Just How Much Safety Equipment Is Really Appropriate To Carry? [41]

A Commercial Operators View

By Wayne Langmaid (Ocean Planet and Central Coast Kayak Tours)

I must thank Nick Gill for the opportunity to respond to this question from both my personal and our company’s point of view.

In fact I am surprised that no one to date has ever come to us for suggestions on this.

Our company guides and leads groups full time on trips ranging from day tours to overseas expeditions. This is our life, not just an occasional weekend pastime. Over the past five years, we have had over 5,000 people on our guided tours and tuition programs.

I personally have paddled for over 30 years, completing expedition paddles ranging from the Canadian Arctic, West Coast Canada, Australia and South America.

Our business operates according to an Operation Manual that is over 100 pages in length – 45 of which are devoted to analysis of risk & safety management and practice in our operations and trip locations. We have invested much time, consideration, introspection, effort and expense in this.

I think that we have a reasonable amount of background to back up what we believe. Of course, as usual, this is only one other opinion. It is an opinion based, I believe, on logic with a good background on which to base those opinions.

Interestingly, the requirements to date have been pretty loose as to what commercial operators “had” to carry. We have always carried EPIRBS, VHF radios, sea dye marker, flares, strobes, signal mirrors, spare clothing, spare water, spare food, spare sunscreen, comprehensive first aid kits, repair kits, maintained first aid certifications, etc.

We have not done this due to any legal or statutory requirement.

We simply have because we have a responsibility to the people under our care to do so. It is the right thing to do. Soon there will be a series of requirements that we have to comply with. This affects our operation not in the slightest as we have complied well and beyond those requirements for years.

My personal philosophy is this – carry as much safety equipment as you possibly can, and then never make any paddling decision based on the fact that you have that equipment.

The equipment is life insurance. Life insurance of the best kind – one that pays off by keeping you alive, not paying off after you are dead.

Even more important than the safety equipment is this: the trip leaders should have a good grasp of risk and safety management principles behind their decision making processes which allows them to plan and lead trips which minimize the need for that safety equipment to ever be used.

Any safety strategy should be much like the layers of an onion. There should be no single point of failure in your system of defense that would result in death or serious injury to your client.

Consider this — in the event of an accident, the legal industry might well go looking for an industry model or standard. While it might be easy to say at the moment that there is no requirement for a club to keep the same safety precautions as say a commercial organisation does – just what is exactly the line of separation and how distinct does that come in a court of law with skilled legal technicians?

Any trip leader has to ask his or herself this:

  • do you want to be to be seen to be not taking advantage of all practical precautions that are possibly at your disposal?
  • are you then prepared to leave the interpretation of why you did not take those precautions in the hands of a court of law?
  • are you then prepared to have a QC ask you why you did not bother to take that equipment with you when the body of literature available today suggests that you should have?

I would also believe that in a case of death or where negligence was suggested then the courts would look to club and industry standards not only here in Australia but in the rest of the world. We are a global community. The lawyers will find experts.

There are some serious personal, ethical, moral and legal responsibilities here. As a tour leader/organiser or whatever name you choose to use – you have a duty of care to those individuals in your group if you are passing yourself off as the personal with the ‘expert’ or greatest knowledge.

Simply stated this condition could exist in a group of friends. If you are proven to have been negligent then you could be just as liable in a group of friends and as a club or commercial organisation.

I think though that being overtly concerned about being sued is missing the point.

We carry insurance in case we are sued. That is the insurance companies job to cover us for those instances. I do not lose any sleep over financial loss – that is what the insurance is there for. It is there to protect the client, my employees, my company AND myself.

What is more important is that people look at their moral and ethical responsibilities when leading a group.

Picture this – as you lay in bed at night and the envelop of darkness surrounds you. All you now have is a lot of time to think. There you lay wondering, ‘What if? What if? Maybe, just maybe, I did have that VHF. Maybe I could have radioed for help.’ And then maybe, just maybe, you would not have had to explain to a surviving member of a deceased persons family just why you didn’t because you were a minimalist and you thought that by having it that it took something away from your personal paddling experience.