Singapore Is Developing National Standard for Outdoor and Adventure Education Safety & Quality
Jethro Puah, 15, was described as a caring friend, loving son, and exemplary student. He was recognized for his beautiful tenor singing voice, and for loving his family and friends deeply. He enjoyed playing the violin and guitar.
On February 4, 2021, Jethro lost his footing while navigating a ropes course element during a school-sponsored outdoor adventure education experience. He was suspended by his safety harness in mid-air for a time. He lost consciousness. Ropes course staff lowered him to the ground, but paramedics were unable to resuscitate him.
In response, education officials in Singapore, where the tragedy occurred, immediately suspended all outdoor activities involving high elements for all schools. Over a year later, the suspension is still in place.
Outdoor adventure learning organizations in Singapore have been working to improve safety systems since that time.
In January 2022, the Singapore Sport Climbing and Mountaineering Federation released a national High Ropes Training Syllabus containing safety standards and procedures for Challenge Ropes activities in Singapore, and including High Ropes Specialist, Instructor and Supervisor certification schemes.
Also that month, the Outdoor Learning and Adventure Education Association (OLAE), which represents dozens of organizational members, announced a review of its Standards of Industry Practices manual, first published in 2018.
Now, the Singaporean government and the country's outdoor adventure education industry have announced a plan to work together over the next two years to develop a formal national standard for outdoor adventure education safety and quality.
This project will involve the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth, under which falls Outward Bound Singapore, members of the Outdoor Learning and Adventure Education Association, and other stakeholders.
This deliberative process has the potential to be transformative for the outdoor adventure learning field in Singapore.
The country already has one of the world’s leading systems for outdoor education, a well-developed health and safety regulatory framework, and a culture that prizes excellence in safety. Nonetheless, a national standard specifically for outdoor adventure education safety and quality holds the promise of advancing even further a global exemplar in outdoor education.
Current Outdoor Safety and Quality Standards in Singapore
Singapore, ‘The Garden City,’ an island country in South East Asia
The country of Singapore, with six million inhabitants spread across an island geography 50 kilometers across, has a vibrant outdoor adventure sector, with sea kayaking, sailing, challenges courses, hiking, bicycling, and other outdoor activities.
Singapore is a well-organized place, and fittingly, the Lion City has a number of National Sports Associations and other governing bodies for various outdoor activities. The organizations set standards for the conduct of their respective activities.
In addition, Singapore’s Ministry of Education has detailed safety criteria for outdoor programmes involving MOE schools.
Schools, and any external providers a school selects to organize outdoor activities, must meet certain criteria regarding topics including instructor certifications (such as by the Academy of Surfing Instructors, Singapore Canoe Federation, or Singapore Dragon Boat Association), rescue capacities, safety vehicles/vessels, equipment management, venue analysis, and emergency action planning.
Outdoor safety standards-setting entities in Singapore
Singapore also pays attention to the outdoor safety standards of a variety of international organizations, such as the Association for Experiential Education, Association for Challenge Course Technology, European Ropes Course Association, Academy of Surfing Instructors, and International Rafting Federation.
Safety and Health Regulations in Singapore
Singapore’s Workplace Safety and Health (Risk Management) Regulations, which apply to every workplace in the country, require that in every workplace, a risk assessment shall be conducted, and all reasonably practicable steps shall be taken to eliminate, reduce or control any foreseeable risk.
Under the regulations, the risk assessment shall be reviewed at least every three years, and after any bodily injury or significant change in work practices or procedures.
Singapore’s Workplace Safety and Health Council, a statutory body under the Ministry of Manpower, publishes a lucid and detailed 51-page Code of Practice on Workplace Safety and Health Risk Management.
This document explains how workplaces should conduct a risk assessment, and walks the reader step-by-step through the process.
The Ministry’s guidance illustrates how to organize a 5x5 Risk Matrix, where risks are categorized according to severity and likelihood of occurrence:
The document then provides a sample Risk Assessment form to be filled out. The form lists the risk, and assigns an initial Risk Prioritization Number to each risk.
If the risk prioritization is unacceptably high—for example, moving into the red/pink zone in the Risk Matrix above, additional controls are applied to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. A second Risk Prioritization Number is calculated which confirms that that particular risk has been sufficiently reduced.
With a full roster of national governing bodies, awareness of international standards organizations for outdoor activities, and a well-established workplace health and safety infrastructure, Singapore enjoys excellent access to a wide array of resources for managing risk.
Good Practices for Standards Development
Despite its well-developed set of tools for supporting excellence in risk management for outdoor programs, Singapore is committed to making further advances in safety and quality in the Outdoor Adventure Education (OAE) sector.
The new national standard that government entities, the 40-odd OAE service providers in Singapore, and the general public will have the opportunity to weigh in on, aims to create a uniform, nation-wide set of standards for the conduct of outdoor and adventure education programmes on land and sea.
This can ameliorate any issues when different outdoor programme providers use differing sets of standards—for example, from British Canoeing versus the Singapore Canoe Federation, or the Association for Challenge Course Technology versus the Singapore Sport Climbing and Mountaineering Federation or European Ropes Course Association.
The Ministry of Education’s safety criteria in its Compliance Checklists for Procurement of OAL Activities, and the requirements outlined in the 101-page Outdoor Adventure Learning Activity Guide for MOE Schools, provide more sets of highly detailed safety requirements, which may not always conform to standards set by other organizations.
When the new national-level standards are established, taking input from both Singapore-based activity-specific associations and international organizations, the result should be guidance that “encompasses best practices from both worlds.”
Developing Standards: Takes Skill and Practice
Creating standards—either voluntary guidelines or compulsory regulation—is notoriously difficult.
Getting standards right means finding a delicate balance of enough, but not too much, direction.
Be too prescriptive, and you won’t leave room of regional variation, judgment and innovation.
Be too broad, and one risks having those regulated finding ways to technically meet the letter of the standard but still not have the desired effects on safety or quality.
For example, the government of the state of Maharashtra in India recently issued a 16-page Government Resolution on adventure tourism, which provides useful structure without overwhelming detail.
The regulations come with 267 pages of exquisitely specific good practice standards, which like the voluminous Training Safety Regulations of Outward Bound Singapore, provide minute details of safety and quality procedures (such as instructing participants to avoid unnecessarily touching the gate of a screwgate carabiner). This encyclopedic reference, however, is not compulsory to follow, allowing it to serve as a handy reference rather than an overwhelming list of rules.
On the other hand, the 7th edition of the Manual of Accreditation Standards for Adventure Programs published by the Association for Experiential Education, in its section on standards for hiking, camping and backpacking, publishes a standard 11.06 requiring that “Hiking, camping and backpacking are conducted appropriately.”
This could lean towards the under-specific end of the spectrum. However, AEE provides a specific explanation of what conformity to that standard should look like. And organizations seeking accreditation must submit written documentation explaining how they meet that standard, and pass an in-person visit from a team accreditation reviewers, before the standard is considered met.
This helps ensure that an organization awarded accreditation by AEE does indeed meet the letter and spirit of the standard.
Kayaking, like standards development, takes skill and practice to do well
We’ll cover below 10 good practice principles for establishing high-quality, well-developed standards for outdoor safety and quality:
Use An Inclusive Process in Standards Development
Employ Government Support During Standards Development and Implementation
Critically Analyze International Standards for Useful Components
Strive for Broad Geopolitical Application of Standards
Design with Cultural Competence in Mind
Pay Close Attention to Implementation
Pay Close Attention to Conformance
Invest in Continuing Improvement
Refer to Well-Developed Pre-existing Standards and Standards Models
Use the Opportunity to Update Systems and Models
1. Use An Inclusive Process in Standards Development
A deliberative, open process where the viewpoints of all stakeholders are sought is more likely to get the buy-in and acceptance that’s important for standards to be fully and durably implemented.
This means involving various government entities, the private sector, and members of the public—just as Singapore’s multi-year process has been designed to do.
When New Zealand was developing its outdoor safety regulation following a fatal incident involving school children on an outdoor trip in 2008, the government took the time to listen to many individuals and stakeholder organizations during the rule-making process. This broad-based consultation helped make the resulting regulation both accepted in the outdoor community and less likely to be ignored or repealed.
(There’s no guarantee, however, that even good outdoor safety regulation will last—attempts to dismantle the Adventure Activities Licensing scheme in the UK, which came into existence following multiple schoolchildren deaths on a boating trip in 1993, are repeatedly made.)
In India, the first attempts at regulating outdoor adventure in Maharashtra, published in 2014, were met with a series of lawsuits—protesting the 2014 regulations, and later challenging a 2018 revision. Only in 2021, after seven years of litigation, consultation, and re-writing, was regulatory language arrived at that was acceptable to all parties.
Change is hard, and not everyone welcomes being subjected to regulation. A deliberate process with lots of listening on all sides, and skillful facilitation by regulatory leaders, can help ensure a successful process.
Bicycling on the island of Pulau Ubin, a popular Singapore pastime, can benefit from safety standards
2. Employ Government Support During Standards Development and Implementation
Consistent funding from government during the process of developing and implementing regulatory guidance can help ensure a high quality of the final product.
When Australia was going through the process of developing its Adventure Activity Standard and Good Practice Guides, initial development work was funded by The Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. Later, ten Offices of Recreation and Sport from states and territories across the country contributed funding to support the work of 98 volunteer Technical Working Group members, who held over 127 meetings while developing the standards from 2015 to 2019.
Similarly, during the development of the Adventure Activities Regulations and associated Activity Safety Guidelines in New Zealand, WorkSafe NZ and Sport New Zealand, provided funding to help providers contribute to, understand and implement the regulations, and establish resources to ensure providers are able to meet the regulatory requirements. Sport NZ also provided additional funding to help outdoor programme providers experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19 cover safety audit fees and other expenses.
3. Critically Analyze International Standards for Useful Components
Some international outdoor safety and quality standards are very well-developed. There’s little utility in developing a new regional standard when an exemplar already exists.
For instance, the experiential adventure accreditation standards of the Association for Experiential Education are generally highly regarded around the world. Likewise, the Challenge Course and Canopy/Zip Line Tours Standards of the Association for Challenge Course Technology are also globally recognized for being well-developed.
That said, some international standards have their share of critics. For instance, the methodology of the ISO 31000 Risk Management standard, which emphasizes a linear model of incident causation has been critiqued as not taking advantage of the best available science regarding risk assessment in its theoretical modelling.
Similarly, ISO 21101:2014 adventure tourism safety standards have been remarked upon as providing only high-level generic guidance about safety management system development, without outdoor adventure-specific best practices, limiting their usefulness.
International standards for ziplining from ACCT and ERCA can support good risk management.
4. Strive for Broad Geopolitical Application of Standards
Often, a standard that is broadly applicable across jurisdictions is more useful than hyper-regional guidance.
For example, in Australia, Adventure Activity Standards were established in the state of Victoria around 2006, in order to help ensure a minimum level of risk management which would drive down the unaffordably high cost of liability insurance in that state. Other Australian states then developed their own standards over the next decade.
This mix of standards became a problem as outdoor activity providers regularly crossed state lines during programmes, leading to a confusing mix of conformity requirements. The four-year process started in 2015 to develop a uniform standard across the entire country was designed to minimize this inefficiency.
That said, standards may not transfer well between regions with very different cultural and socioeconomic contexts, where financial realities, social risk tolerance, or other factors widely differ.
For example, the standards of the Association for Experiential Education were historically developed and applied in North America. During the first accreditation process of an experiential adventure program in Asia, the standard requiring seatbelt use in motor vehicles became problematic, as seatbelts simply weren’t available in buses in rural China where outdoor programs run by the organization seeking accreditation were taking place.
(Singapore, however, is socioeconomically homogeneous to the extent that national standards should easily fit across the country.)
5. Design with Cultural Competence in Mind
It’s helpful to pay attention to how a standard fits in culturally, particularly when a pre-existing standard is being imported into a different region.
One organization from North America, where there are a number of relatively large and well-financed outdoor education and outdoor recreation organizations, brought a set of outdoor safety standards to Taiwan. Many outdoor program providers in Taiwan are quite small—with just one or two employees, who drive clients and lead outdoor activities during the day, and work on the website and pay bills at night.
The owner of one smaller, well-respected outdoor education company in Taiwan complained that the administratively complex and burdensome standards from North America were “hard to digest” in Taiwan. “You’re giving us cultural diarrhea!” he complained.
This issue shouldn’t be a factor in the development of a uniform standard across Singapore, which is relatively small. In countries such as India or China, which are large and very diverse economically and other ways, and have pronounced regionality, establishing a national standard may be more of a challenge.
Kayaking on Singapore’s Kallang River
6. Pay Close Attention to Implementation
It’s one thing to write a standard. It’s a different thing to see to its consistent, skillful and effective application.
In some ways, the drafting of a safety regulation represents the beginning of a process, not the end. Providers, particularly those of limited economic means, may need financial, technical or other support from government agencies or industry associations in order to re-design their systems to meet the new standards.
New Zealand again provides a role model in this regard, with the country’s workplace health and safety regulator, the crown entity governing sport and recreation, and the industry associations Tourism Industry Aotearoa and Recreation Aotearoa all contributing financial or other support to outdoor and adventure operators to help them conform to the Adventure Activities Regulations 2011.
In 2020, a New Zealand government report stated that research to test the performance of the adventure safety regulatory regime against policy objectives would be of value.
7. Pay Close Attention to Conformance
What’s the best way to ensure that regulated organizations actually follow regulations? This is a more complex subject than many may realize.
Researchers investigate which factors and design models lead to optimum conformance, and advise governments and other regulatory entities on emerging best practice.
On December 9, 2019, Whakaari/White Island in New Zealand erupted, killing 22 people, mostly tourists from a cruise ship, who were on the island. This catastrophic event shocked the country—especially since New Zealand has what some considered the world’s best outdoor safety regulatory structure.
A 2020 review of the adventure activities regulatory regime found that WorkSafe, New Zealand’s workplace safety regulator, failed to adequately enforce safety regulations, failed to sufficiently prioritize and resource outdoor safety regulation, and experienced other shortcomings. A follow-up review in 2021 also identified regulatory regime breakdowns.
The review also questioned whether the auditors were sufficiently qualified to evaluate the complex geological risks inherent in adventure activities such as travel on a volcano.
The review also found that the design of the third-party auditor system for adventure activities in New Zealand “may not be commercially sustainable,” due to factors including the small size of the market and financial pressures, and contemplated the complete collapse of the third-party auditing system.
In addition, the review also questioned the entire practice of using third-party auditors, noting that research identified risks such as regulator overreliance on certification to drive operator compliance, audits not being carried out to an appropriate standards, and regulator over-reliance on certifiers to notify them of issues.
The Whakaari/White Island incident and its aftermath make clear that close attention to design and continuous review of an appropriate conformance regime is important for good safety outcomes.
Bicycling in Singapore
8. Invest in Continuing Improvement
Adventure safety regulation, and the conformance regime that brings the regulation alive, requires ongoing attention.
National outdoor safety legislation was first passed in the UK in 1995; Adventure Activities Licensing Regulations came into force in 2004, and the responsibility for administering the licensing scheme has changed from one organization to another over time.
Finland’s outdoor safety regulation has likewise undergone an evolutionary process, starting with the Ministry of Education and an NGO, later joining with the country’s workplace safety regulator, and a dozen years after its initial development, being incorporated into consumer safety legislation.
And similarly, the Association for Experiential Education’s accreditation standards is now in its seventh edition.
As norms, technologies, activities, and values change, safety standards will need to evolve along with them.
9. Refer to Well-Developed Pre-existing Standards and Standards Models
Mature outdoor and adventure safety standards, such as those developed by the Association for Experiential Education and the Association for Challenge Course technology, are worth using as reference points when developing similar regulation.
And long-standing and high-quality standards models, such as the Adventure Activities Licensing scheme in the UK, and the Safety Audit Standard for Adventure Activities in New Zealand, can help developers of new regulatory systems craft the most effective system possible.
Other countries, such as Switzerland, have outdoor safety legislation worth considering.
10. Use the Opportunity to Update Systems and Models
Development of a safety and quality system from the very beginning presents a valuable opportunity to move past outdated approaches, employ the best contemporary science regarding incident prevention, and modernize the process of helping ensure safety and quality.
Since the 1990s, the leading model for understanding incident causation—in adventure programming and any industry—has been a model grounded in complex systems theory.
This theory of incident causation informs us that often, major incidents occur as a result of an unpredictable combination of risk factors, which occur in a way and at a time that one cannot predict.
Consequently, a safety system must be built with the reserve capacity, redundancies, and other resilience characteristics to withstand unanticipated breakdowns of the risk management system, without leading to catastrophic failure.
The implication of this is that incident causation models that rely on a linear approach to preventing incidents: identify a risk, control the risk, and repeat for other risks—does not represent an optimally effective method for preventing incidents that spring from complex systems like led outdoor activities.
Risk management models such as 3M, 4M, 5M, PEEP and PEEPO can therefore be shifted aside in favor of systems-informed models such as AcciMap or its variant PreventiMap, as is done with the Australian outdoor sector with the UPLOADS Project.
The systems-informed PreventiMap model used by the UPLOADS Project looks at the role of government, regulators, clients, providers, and participants in incident causation.
Singapore’s Workplace Safety and Health (Risk Management) Regulations require a risk assessment to be conducted every three years or following a significant incident or change in work practice, but not on a frequent or routine basis.
The best available safety science suggests, then, that the likelihood of achieving excellence in safety outcomes may increase if time previously devoted to repetitive completion of probabilistic risk assessment spreadsheets be instead be invested in developing and implementing systems-informed risk management systems such as those with resilience engineering characteristics, and attending to causal factors such as safety culture that are not well-captured by classic risk assessment charts.
Perhaps a tool such as the Training Safety Regulations manual employed by Outward Bound Singapore ground staff, which is informed by risk assessments, can be used as one aspect of evidence that relevant risks have been evaluated and a plan for mitigation instituted.
This, in conjunction with a systems-informed certification or accreditation scheme, such as that in place for adventure operators in New Zealand, might constitute a Risk Assessment and Management System (RAMS) that can be instituted to most effectively ensure that outdoor adventure learning providers are using the best available science to minimize risk as far as is reasonably practicable.
The development of a national standard for outdoor and adventure education safety & quality is an exciting moment for outdoor educators in Singapore. Born of tragedy, but rich with the promise of improved safety outcomes for generations of Singapore’s young people, this effort is both complex and full of opportunity.
Singapore has shown great leadership in character education, resilience development, and life skills education through its National Outdoor Adventure Education Master Plan. Already a global role model, Singapore has the opportunity to continue to advance the Outdoor Adventure Education sector in Singapore—and globally—through a thoughtfully designed and skillfully implemented National Standard for Outdoor and Adventure Education.
Congratulations to Singapore for its ongoing investment in youth education and development, and best wishes for what is sure to be an exciting and fulfilling journey ahead.