A group of teenage campers was participating in a team building activity that required them to solve a problem. One of their solutions to was to raise one of the smallest kids as high as they could and carry him across the field of play. In the blink of an eye (before staff had a chance to intervene) they lifted the chosen camper over their heads — and promptly dropped him on the ground. The dropped camper got back up, told the staff he was OK, and continued to participate in the activity. A week later, his irate father called the camp's director to inform them that his son had sustained a major concussion from that event, and he would be taking legal action against the camp. This was the first the director had heard of the incident.
When it comes to risk management at camp, ignorance is not bliss — because you can't fix what you don't know is broken. Failing to fully understand the scope and scale of both major and minor incidents and accidents can be detrimental to a camp's operation.
Further, a lack of good information regarding such incidents can result in camp operators and staff becoming complacent about their perceived "safety record." This can lead to poor decision-making regarding staffing, training, staff-to-participant ratios, supervision, and safety — often based on nothing more than a camp's good luck in the past.
Complacent staff may also accept operating procedures on the basis of historical adherence. "We do it that way because we have always done it that way." However, it's important to keep in mind that just because you think something hasn't happened before doesn't mean it didn't happen — particularly if there has been no documentation.
The benefits of a comprehensive incident and accident documentation plan go beyond simply keeping records of events that have occurred and include, but are not limited to:
- Identifying the causes or other underlying challenges that indicate a need to conduct or supervise an activity/area differently
- Detailing how staff should be trained
- Identifying skill sets required for staff hiring
Such a documentation plan also provides tools to:
- Identify patterns/repeat issues
- incidents occurring at the same location
- issues with the same equipment, vehicles, or animals
- similarities in rescue failures
- repeated participant behavior problems
- impacts caused by the environment (i.e., heat, wind, weather, altitude)
- issues with vendors or program providers
- Identify performance issues with staff (employees, volunteers, parents, chaperones) who are involved — specifically those incidents that repeat or otherwise indicate a need to conduct or supervise an activity/area differently
- Bring attention to "near misses"
- near-drowning events
- rescues that took too many attempts to execute
- staff members who failed to recognize/respond
- equipment failures
- gaps in emergency action plans
- Identify potential or previously unknown risks or activity variables, and make informed decisions for implementing controls in accident prevention and response
- Identify any safeguards that prevent situations from developing into major accidents
- Help camps recognize and identify where additional resources are required to reduce the number of incidents or accidents
- Create a culture of safety
Further, investing in accident and incident reporting costs far less than the expense of a major accident.
Do Sweat the Small Stuff
Reporting minor incidents and observations helps prevent more serious accidents from happening.
In many cases, serious accidents begin and develop from atypical occasions rather than the "usual" day-to-day activities. Thus they often provide little information about the possibility of future major incidents.
In contrast, the greater frequency of minor incidents can provide camps with insights into staff errors, equipment failures, and weaknesses in policies or procedures.
It is typically understood that "major incidents" — such as life-threatening accidents or whenever an ambulance has been called — need to be documented and addressed with appropriate follow-up. However, the reporting guidelines aren't always as clear-cut for frontline staff when what occurs seems routine — especially in situations that they interpret as "no big deal" or when "the camper seemed fine."
Errors in judgment often occur because frontline staff or inexperienced supervisors don't have the appropriate level of experience or knowledge when it comes to deciding whether or not they should report something. Or when a camp has focused primarily (or only) on reporting accidents that require medical care.
Incident reporting should include the "minor" incidents — including such things as equipment breakdown and transportation or facility challenges — as well as the most serious accidents, specifically including any that were near-fatal or that resulted in lifelong disabilities or death. In a comprehensive incident and accident documentation plan, nothing is "too small" to write down or report as an observation. It's better to have too much information than too little.
Document Near Misses
A long-standing camp had a fatality at their waterfront. The director shared it was the first and only time they'd had an incident of that kind in that activity. However, upon investigation of the accident, it turned out there had been multiple "near misses." Because no campers or staff were injured, no one had documented or reported those incidents to upper-level staff.
Reporting near misses is critical; it helps identify and eliminate the cause of the hazard, prevents future accidents or injuries from taking place, and can help communicate and enforce risk tolerances to staff. Further, as human error is commonly the cause of many near-miss incidents, there is an opportunity to correct or improve the situations and supervision before an actual accident occurs.
Create a Culture That Supports Reporting
Camp operators may unintentionally contribute to the problem by creating cultures or reporting systems that discourage staff from revealing/documenting incidents or accidents.
Make Risk Management an Ongoing Frontline Staff Activity
Accidents and incidents involving campers most often occur in program and living areas — typically when under the supervision of frontline staff such as cabin counselors, program staff, and activity-area supervisors. As such, risk management should be both an activity and a culture to be created throughout camp.
Train staff for their roles in managing risks throughout camp, and teach critical decision-making skills so that staff understand the importance of documentation as part of protecting participants against injury. Communicate that reporting incidents and accidents provides a way to monitor potential problems and causes as they occur and helps to provide a reminder of possible hazards. Documenting problems and causes increases the likelihood that issues will be noticed and corrected before they develop into more serious incidents.
Create a Safe Space
For staff to practice full disclosure, it's important to create a culture where they feel safe and supported in reporting everything that occurs — including when it may be something they (or one of their best buddies) were involved in. If staff are worried they are going to get in trouble for whatever occurred, they may be hesitant to report it. To encourage staff to report all incidents and accidents, including "stuff" they may consider "minor," supervisors must reward honesty and refrain from responding in ways that may discourage future engagement. In other words, don't shoot the messenger.
Creating a safe space may also include a need to revise any protocols or policies that might serve to discourage staff from documenting incidents. Camps may want to consider implementing restorative justice systems along with training supervisory staff in coaching. In this way they can create positive performance changes and use discipline as a venue for constructive conversation between staff and supervisor. This is in no way a suggestion that staff should not be held accountable for actions that violate camp policies, but rather to balance disciplinary steps related to incidents and accidents with positive remediation to promote continued reporting of such occurrences.
Make the Process Easy
With the busy nature of camp programs, it's important to make the documentation process as simple for staff to use as possible. There should be no impediments to providing information in a timely manner. When making a plan, consider such things as ease of use, timeliness in reporting, and how the process can be implemented within day-to-day operations.
Get Frontline Supervisory Staff Involved
Staff and activity area supervisors play an important role in the line of communication and can help to ensure that incidents are being reported. They should:
- Check in regularly (i.e., daily, after activities are concluded for a set time period, at the end of a work shift, etc.) with frontline staff, and ask questions designed to gain information regarding any incidents, unusual events, concerns, or needs staff may have.
- Review the daily log(s) for the program areas they supervise.
- Be present in the living and program areas on a regular basis (not only "scheduled times"). Managing-by-walking-around is one of the best risk-management strategies you can implement. It allows supervisory staff to observe frontline staff and campers in real time and observe how staff recognize or respond to hazards, enforce rules, respond to interactions between staff/campers, and supervise activities.
- Conduct in-service training.
Additionally, camps are encouraged to seek guidance from their legal counsel, insurance provider, and other professionals or regulatory organizations as applicable to their specific operation.
For more information, check out these American Camp Association (ACA) resources:
- ACA's Accident/Incident Report Form — ACAbookstore.org/accident-incident-report-form
- "Risk Management: Write Right! Documenting Camp Incidents," by Linda Ebner Erceg, RN, MS, PHN — ACAcamps.org/article/camping-magazine/risk-management-write-right-documenting-camp-incidents
Photo courtesy Bowers School Farm, Bloominfield Hills, MI
Diane Tyrrell, MA Ed, CCD, has over 35 years professional experience working within the camp, youth development, and education fields with for-profit and nonprofit camps and organizations. Diane is the CEO of Frog Pond Consulting, providing integrated solutions to help meet ever-changing marketplace challenges for universities, private schools, camps, recreation, and nonprofit organizations. She also provides advisory and professional services for insurance and legal professionals. Reach her at email@example.com.