The irish scouter is aware of a ‘Safety Statement’ the result of what has presumably been an exhaustive analysis of the topic of Health & Safety, risk assessment and associated subject matter. It explores and seeks to place a framework around the role of Health & Safety in the context of Scouting, in particular in the context of local Scouting in the community. It runs to more than 30 pages, a weighty tome but nonetheless has, it is understood, been approved for onward circulation to the membership.
COMMON SENSE IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY
No reasonable person would deny that when it comes to undertaking the wide-ranging, diverse activities that Scouting does, common sense is required. This is all the more important when a large number of variables are at play; the type of equipment needed for many Scouting activities, the number of people involved, the wide range of ages, capabilities, skill levels and locations.
When a typical Scout camp merges a group of enthusiastic, high-spirited young people with tools such as knives, felling axes, gas cannisters, heavy wooden poles, potentially flammable tentage (and often all happening in a remote location and usually close to a river or lake), it is easy to see the risks involved.
At local level, most Scout dens are a hive of activity six or seven nights a week, with vast numbers of people coming through and using the building for a wide variety of activities. Scout engineering happens within hours of painting, baking, cooking. Games involving water, paper, furniture, balls, ropes all occur, sometimes at a hectic pace. From time to time it is perhaps inevitable that a blob of paint from the Beaver Scout meeting gets overlooked or a stray coil of rope from Scout engineering practice escapes the return to storage.
Many Scout dens are venerable buildings run by volunteers where a cracked window, loose screw or slightly wonky chair might sometimes stay around a little longer than might be the case in a corporate environment.
All of this does seem to suggest that the application of common sense, when it comes to Scouting, is prudent and advisable. It’s consequently something of a relief to remember therefore, that one of the key things that Scouting tends to instil in its members young and old, is the fine-tuning of and a healthy appreciation for common sense.
The type of young person who typically gets involved in Scouting is someone for whom adventure and excitement is important, but they also have a tendency to be smart enough most of the time to understand that, with every adventure comes some smart moves in preparation that, in essence amount to a risk assessment and include steps to reduce that risk to a minimum.
Of course in Scouting we have tended not to articulate it in this fashion we have simply shortened it to ‘Be Prepared’.
It might manifest itself as the route card for a night hike and the accompanying rucksack containing raingear, hot drink, map, torch, whistle, first aid kit, emergency rations. It might reflect itself in the attire for the activity; layered clothing to regulate body heat, stout boots to cope with uneven mountain trails, carefully packed bag to distribute weight evenly for comfort.
The adults who tend to volunteer in Scouting are, in the experience of the irish scouter, equally tuned in. It could be argued that anyone who even contemplates the care of other people’s children in their own (unpaid) spare time, with bringing education, development and fun to young people in mind, is already of a disposition that will ensure safety and common sense are the first item on their agenda.
HOSPITAL OR SCOUT DEN?
None of this rules out the potential usefulness of a simple set of guidelines, preferably on one page, that set out some Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts around Health & Safety, especially to orientate new Scouters.
However, the document that the National Management Committee of Scouting Ireland has apparently signed off arguably achieves the feat of simultaneously complicating the issue and intimidating the reader, to no obvious advantage.
The 38-page document, entitled ‘Safety Statement’ seeks to bring the complexity of running a large hospital, airport or other major infrastructural entity to the local scout den. It’s a professional document, clearly written by professionals who work in the field of Health & Safety. Indeed a cynic might conclude that it has borrowed a little too heavily from a copy of a similar ‘statement’ from a hospital, airport or similar, given some of the terminology used.
The trouble is, in the same way that a professional photographer see’s a great shot in every glance and a chef see’s a great dish where the rest of us see a pile of apparently unrelated ingredients, the Health & Safety professional see’s accidents, mayhem and catastrophe everywhere they look.
Every learning opportunity is a risk. Every fun activity is an ‘accident waiting to happen’. Each moment a young person undertakes something without adult supervision is a step closer to ‘disaster’. Every building is a ‘potential death trap’, every camp is a ‘possible calamity’.
Health & Safety ‘jobsworths’ provide a rich vein of material for comedians these days, but behind the jokes there is a serious point. The single biggest potential threat to Scouting, and volunteering generally is likely to come from an increasing, largely unnecessary obsession with Health & Safety and a tame willingness to accept the Worldview of people who are trained to be pessimistic, risk averse and reluctant to act on anything, lest it result in an accident. Put simply, volunteers intimidated and wary of the blame game should something happen, will start undertaking a risk assessment of their own and will withdraw their involvement, if Scouting continues along this trajectory.
There is a role for Government to step in and curb the bureaucratic and overly litigious health & safety quagmire that Ireland has stumbled into in recent years. An entire industry of doomsayers has tightened its grip on the country, arguably adding cost, complexity and congestion, where previously common-sense had a role. Scouting is a part of society and needs to recognize changing circumstances, but there is a role for balance and careful calibration to ensure a measured approach and a workable set of criteria.
The question therefore needs to be asked, why is the leadership of Scouting Ireland signing off on such a complex document?
It is hard to see this particular version of the ‘Safety Statement’ document as anything other than a step towards setting up local scouters for a fall (no pun intended), in the event of an accident in their group.
The document (using copious amounts of banal corporate-speak) sets out to apportion ‘responsibility’ (blame) in the event of an accident. It’s not a surprise to see that the local volunteers will bear the brunt of this ‘responsibility’. Whilst the ‘National Management Committee’ is also listed as responsible throughout the document, it does not require a great deal of imagination to envisage that, in the event of an accident, it will take a bureaucrat from National Office just a couple of moments in a local group to establish that some ‘procedure’ has not been followed and thus the group and a specific scouter (or scouters) is to blame for whatever misfortune has occurred.
The document rambles on for 38 pages, yet says little that a ‘lay person’ would understand. For example, it refers to ‘contractors’ (?), ‘management’ (?) ‘controls’, etc. How many scout groups have ‘contractors’ on site, even on an irregular basis? Who are the ‘management’? Perhaps this means ‘volunteer scouters’? If so, why not say it?
It talks about reducing risk to ‘a tolerable level’ (what does that mean? Who decides what is ‘tolerable’?). Updates to the ‘safety statement’ will come to the groups via the ‘PSO’s’ (Provincial Support Officers). Is this another example of (volunteer) County Commissioners being bypassed in the corporatization of Scouting and more paperwork for (volunteer) Group Leaders.
The document, like much recent policy from Scouting Ireland, appears to be written with the lowest common denominator in mind. Ironically, this wave of pen-pushing and paperwork, designed in part to tackle deficiencies in a small number of poorly-run scout groups, will clobber better run groups (who are the vast majority) with more bureaucracy, whilst the groups for whom the document was primarily written, will be unable to react to it or will simply ignore it.
It feels like yet another step towards the centralization of power in Scouting Ireland, whilst the accountability is handily dispersed down to the local community volunteers.
The National Management Committee of Scouting Ireland should think again about approving this document. Some of the thinking within is of potential use to a volunteer scouter. Most is corporate management-speak that has no place in a community entity.
The document should be cut from thirty-eight pages to a one-page checklist and a simple, friendly statement that goes on the wall in the Scout den. It should be a guideline document to encourage better practices, not an unwieldy manual that will only be consulted on the rare occasion when something actually does go wrong.
Perhaps good practices and common sense could become programme ideas too? (some would say they already are). What young person will read a 38 page Safety Statement? Surely youth members as the driving force of Scouting should be the focus of simple, easy to understand, easy to implement safety tips, not ‘management’?
Common sense needs to prevail here. It has stood Scouting in good stead for over a century. It has served humanity well for a lot longer.
The alternative is the risk of gradual paralysis as scouters shy away from undertaking activities due to the risks involved. Many will just give up altogether. Youth participation will be severely impacted. The programme we deliver will be the poorer for it – have the Health & Safety guys undertaken a risk analysis on that scenario?
Group Leaders should be prepared….