help a camp or similar institution maintain risks not to exceed a socially acceptable level.

Sidebar: Limitations of Risk Assessments

At this point, we’ve explored some of the history about safety thinking, and a progression of models that attempt to represent why incidents occur, and by extension, how they might be prevented.

We’ve focused on the Risk Domains model, which is a relatively easy-to-use framework designed explicitly for camps and other outdoor and experiential programs.

We talked about how one aspect of the Risk Domains model is, within each risk domain, identifying specific risks that an organization may face, and instituting policies, procedures, values and systems to manage those risks such that they do not to exceed a socially acceptable level.

This involves performing a risk assessment: identifying risks, classifying them by probability and severity, and then establishing appropriate risk mitigation measures.

This is known as a Probabilistic Risk Assessment, or PRA.

With PRAs, a spreadsheet lists risks, and the probability and severity of each:

The risks least likely to be encountered, and with the mildest consequences (in green, below), are likely to be accepted.

The risks most likely to be experienced, and which may have significant negative impacts (in red), are likely to be eliminated, or significantly reduced.