People are attracted to camp for great reasons… To meet people, make friends, participate in activities that they might not have available at home, and to feel more confident about meeting new challenges.
Camp directors work hard to make the pursuit of these experiences possible for their campers. It is a formidable task with many responsibilities to provide not only the exciting activities but to meet each camper's basic needs of food, shelter, medical services and a safe environment.
One of the worst nightmares for a camp director is the thought of a camper suffering a painful injury that could lead to a permanent disability or even death.
The emotional suffering that comes with these situations is terrible enough. However, the suffering doesn't end there. There can be financial consequences, especially if negligence can be demonstrated, which can literally put a camp out of business.
Ounce of Prevention
A sound risk management plan can go a long way to prevent injuries at camp and provide a camp director the peace of mind that everything possible is being done to minimize risks for campers and for the camp business.
Given the meteoric rise in medical costs and the prevailing public perception that anyone who suffers an injury during an organized activity should seek compensation for damages, a solid risk management plan for a camp business is vital.
Before we discuss how to develop a risk management plan, it is important to acknowledge that there are injuries that can occur at camp that a sound risk management plan cannot always prevent.
However, a lawsuit that is brought against a camp business must demonstrate the following four elements in order for the defendant to be found guilty of negligence:
• A duty -- In the case of a camp, a staff member was responsible to provide proper supervision to a camper
• A breach of duty -- A staff member who has neglected his/her responsibility to properly supervise a camper
• A breach that caused the injury was a direct result of the lack of supervision that the staff member owes the camper
• Damages due to the injury, which can be the medical costs to treat the injury, monetary awards for pain and suffering, legal costs and any lost wages.
Also, a sound risk management plan must account for eliminating negligent risk (the risk that should have been eliminated by a prudent professional).
A negligent risk can be indirectly associated with ignoring the issue of foreseeability, or, a reasonable anticipation of the possible results of the action or inaction.
If a pre-existing condition has the potential to impact the health and safety of the camp group and the camp staff chooses to operate without eliminating or reducing the risk of the pre-existing condition, the principle of foreseeability has been violated.
An effective risk management plan should have established guidelines for:
• Selecting/training of staff members. A job description that outlines staff member duties and responsibilities should be part of the camp documentation. This document must be prepared so that the potential employee understands his/her role within the organization. In turn, a supervisor or camp director will know what to expect in terms of their performance, and not have expectations that exceed the job description specific to the role for what the employee was hired for. Included in this description should be the specific credentials that apply to their responsibilities, which should include CPR/First Aid Certification, and certifications in specialty areas where they will be teaching, such as in-line skating, weight training and water safety.
• Emergency Plan. To insure maximum efficiency, the camp director must have an emergency response system (EMS) in place that successfully integrates the key players -- camp counselors, camp security, and the local police/fire department and/or 911 system (see Camp Business July/August, page 25).
• Participant screening/documentation for healthy participation in camp activities. Each camper must provide proof of a recent physical signed by a physician, as well as documentation of prescription drug usage, over the counter drug usage, and pre-existing conditions that could lead to catastrophic injuries or illnesses, such as food or insect allergies and asthma conditions. This information must be protected in the interest of privacy and accessible in the case of an emergency.
• Documentation of informed consent. A document should be signed by the parent or guardian that describing the risks inherent in participating in the camp activities. Even though many camps rely on waivers which "hold the camp harmless" in the case of an injury to a camper, campers and their parents can still sue the camp for being negligent. By having parents understand and appreciate the injuries that can occur at camp even if prudent safety measures are followed, the parent or guardian gives consent for campers to participate with the knowledge of these inherent risks.
• Camp activity planning/implementation. Adherence to a pre-established itinerary of daily activities for the day, night, weekend or week will ensure that all campers and staff have a responsibility to perform. Campers will appreciate the level of commitment and organization your camp has invested in their development and staff members will have clear parameters about their responsibilities. This will also ensure that any camper or staff member can be easily located throughout the day. Activities should also be planned with progressions that are developmentally appropriate for campers. Deviations from the plans set before the season begins can bring unwanted consequences. These days, you can't be quite as spontaneous as you were even ten years ago.
• Environmental and equipment safety inspections. Every camp activity should have an inspection list that must be completed before a staff member starts the activity. In the case of street hockey, overrun areas should be clear, the sticks should be examined for cracks, campers should have access to water, and if the weather is oppressively hot and humid, the staff member should be ready to adapt the activity so that longer water breaks and more substitutions are the norm.
• A visitor policy. Parents, relatives and friends should be limited to planned visits, but there are instances where visitors may need to come to camp without advance notice. Signage directing all visitors to check-in, a camp representative/security personnel to meet them, and a visitor log should be in place to monitor visitors. The problem at many camps is the laxity of control at key access points. You simply can't have people abandoning their posts, such as the camp office, for any reason (natural disasters and other emergencies aside) unless they have a backup. Poor access control not only confuses legitimate visitors, it opens the door to unwanted and perhaps dangerous visitors.
• Safety education. This should be incorporated into every camp activity. Campers should be given instruction before they venture into any activity so that they understand and appreciate what they need to do to keep the activity safe. For example, a camper who is about to swing a golf club needs to be certain that no one is near the swing path of the club. The camper must also be aware that if someone is struck in the head with a golf club, that the person could actually be killed by the blow.
• Evaluation of safety data for each camp season: logging the injuries in great detail immediately after they occur, should be part of the risk management plan. The data should also be evaluated to determine if more protective equipment should be purchased, if a facility should be retrofitted, or if a particular activity should be eliminated because of the inherent risks.
There are national safety committees that review accidents and the procedures (or lack of them) that contributed to the accidents. There are also insurance companies who have experts who can assess a camp risk management plan and who can make recommendations to make a safer camp environment. In many cases, implementing these recommendations can reduce the insurance premiums for the camp business.
Reducing injuries, increasing the sense of security of parents, campers, and staff, as well as the peace of mind that you are committed to the highest standards of professionalism at your camp can be the dividends you receive from investing in the development of a sound risk management plan.
Reducing insurance premiums, legal fees, avoiding expensive litigation, and the negative publicity that can come with these are also important justifications for developing a risk management plan.
Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 20 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College.
Craig Roderick is a certified athletic trainer, a sport venue management expert, and has extensive experience operating sports camps. He serves Endicott College as a recreation and fitness manager, athletic trainer, and adjunct professor in sport management.