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Camp Staff: Getting Health and Safety Messages to Stick
Camp health is not bound by the four walls of the health center. Nor is safety bound by a list of rules at any given camp activity. Today’s camp professional realizes that all camp staff contribute to and have responsibility for a camp’s health and safety profile; indeed, the camp experience can be considerably healthier when camp staff act sensibly (American Camp Association, 2011; Garst, Erceg, Baird, & Thompson, 2010; Garst, Erceg, & Walton, in press; Papageorgiou, Marvomatis, & Kasta, 2006). Granted, some staff have direct responsibility to care for campers. Their ability to handle that responsibility, to maintain — if not improve — the camper’s health, is critical. But all staff share the concept of safety and all contribute to camper wellness. Indeed, by virtue of being a camp staff member, there’s a legal duty to act in a way that promotes camper health and safety.
In addition, staff — because they are employees — have a responsibility to maintain their own health so they remain capable of doing the job for which they were hired. Yet, this message is often not communicated clearly to staff. Nor are camp practices set up to value and/or evaluate this dimension of staff performance.
So, how might training be provided, how does coaching support the process, and how might the camp’s administration improve the capabilities of staff in the areas of safety and health? More importantly, how might one get camp staff to take responsibility for their own health and the safety practices that impact the health of campers? And how does one get these messages to stick?
Communicating the Staff Role in Health and Safety
The message to staff about health and safety starts well before their arrival at camp. It begins with staff recruitment and continues throughout the application process. Recruitment information on camp Web sites, position announcements, and other recruiting elements should provide early evidence of the camp’s commitment to health and safety, specifically in relation to staff behavior. Job descriptions must include expectations related to health and safety. Interview questions should probe an applicant’s ability to maintain their health in the fast-paced, changing environment known as camp. Questions should also address an applicant’s ability to effectively respond to the health and safety needs of others (e.g., campers) as well as meet the expectations of both camp supervisors and camper parents. Often the hiring process focuses on a person’s ability to do a specific job or lead a particular activity without assessing the applicant’s values associated with health and safety. Applicants also need a clear, straightforward expression of the camp’s values around these concepts starting with their initial experiences as a prospective camp staff member.
This valuing then gets converted to communicating explicit messages about the staff health and safety role. While health center staff provide care when health problems arise, it’s the day-to-day attention by other staff members that really makes a difference. Staff who live with campers and/or direct their activities are often the first to see signs of emerging problems. Maybe it’s a child who continuously scratches her head, the boy who uses his inhaler a lot during the day, or a child who just isn’t eating during meals.
Staff who provide services — maintenance, mail, housekeeping, food service — see campers intermittently. They might notice changes in a child’s demeanor or note something about the camp program that is challenging. From loose boards on a stairway to noting who doesn’t routinely get mail to cajoling a child to try new foods, service staff are in a unique position to catch signs that may slip through the proverbial cracks.
The ability of staff to notice, to be mindful and “in the moment,” is key. One can’t take action if one doesn’t see the need. Health and safety is everyone’s business. Getting staff to use their common sense, to notice, and to take action on what they see is both a staff responsibility and a management challenge. All the best risk-reduction strategies in the world won’t make a difference unless they are implemented. Camp staff must appropriately intervene when they notice a health concern — be that for a given individual or in the camp environment. Some, indeed, would call it negligence to do otherwise. Camp leaders, however, are challenged. How does one get staff to “take notice”?
Elements to Consider before Staff Arrive
Start by assessing the elements of camp that communicate the values associated with health and safety to staff. For example, do performance appraisal tools include statements such as: “How effectively does this staff member manage his/her cabin and/or activity to reduce, if not eliminate, health and safety concerns?” and “How effectively does this staff member manage his/ her personal health to remain effective on the job?” Does the camp director provide summary comments about the camp’s injury-illness events during routine staff meetings? Does the camp have a group of staff who regularly meet to review incident reports, and are results of those reviews made known to staff? Strategies like these clearly communicate that the camp values health and safety. Failure to do things like this means that staff have no routine reminders, don’t routinely hear how things are going, and aren’t held accountable. No wonder they forget.
Also, talk with people who oversee various staff members — the head cook, head counselor, waterfront manager, and so forth — to determine how their practices complement the camp’s health and safety quest. Employees won’t follow up if managers are lax in their own practices or neglect to hold staff accountable for risk-reduction strategies. These midlevel managers tend to be returning staff members. Give them the incident reports from last season that pertain to their area and have them set health and safety goals for the upcoming season — goals that will reflect a value on making things better. If a particular area had a healthy and safe season, challenge them to maintain that. Perhaps they can also determine what made that outcome possible. There may be tips to learn for other managers while also reinforcing appropriate behavior for the successful group. Another approach for midlevel managers is to review the “Promising Practices” of ACA’s Healthy Camp Study Impact Report (2011). What might be usable for the upcoming camp season?
A growing number of camps now require staff to complete online training prior to arriving for on-site orientation. This is a perfect venue for seeding values associated with health and safety, one that complements the way people learn in today’s world. Invite staff to complete one or more of the online learning modules available through ACA’s Professional Development Center. Several pertain to health and safety (see the sidebar at the bottom of this page). In addition, ACA provides the opportunity for camp professionals to create their own online staff training package. Information is available at www.ACAcamps.org/einstitute/custom-packages.
Other trainings are also available. For example, explore what Camp Spirit (http:// campspirit.com/) and the Association of Camp Nurses (www.ACN.org) have to offer. Granted, there may be a cost associated with services such as these, but don’t pass up the opportunity to at least look at what’s available. Camp professionals no longer have to do everything themselves. Supports are out there. These options often invite a conversation to determine the best price structuring for your situation. Getting your staff in the health and safety mood before they even arrive is well worth the investment!
Presenting Health and Safety During Staff Orientation
Once staff arrive at camp, training can take a more “hands-on” approach. Orientation sessions about health and safety are often presented by various people: The camp nurse talks about health center stuff; someone gives a talk about camper developmental stages; and various activity leaders orient staff to safety practices at that activity. Some of this may be necessary, but consider making this critical learning time more effective. Challenge the “talking heads” to deliver their message in a more learner-interactive way. For example:
• Run a simulation about communicable disease by “infecting” areas around camp with a fluorescing powder, and then use a black light to determine who is infected, who is potentially contaminated, and who is “clear.” Skills associated with disease control — things like hand washing and sneezing/coughing in one’s sleeve — get kicked up a notch!
• Track staff injuries and illnesses starting when staff arrive at camp. Post the number of days without a staff injury or illness. Talk about this at staff meetings; consider building incentives into the process (e.g., ice cream party after two weeks without staff illness/injury or pizza at staff meeting after a month incident free).
• Direct supervisory staff to catch staff “doing it right” (e.g., wearing protective gear, stopping to correct an unsafe situation) by giving verbal feedback about that good practice and then writing a note that goes in the employee’s personnel file.
• Have staff draft health and safety rules for their cabin and/or activities. Then, using a tool such as the Haddon Phase- Factor Matrix (Robertson, 2007), have them figure out how to eliminate the need for some rules by changing something in the way things are done (e.g., counselor checks footwear before playing soccer; counselors change their supervision behavior to prevent camper injuries during free time; new pot holders are purchased for the enameling kiln).
• Set up scenarios around camp using situations based on the behavior grid in Coutellier’s Camp Is for the Camper (2007). Have counselors rotate from place to place and resolve the situation but also identify what could have been done to prevent the problem from arising in the first place.
• Getting key health and safety messages to “stick” in the minds of camp staff occurs when they are actively engaged (immersed) in their learning. If they can problem-solve with one another, refer to supervising staff when coaching is needed, and have a hands-on experience, they are much more likely to remember the message and express it through behavior.
Training During the Camp Season
Recall that orientation simply points people in the right direction. It’s not an exhaustive process of education, nor will people remember everything. That’s what the in-service process is for. Do not neglect this reinforcing tool! A well-designed in-service helps staff not only recall but also build their safety-mindedness and commitment to health.
Strategies to accomplish this range from routinely reviewing incidents that caused injury or illness to celebrating successes like playing “capture the flag” without incident. In-service ideas include:
• Have a camper’s parent come in and talk with staff about their expectations surrounding child care.
• Take the list of camper developmental needs — perhaps by cabin groups so the list is germane to a specific group of kids — and examine the camp schedule and activity list for ways those youth developmental needs are supported and ways the needs are frustrated or thwarted. Then discuss how to address problem areas and capitalize on the strong points.
• Give each staff member a daily camp timeline, perhaps in fifteen-minute increments, and have them write down their daily schedule, plotting the “must do” things first. Then look at the schedule to identify personal downtime and time available for other things.
• Have someone explain how staff might use camp for career development. Discuss skills being developed at camp and an explanation of artifacts (sample items) staff might use to illustrate those skills to future employers.
• Revisit health and safety with midlevel managers, especially the need for them to notice and acknowledge staff who do what they should be doing. We’re quick to comment when problems arise; how much better to also reinforce appropriate behavior!
• About midway through, assess the health and safety goals set at the season’s start. Are things on track? Any emerging hot spots? Talk about progress — or lack of it — with staff. Normalize conversations about these topics.
End-of-Season Accountability: How’d We Do?
The strategies described in this article, as well as others, have the potential to involve the entire staff in camp health and safety. Each staff member’s behavior impacts the camp’s injury-illness prof ile, the camper experience, and the staff member’s ability to do his or her job. If leadership has set things up so individuals retain responsibility for their health and safety decisions — or lack of them — then endof- season summative reviews will include evidence of that effort. The camp will, over time, see improvements not only in tangible areas like injury-illness rates, but also in attitudes and safety-mindedness. Conversations about things that go well will happen with greater frequency than those that explore negative outcomes.
Keep in mind, however, that we’re dealing with humans at camp. They’ll bleed and throw up upon occasion. We’ l l never eliminate all health and safety challenges. The wisdom lies in recognizing the times when intentional action, especially on the part of staff, makes a difference. Wisdom also lies in recognizing when the things we do control, like the schedule we give to people, the rules we ask (or don’t ask) them to follow, and the facility we provide, are the cause of problems. If the problems lie in these areas, then we have an obligation to address them.
With a bit of forethought, it’s possible for camp professionals to shape the camp experience so it promotes the health and safety of everyone. That effort is well worth the outcome.
Getting Health & Safety Messages to Stick
Sample Staff Training Schedules
Half Day (4 hours):
Full Day (7–8 hours):
American Camp Association (2011). The healthy camp study impact report 2006-2010. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.
Coutellier, Connie (2007). Camp is for the camper. Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning.
Garst, B.A., Erceg, L.E., Baird, S., & Thompson, S. (2010). Ten steps to a healthy camp. Illinois Parks and Recreation Magazine, 41(3), 20-24.
Garst, B.A., Erceg, L.E., & Walton, E. (in press). Injury and illness benchmarking and prevention for children and staff attending U.S. camps: Promising practices and policy implications. Journal of Applied Research on Children.
Papageorgiou, P., Mavromatic, G., & Kosta, G. (2006). Summer camp injuries: A tool for safety planning at the summer camp. World Leisure, 3, 54-61.
Robertson, L.S. (2007). Injury epidemiology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Chris Smith, MEd, is the director of Camp Horizons in Virginia and father of two camp-aged children. As a parent and director, his interest in health and safety at camp comes naturally.
Linda Ebner Erceg, RN, MS, PHN, is the associate director of Health & Risk Management for Concordia Language Villages and executive director of the Association of Camp Nurses in Bemidji, Minnesota.
Tracey Gaslin, PhD, CRNI, CPNP, FNP-BC, is currently the medical director at the Center for Courageous Kids. She is the president and board chair for the Association of Camp Nurses and serves on the Healthy Camp Education and Monitoring Program for ACA.
Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts
Originally published in the March/April 2014 Camping Magazine.