The sport of orienteering and safety – the debate

The following article was written by myself and son Laurence and was published in the orienteering journal CompassSport with whose permission it is reproduced here.

The article originated from a blog which appeared after the last minute cancellation of an orienteering event in 2012. The blog contained some contrasting views about the cancellation e.g.

Safety at events is a matter for officials and not individuals.

Anyone unwilling to take responsibility for their own safety should not come to my events.

The last minute-cancelation of Southampton Orienteering Club’s 2012 ‘November Classic’ after heavy rain prompted a lengthy online debate during which many viewpoints were expressed. The cancellation resulted primarily from genuine concerns about the risk associated with crossing a swollen brook. What interests us here is not the decision by SOC, but the ensuing debate. Our curiosity is heightened because we both work in the risk field and the issues raised by orienteers, like those italicised above, reflect a wider ongoing debate about health and safety (H&S) and public life.

In this example the primary contest is seemingly represented by just two viewpoints. One is largely supportive of the impact of new H&S procedures on the sport (e.g. safety should always have priority), whereas the other is doubtful if not alarmed (e.g. O is becoming a health and safety-driven sport and is more prone to cancellation). In the following Table we have paraphrased the sentiments expressed, with the left column containing those inherently supportive of H&S initiatives and the right column somehow questioning their appropriateness.

Accepting Questioning
Safety always takes priority O by its nature is a challenging and risky sportCompetitors know this and expect to face hazards continuously and should accept participation at their own risk
Accidents are foreseeable and need to be tackled Some accidents are inevitable
The sport has changed in many ways, mainly for the better O is turning into a health and safety driven sportCancellation of events is more likely than it used to be
The primary safety mechanism is the management of the eventCompetitors should only take responsibility for small risks What keeps you safe is your own common senseIf management is seen as creating a hazard-free environment competitors may compensate by taking more risks
Written rules and protocols are beneficial Proliferation of written rules and guidance can undermine safety in specific situations
Safety at events is a matter for officials and not individual participants Anyone unwilling to take responsibility for their own safety should not come to my events
Risk assessments are fit for purpose New risk assessment procedures are problematic
Event officials should not be questioned on decisions Decisions may be questioned
Liability has to be considered Liability is a secondary issue

From this summary a familiar situation emerges. The views in the left column fit well with standard H&S beliefs as held in the workplace environment, from whence the beliefs largely originate. In those industrial settings the general and arguably worthy aim has become one of minimising risk of injury. Those on the right, however, are more akin to views of people who organise public events including adventure sports, or run venues open to the public including parks, forests, wilderness areas, waterways, sites of cultural heritage, seaside locations and the like.

Temperatures rise in situations where exponents of workplace-originated H&S procedures, including risk assessment and management systems, maintain that their primary goal of minimising risk should necessarily hold sway in beyond-the-workplace settings, say, adventure sports and sites of cultural heritage, and that industry methods of assessing and managing risk are universally applicable, regardless of the location or activity. Temperatures may rise further when this is justified by statements such as ‘safety is paramount.’

Understandable though the pro-safety position is, for who wants to be cavalier about injuries, a counterpoint is now being made by many agencies dealing with these kinds of more public activities. This is that safety (from injury) is but one of many legitimate goals and that it should be a matter of policy which is paramount. But what are these other goals? Examples given include: the opportunity to have fun; to experience challenge and risk; the pursuit of health, whether physical, emotional or social, through leisure pursuits; the preservation of sites of natural beauty or cultural heritage without alteration; and, above all, the freedom to choose what one does subject to one’s own common sense decisions.

While sympathetic to the pro- H&S position which is largely appropriate in its traditional settings e.g. industry, when it comes to public life we nonetheless cannot help gravitating towards the position of those seeking to maintain a balance between managing the risk of injury, and the other goals of promoting health-giving and resilience-building activities like adventure sports, and public life more generally.

Many organisations are now taking this debate forward as a matter of some urgency. The reason is that to accept unconditionally the injury-minimisation perspective leads into a cul de sac, one which will remorselessly seek to eradicate any safety hazards, and which does not contemplate that exposure to hazards may be unavoidable or, in some cases, even desirable, or that injury prevention measures may have unintended consequences.

From our experience we have found that the debate is driven by the following counter-beliefs, which we here adapt to the context of orienteering:
• The benefits of O, physical mental and social, are legion and need to be recognised and promoted
• Safety from injury is not automatically paramount and needs to be considered as one of a number of goals
• Adventure sports, including O, present risks of injury to all participants however managed
• In many sports and leisure activities exposure to risk is an integral part of the activity
• Risk exposure cannot be assumed to be undesirable
• Formal risk assessment of sports like O is very subjective, driven by undisclosed value judgements, and of uncertain benefit
• The main determinant of competitor safety is not some imposed management system but the competitor
• Competitors who think an event is ‘safe’ because of some imposed system may endanger themselves
• Participants in adventure sports do so because of the perceived benefits, including health, and the chance to confront challenge
• Risk assessment protocols which ignore benefits need to be reformulated

This sport can never be safe from injury
This sport can never be safe from injury

Fellow orienteers might also like to try an experiment. Next time you are out on a course, try consciously thinking about how your brain is handling the endless stream of hazards, from trip hazards to slopes and overhanging branches, with which you are confronted. You will soon tire of this, but may find, with some relief, that your brain is automatically carrying out its own risk assessments during every step you take, a process which has been learnt from day one of your life and may even reside in your genes. Perhaps the ultimate question, seldom asked, is to what extent and in what ways does the current paper-driven approach augment this innate process?