Risk Management: Counselor Awareness Improves Safety

by Ed Schirick

A counselor's primary duty is to provide instruction, guidance, and supervision for campers to ensure their safety. However, counselors sometimes lose sight of this primary duty because they are overtired or become complacent as the summer wears on. When they do, the result may be accidental injuries to campers. Statistics show when counselors step out of their primary roles as supervisors and become participants injuries increase. Likewise, when campers and counselors are tired accidents increase. Taking time to heighten counselors' awareness of these causal relationships will go a long way to reducing and preventing injuries and increasing safety for everyone.

Keeping Sight of the Primary Role

Consider the following scenario and claim. One day the counselors and campers had a water balloon fight. This was an approved activity. After the game had been underway for a while, some of the campers retreated to a float on the lake. A couple of the counselors secured one of the motorboats to use in their attack. With a fresh supply of water balloons and a mobility advantage, the counselors began to pelt the campers on the float. As the counselors made one of their "bomb runs" a camper jumped off the float and into the water to avoid being "bombed." With the driver's attention diverted, everyone excited, and the counselors losing sight of their primary role, the camper was struck by the boat's propeller and seriously injured.

In retrospect, there are several problems with this situation. Why was the motorboat in use in the first place? Did the counselors violate camp rules when they took it into a swimming area? Why didn't someone recognize things were getting out of control and call a cease-fire? Counselors were not focused on their primary role. Instead, they were participating in the game, momentarily lost sight of their roles, and didn't realize where to draw the line. The camper's injuries were definitely accidental.

Watch Horseplay

Innocent counselor behavior and horseplay can also lead to camper injury. Some campers love to wrestle, be tickled, or simply twirled around to feel dizzy and silly. This kind of behavior is usually a lot of fun. However, these activities overstimulate children and can lead to actions and reactions that jeopardize safety. Horseplay is part of camp, but counselors need to be restrained and smart about how much fun is too much fun. Sometimes when campers feel out of control from horseplay, they lash out physically and may cause injury to themselves, the counselor, or another camper. An interesting fact that supports this perspective is the frequency of injuries to campers in the bunk, most of which result from horseplay. Often, the injury is a broken bone.

Sometimes these injuries occur because the campers are unsupervised or not supervised as closely during time in the bunk. This brings another important point into focus. Time in the bunk should never be unsupervised. The historical data on injuries confirms this is a time when supervision should be increased in an effort to reduce the incidence of injuries from horseplay. This situation is aggravated when counselors lose sight of their role and think this time in the bunk is time when they can relax, too.

Sports Fields Hot Spots for Injuries

Sports fields seem to be another area where counselor's accidentally injure campers when they lose sight of their role and responsibility. Soccer and basketball are two sports where nasty injuries can occur. The problem is that for a brief moment the counselor forgets where he is. He forgets the campers are smaller and not as strong as he is.

One camp experienced a claim that illustrates this point. The counselor stepped in to show campers how to make a sliding tackle during soccer instruction. He picked one of the better players to dribble the ball toward him. The camper was quick and got the ball passed the counselor making him appear clumsy. On the second try, the counselor made sure he demonstrated the technique. The only problem this time was he did it in such a way that the camper suffered a broken leg. Surely, he didn't mean to hurt the camper, but he did make more of an effort than may have been necessary. He lost sight of the difference between size and strength.

Basketball is similarly risky. The mismatch of strength, size, and aggressiveness often means a trip to the hospital emergency room for the camper. Counselors need perspective on this and constant reminders. It is appropriate to play with the campers but not to their maximum capability. Counselors should provide the necessary stimulation and challenge without being too aggressive. They must keep their cool in the face of embarrassing or frustrating moments. They should respond, not react.

Monitor the Fatigue Factor

Counselors need to realize that children become tired and hungry more quickly than adults. This may seem quite obvious to some people, but it is dangerous for us to assume every counselor realizes this. Another variation on this issue is at the beginning of camp children may or may not be physically fit for all of the activities and fun planned for them. Counselors should be alerted to these issues and encouraged to keep an eye on everyone. Counselors must take responsibility and constantly evaluate and adjust depending upon the weather, energy, activity, and dynamics of their group.

Teaching counselors how to think and respond under these changing circumstances is an important task. The frequency and severity of injuries increase when counselors and campers are fatigued. Camper injuries increase when they are encouraged to participate in activities that exceed their ability. An example of this situation occurred on a mountain biking trip outside camp. The group had a long day. It was hot and everyone was tired. Unfortunately, one of the more difficult parts of the route remained ahead. Because of poor planning and failure to evaluate the condition of campers, the trip ended with a visit to the emergency room.

Counselors should keep the fatigue factor in mind and take care to avoid planning trips and activities that overexert campers or put them at risk when they are tired. This doesn't mean you shouldn't challenge your campers, just keep their safety in mind. Remember, pushing them beyond their current level of ability bears a direct relationship to increased incidence of injury.

Accidental injuries can be reduced and prevented if counselors keep in mind their primary role of ensuring safety and respond thoughtfully. Teach them also to maintain awareness of how changing conditions and circumstances can contribute to accidental injury of campers. The video Who Will Care When I'm Not There? will help you convey your message. Plan to include it and some examples of similar claim situations in your orientation next summer. As counselors learn these skills and expand their awareness, they can make a big difference in the safety of campers.

Originally published in the 1999 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.