Risk Management: Develop an Attitude About Safety

by Ed Schirick

Dear Camp Counselor:
I am very interested in you and in your ability to do your job properly this summer. I want you to succeed and so does your camp director. Your director has asked me to share some of my risk management knowledge with you and emphasize that your success this summer depends on developing an attitude about safety!

The primary responsibility you have as a camp counselor this summer is to supervise the children the camp director has entrusted to you. You are to ensure that each of them has a safe and enjoyable summer. The camp director selected you because you have certain skills, abilities, knowledge, or experience that the director believes will cause you to succeed at this task. But sometimes it is very easy to lose sight of your primary goal. So in addition to developing an attitude about safety, you must concentrate and stay focused on your supervisory role.

Top Ten Safety Priorities

To help you build safety awareness at camp this summer, here is a list of the top ten safety priorities you should remember.

#1 Get to know your campers and be sensitive to their issues and needs.
Your campers come from various backgrounds and circumstances. Each has a set of expectations, and each brings unique issues with them. Some are gifted athletes. Most are at various stages of developing into adolescence and young adulthood. Some campers will have behavioral problems or health and special dietary needs. You need to know which campers have allergies to bee stings and what to do if the camper is stung. You need to know who needs to go to the health center to take daily medications. The director or the camp nurse will provide you with this kind of information. Remember whatever you learn about a camper in these areas is confidential.

#2 Enforce the rules and guidelines of the camp community reasonably, equitably, and consistently.
You will receive training during orientation. You will get a handbook, which outlines the rules and guidelines of the camp community. Pay attention, listen, ask questions, and take the time to understand. It is important that you know what to do, when to do it, and why. Yours, a camper's, or a fellow counselor's safety may depend on your ability to know what to do and what to avoid. Part of developing an attitude about safety involves following the rules. Think! If you are uncertain and you are in a situation requiring that you use your judgement, make the decision that puts safety first.

#3 Act within your authority and refer all matters outside of your authority to the head counselor or director.
This chain of command is important because it is one of the links that helps ensure the safety and well being of the campers. If you are uncertain, ask questions, don't make assumptions.

#4 Be aware that after a busy school year, campers may or may not be physically fit for the activities you have planned for them.
Campers come in various shapes, sizes, and ability levels. Constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the activities you are leading and monitor the condition of your campers. Make sure water is always available and that you give breaks for water and shade as needed. Injuries increase when campers and counselors are fatigued and when campers are encouraged to participate in activities that exceed their ability. This is not to say you shouldn't challenge campers to improve their abilities, just that pushing them beyond their current abilities can lead to injuries.

#5 Pay attention around water activities.
Lifeguards are specially trained to augment safety and provide rescue capability if needed, but safety at the waterfront or in the pool is still your responsibility. This is not the time to take a break or relax and let the lifeguards handle things. It is a time to stay focused.

#6 Pay special attention to nonswimmers.
Some camps require all nonswimmers to be in a personal flotation device (PFD) when at the waterfront or pool. Whatever your camp's policy is in this regard, keep an eye on nonswimmers. Unfortunately, children drown every summer. Lend your eyes to the watchful eyes of the lifeguards to prevent a camper in your care or anyone at your camp from drowning this summer.

#7 Make sure you and the campers wear PFDs when boating.
This safety priority is an ACA standard, and a practice that should be rigidly enforced whether you are water-skiing on the lake or floating down a calm stretch of river in a raft or canoe. Remember, you are a role model for campers whether or not you want to be. Campers will imitate your behavior. Wearing a PFD and using the appropriate safety equipment shows your attitude about safety and will send a message to your campers about it as well.

#8 If one of your jobs as a counselor is to drive campers in a van, please remember that the van is not your family car.
Vans are longer, wider, slower, and higher and drive very differently than the vehicle you drive at home or at school. Van accidents occur every summer because counselors don't realize this.

In addition, rural roads are very different than highways, freeways, or city streets. Rural roads are often crowned, higher in the middle than on the sides, which can cause the vehicle to steer to the right. Rural roads are often more narrow and have soft shoulders.

Accidents with camp vans occur every summer when a van is driven too fast for the road conditions or when a wheel gets onto a soft shoulder, causing the driver to overcorrect or run off the road. Vans handle and respond one way when empty and another way when full of campers and equipment. If you are a driver, take your time, leave a little early, and drive at speeds appropriate for the road conditions, which aren't always the same as the posted speed limit. Don't speed!

The rate of accidents at intersections is also higher for camp vans. The primary reason for this seems to be that the driver misjudges the timing of turns across oncoming traffic. Often, drivers fail to realize the limitations of the vehicle.

#9 Please wear your seatbelt, and make sure everyone in the van is wearing their seatbelt.
The risk of passenger ejection, serious injury, and death is real in van accidents when the passengers are not in seatbelts. Remember your attitude about safety! And if you are a passenger, try to remind the driver about safety issues when you think it is necessary.

#10 On your time off, do not drink and drive.
Almost every summer, at least one tragedy occurs involving camp counselors and alcohol on their day off. I don't want to moralize about this, but your behavior and attitude about your personal safety is important, too. Consider another issue about drinking. If you have a good time on your day off and have too much to drink, will you be able to perform your duties the next day? Will you be able to be attentive at the waterfront or behind the wheel of the van or at any other activity where campers are exposed to risks of injury and are depending upon you? So, please think twice about alcohol this summer.

Safety Is Everyone's Responsibility

Safety at camp is everyone's responsibility. Having the right attitude about safety starts with the camp director, but implementing and executing the safety plan is your responsibility. Developing an attitude about safety that ensures the well being of campers this summer is a challenge. But the reward is sweet. I hope you have the greatest and safest summer ever!

Originally published in the 1999 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.