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Assessing Risk is Not Limited to Workplace

- February 7, 2018 by Tom Jolliff, ARM, ALCM (View all posts by Tom)

In the winter of 2015, I began preparation to hike a section of the Oregon Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The plan was to start at the Santiam Pass Trailhead and, eight days later, finish at Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood (a little over a 100 miles).

Even now, after three years have passed, I still wonder what I was thinking!

For an experienced hiker, this section of the PCT is not a difficult hike; but, I was not seasoned by any stretch of the imagination. As each month leading up to the hike peeled away, I became more and more anxious. I did exhaustive research, read an entire book (twice) on the PCT, and made numerous trips to REI to make sure I had everything necessary to ensure a safe, successful hike. I am, after all, a safety geek.

If nothing else, I was book smart.

When the day of our hike arrived, we gathered at the trailhead, lifted our backpacks onto our backs, posed for a PCT group picture, and stepped on to the dusty (often rocky) trail. As the parking lot grew smaller and smaller in the distance, all I could keep thinking was, “This is really happening!”

I was confident that I had prepared for an injury-free hike. My boots were broken in; I had purchased hiking socks that “guaranteed” no blisters, and I had packed an ample supply of food. By the end of the first day (30,000 steps later), I already had a list of lessons learned running through my head. The recurring thought being, “You should have asked more questions at REI.”

Risk management/safety professionals never really get away from assessing risk. Our daily walk through life is consumed by thoughts of how safe (or unsafe) something looks, or how can we reduce the frequency, likelihood or severity of a task.

I thought about all of those things a lot on my hike.

We walked seven to eight hours each day (10-13 miles on average), which provided a lot of time to think about “stuff”. Each new day, I encountered something that made me a smarter hiker for the next day. Example: You might get a nose bleed at elevation, so keep Kleenex or toilet paper in your tent. I learned this lesson on Day Three, at 3:30 a.m., as I scrambled out of my tent to find my backpack, which held my toilet paper. After I got my nose bleed stopped, all I could think about was “I wonder if bears can smell blood?”

Having survived the hike ( sort of), I wanted to share my lessons learned as it relates to preplanning jobs or completing a job hazard analysis in the business world. Here’s my top five list of what I learned on the PCT:

  1. When planning to complete a new or unfamiliar task, ask lots of questions from various experienced sources. If you are still unsure, keep asking questions. If you are still unsure, ask some more.
  2. When buying personal protective equipment (i.e. socks that won’t cause blisters), have a back-up plan if that PPE is not the right one. One size or type does not fit all.
  3. When purchasing tools from a vendor, make sure they understand what you need. I bought a water filter straw (good for drinking out of a stream or pond); however, what I needed was a gravity-fed water filter that I could use to fill my camelback, and extra water bottles every day. Note,this was my biggest mistake, and it still makes me laugh.
  4. When choosing footwear, consider all environments you’ll be walking in. The books I read recommended bringing sandals to wear at the end of each day. Great idea if you’re at the beach; not so great for walking in dusty, dirty campgrounds, or traversing the rocky edge of a lake or pond. Take light-weight tennis shoes instead. My second biggest mistake!
  5. The final lesson addresses first aid and emergency preparedness. I had a false sense of security about my “guaranteed” no blister socks, so I packed a small first-aid kit, which had exactly six band aids. Truth be known, I seriously thought I would not get blisters at all. Well, by day two all my band aids were gone and I was mooching first-aid supplies from my friends. By the end of day four, when I had to end my hike, my left pinky toe resembled a squished cherry tomato, and both feet were swollen (ironically, I then had to wear my sandals – see lesson learned #4).
 

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