The Dirty Dozen

By Rick Braschler

Just as quickly as the summer camp season began, it ended—only to be relived over and over in the stories and pictures filling conversations and flooding social media. The echoing sound of children’s laughter and the smell of campfires have been replaced by the roar of chainsaws and the smell of fresh paint. This is the season of new projects and renovations, and the fading calendar does not favor the slow starter.

Camp-maintenance projects often run their course dictated by some unusual factors, such as the availability and skill level of volunteer labor, adverse weather conditions, accessibility to remote locations, and the timing of donor funding, just to name a few. Regardless of the path or circumstances, the end product is critical to a successful camp season. However, a by-product of such factors can often result in unintended consequences, with injuries to staff or campers topping the undesired list. Therefore, as your projects press on toward that certain deadline in the spring, here are 12 safety issues to avoid what I call “The Dirty Dozen.”

Nails Vs. Screws
“OUCH!” is the term most commonly used by people when coming into contact with a nail sticking out of a deck a half inch or so. Invariably, the winter freeze and thaw will back out the nails over time, creating a maintenance demand that requires a small army of people to keep up with it. It is simply impossible to check every nail in every board throughout camp before camp starts. It really comes down to this—should you spend the extra time and money needed to secure the boards with screws rather than nails? Absolutely YES! It’s a good investment, and the lack of visits to your nurse’s station next summer will be your—and their—reward.

Don’t Lose ‘Em, Reuse ‘Em
How many camp sessions does it take to find dropped nails or screws after a winter construction project? Roughly, about two to three terms, and usually in the bottom of a camper’s foot. Whether it’s a staff member, volunteer staff, or contract laborer, dropping nails or screws on a construction site is simply part of the reality. But a handy nail magnet pushed around the construction zone can change the outcome and make for some happy campers and staff next summer. Google “roofing nail magnets” and buy one today; you’ll recoup the cost over time simply by recycling lost hardware.

Slip-Slidin’ Away
Slipping is the most frequent cause of injury that camps incur on a yearly basis. And while it can be argued that some people simply don’t pay attention to where they’re walking, let’s just focus on what we can control. Slipping injuries often stem from wet surfaces, gravel-covered surfaces, large rocks, sloping walkways, and tree roots. Here are a few causes, effects, and remedies:

Wet wood--Super-slippery when wet--Apply non-skid tape or sand-paint before it ages

Gravel on pavement--Super-unstable--Sweep off gravel; apply barriers to prevent spill over

Sloping walkways--Downhill momentum--Install longer steps and backfill to even out walkway

Tree roots--Sprang up—surprise!--Pour gravel or mulch over top to hide the tree root

This is number one on America’s Most Wanted in camp safety! I get it—it’s a cheap, easily accessible, and generally a user-friendly piece of anchoring hardware. But it never stays in the railroad tie as intended, and is often forgotten when used on other projects, from landscaping to securing steps to pouring footings. Protruding rebar can mess up feet and ankles, not to mention the damage if someone falls on one. Always cap off rebar when using it for landscaping or construction projects, then remove it upon completion of the project. And, if used to anchor railroad ties, I recommend drilling a hole into the tie to keep the rebar intact.

Railroad-Tie Mania
Railroad ties are undoubtedly the most-used piece of building material in the entire industry, probably due to its durability, availability, and low cost. I’ve seen camps use ties for retaining walls, stairs, landscaping, challenge courses, and benches. Nevertheless, as useful as ties are, they don’t come without some challenges. Railroad ties are treated with a toxic stew of chemicals, the primary being creosote, a possible human carcinogen, and extremely flammable. In addition, when wet, these chemicals make the tie extremely hazardous for slipping. Camps should use caution in the placement and use of railroad ties to prevent fires and injuries. I recommend securing railroad ties by drilling internal holes rather than external braces, as well as topping with some type of non-skid product to reduce slips. By the way—campers love to walk on railroad ties.

All Bottled Up
Camps are typically a long way from civilization, which makes them ideal for guests to get away from it all.  However, this distance also means that camp staff members often have to make do with what they have. Enter the squirt bottle! Squirt bottles are often used all over camp for kitchen fluids, engine fluids, first-aid fluids, and many others. I even saw one time when a ketchup squirt bottle was being used for lighter fluid. The challenge for maintenance teams is to ensure that every bottle in camp has a label, is used only for the fluid on the label, and is NEVER used for any other fluid, even for a one-time use. When camp begins and new staff members arrive, they may very well use that ketchup bottle for something like, I don’t know, KETCHUP! Label all squirt and spray bottles, and ensure that previous bottles do not have any cross-contamination issues that may result in injury or an adverse chemical reaction.

Tree TLC
We could spend the entire article discussing the risks of tree failures and injury potential, but let’s focus on tree outcomes directly related to maintenance tasks. Dead trees or limbs are not always the result of simple old age, but oftentimes a lack of some TLC (tender loving care), falling victim to the unintended consequences of maintenance tasks. Tree roots extend to the drip line of a tree, or in other words, out to the same length as the limbs.  Therefore, any damage done within that drip line can cause irreparable damage—or even early death—to the tree. For instance, to repeatedly drive over tree roots may damage root systems, thus lessening the life span of the tree. Also, to cut into the root system on either side of a tree when installing landscape, sidewalks, footings, etc., may lessen the intake of nutrients, and may result in crown die-off and other tree health issues. While injuries from tree and limb failures may be rare in comparison to other threats, they do occur and can cause serious to fatal outcomes. Give trees some TLC, and you’ll help to extend the life of these shady giants.

What if … ?
“What if”are perhaps the two most dangerous words in the human language.  Why? Because what comes after these two words often ends up on Youtube or AFV and includes some pain and agony. For example: What if I poured pool shock into the chlorine tube to save time? What if I tied a rope around my waist and someone held the other end so I could clean out the gutters? What if I ran an extension cord along the walkway and onto the dock to run lighting or sound equipment? It’s not that these two words are inherently bad, but they must be coupled with other considerations in order to have successful outcomes. These other considerations come in the form of training and certifications that add knowledge and wisdom to the recipe. I recommend that maintenance personnel receive some foundational training, such as OSHA 10- or 30-hour in General Construction, Pool Certification training, Water Quality training, and Pesticide training to name a few.

A + B = C  
“Dangerous concoction” is the phrase that comes to mind, and it’s usually unintentional. In the world of camp maintenance, the convergence of multiple industry sectors presents challenges often not fully understood. Here are some common “concoctions” that might spell disaster to camp facilities and people:

Brake fluid/Engine oil + Chlorine = Explosion and/or fire

9-volt batteries + Steel wool = Sparks and fire

Chlorine + Muriatic acid = Toxic gas cloud

Vinegar + Bleach = Toxic gas cloud

Unleaded gas + Diesel gas = Failed motor

Exposed copper wire + Water = Electrocution

Peas and Carrots—NOT!
Water and electricity will never go together like peas and carrots, ever! These are the two hardest elements to work with and control. To compound the problem, the camp experience is filled with water and electricity in many settings that present some unusual challenges. To address this issue, I recommend some emphasis in two areas: Proper grounding and Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs). Proper grounding is especially important around pools and bath houses, where the presence of water, electricity, and people are constant. In the absence of well-grounded wires, lightning strikes, loose wiring, or power surges can easily find their way into pool areas or shower fixtures. Likewise, the use of GFCIs in key areas helps reduce the risk of electricity in common camp areas, such as bathroom outlets, dock-front power outlets, and the use of generators. In the absence of a GFCI, electricity will not automatically shut off should water come into contact with exposed copper wires in an extension cord, or exposure to a hair dryer or curling iron.

Back It Up
Arguably, if the “reverse” gear on all camp and guest vehicles could be removed, we would virtually wipe out car accidents in camp. It almost seems as though, when the reverse light appears, all vehicles, people, animals and stationary objects, such as light poles, simply disappear from the driver’s view. It’s a conspiracy, I’m sure! Nevertheless, the best offense, well, is to have a good offense. Take the initiative to create “drive through” spaces that do not require people to have to back up hundreds of times per day. If impossible to do so, clear enough space to provide adequate turns so drivers do not have to navigate around 10 dead trees, two propane tanks, three pieces of rebar, seven railroad ties, six nails, one squirt bottle, a playground, and an electrical pole just to back out of a parking space.

Safe For Kids And Moms Like It, Too
Toddlers are a common sight in and around many camp facilities across the country. Although most programs do not include these youngsters, they tag along during changeover days, or belong to directors, staff members, visitors, or volunteers. While it’s great to see these future campers bouncing around the property, they do present some safety challenges in two particular areas:  deck railings and playgrounds. I often see split-rail or single hand-rail applications around the camping world, even in elevated deck settings. These types of rails leave significant gaps where toddlers can easily pass through and risk falling from significant heights. To remedy this, I recommend installing 42-inch rail heights with spindles or planks with no more than a 4-inch gap for spacing. Playground equipment presents similar risks and requires adequate railing on elevated landings, sufficient ground cover for fall protection, and appropriate spacing of elements to provide adequate fall zones. All of these details can be found in the federal guidelines for playground safety found at

Mom always said, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.” Looking back, I guess I shouldn’t have chuckled under my breath, now knowing the gravity of that statement, especially as it relates directly to my field-maintenance staff. Nevertheless, I hope that the careful avoidance of the Dirty Dozen will launch your 2017 camp season to a great start with no regrets. 

Rick Braschler is the Director of Risk Management for Kanakuk Kamps in Branson, Mo., a Senior Risk Consultant in Youth Protection, and an expert in camp risk and safety management. Reach him at or (417) 266-3337.  For more information about Rick, visit