Back in 2019, six months before the pandemic would keep operators occupied with an ever-shifting slew of health and safety protocols, the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) released the latest revision of its Challenge Courses and Canopy/Zip Line Tours Standards. Those standards (ANSI/ACCT 03-2019), which are law in some states, require that operators employ clear systems and checklists for course management.
So, what’s so vital about checklists? In a word, documentation.
Prevention and Protection
Erik Marter, co-owner and CEO of Synergo, a full-service aerial adventure vendor, points out that an effective risk management plan addresses two issues: incident prevention and lawsuit protection. Checklists can help operators tackle both, by documenting compliance with any applicable standards.
“Most of our accidents happen where guides and guests don’t connect very well, or in that weird space where the course does not quite match what the operator was thinking,” says Marter. “In either situation, checklists can help bridge the gaps.”
Orientation checklists. Marter cites orientation checklists as an important expectation-setting tool to help guides and guests get on the same page. When the checklist is shared out loud between the two, it allows for public accountability and helps mitigate misunderstandings down the line. Should there be an incident, a written orientation checklist makes it easier for an operator to argue in court that information was properly communicated to guests.
“Clean, tidy checklists make it much simpler to help clients,” says Marter. “Checklists are a way of helping guides do their job and helping operators stay protected.”
Pre-opening checklists. From a risk management standpoint, the pre-use check is one of the most important things a park can do, says ACCT policy director Scott Andrews. “The use of a documentable pre-use checklist is a way of setting up to reduce risk,” he says.
“Without these documents, you can’t prove that you did nothing wrong,” adds Cameron Annas, CEO of Granite Insurance, which serves adventure park clients.
Practice what you preach. Of course, checklists only prevent accidents or hold up legally when they are actually utilized. “Operating procedures, manuals, and checklists are wonderful, but only if they are followed,” says Annas. “Having them on the shelf for documentation’s sake but not following them probably hurts rather than helps.”
Stay on track. An effective checklist can help keep the brain on task during crucial safety processes, which is often hard to do. “The brain starts going on how to manage other issues,” says Marter. He notes that, as a pilot in training, flying really solidified his belief in the need for checklists. “With pre-flight checklists, you start in the same way and go in the exact same order. The consistency of the routine helps ensure nothing gets skipped.”
List it out. The most effective checklists are itemized. “If you just check that you’ve done a pre-use inspection, there are often gaps,” says Marter. “If you have an itemized checklist, the person conducting the check is more likely to actually do the individual pieces. A signature at the bottom is great, too—people follow through.”
Checks in the checklist. Building actions into your checklists is another way to encourage staff to follow through. “We put things on that checklist that require people to slow down and look around,” says Andrews regarding the ACCT standards.
When it comes to implementing checklists and systems, Marter says there are three categories operators should look at: the structure, the operations, and the training.
Structural checklists include daily pre-use checks and periodic inspections. These are the checklists that absolutely must be written down, according to the ACCT standards.
Annas suggests that, additionally, before those morning inspections, employees should get in the habit of cross-checking each other’s equipment. “There have been several incidents in the last few years where an employee has gone out to do an inspection having not been inspected themselves, and an accident has occurred,” he cautions.
On the operations end, in addition to orientation checklists and standard operating procedures such as utilizing “on belay” commands, Marter suggests adding an end-of-day report to your process.
“When you fill out [an end-of-day report]every day, it provides a helpful cross-reference for guest claims, and such reports are a good tool to help us track what is working and what isn’t,” says Marter. “It’s a report, but also a checklist.”
Document competencies. Training staff is key to accident prevention (and good customer service). From a legal perspective, documenting staff competencies is a must. Marter recommends checklists for those who conduct trainings, as well as practical skills/skills verification checklists for participants to comprehensively document what training your staff receives.
Follow up. Furthermore, an ongoing supervisory checklist will help operators audit staff throughout the season to make sure those competencies stay up to date. “At the end of a supervisory check, you can pull people aside and let them know what they are doing well in and provide additional training if they need it,” suggests Marter.
“You see guides who have been there for five or six years, they get comfortable and can get complacent,” agrees Annas. “It’s always good to continually evaluate and coach them.”
ATVs, UTVs, and Vehicles
Not all areas of operation connect directly to aerial activity—in fact, there’s a range of non-aerial components that should be addressed with checklists.
“Two years ago, 52 percent of all injuries in the aerial industry were from ATVs, UTVs, and vehicles,” says Annas, who recommends that operators not only build maintenance checklists for the vehicles, but have an operator training program for the vehicles and a checklist for that, too.
“We have all these standards for transporting one person over a zip line, but we have zero standards for transporting 10 people up a rocky road to the top of the line,” says Annas. “We focus a lot on the high perceived risk and not on the areas around that, and that’s where we see a lot of the claims.”
How and When to Document
To checklist or not to checklist? When it comes to figuring out where checklists are needed and where they are not, Marter draws relatively simple lines. “If it’s an operational thing and the checklist is bogging you down, lose the checklist. If it’s a safety thing, you need a checklist, even if it is a mental checklist. When we clip people in, we do it the same way each time—that’s a mental checklist.”
For the checklists and procedures that need to be documented, the next question is: paper or digital?
Paper documents. Marter thinks people do a better job with paper. In addition to having a filing system for paper checklists, he recommends keeping an ongoing log or journal. “It’s a great tool if you need to look up an incident, but it’s equally important for reviewing your processes and making changes,” he says.
Digital records. On the flip side, Annas prefers digital: “I’m a big fan of having those documents stored electronically for ease of access, legibility, and because they don’t get misplaced.”
Sorting through physical paper can be laborious if you have an incident that’s being litigated. “If I wanted to see every training record for a particular employee, it’d be hard to pull from chronologically stored paper,” says Annas.
For operators that want to go the digital route with their documents, there are a number of tools available to choose from. PARKUPKEEP, Papertrail, and Connecteam are some of the companies offering inspection management software.
Whether an operator sticks to old fashioned paper or opts to store records digitally, they should remember that building a culture around checklists and processes is key to turning the documents into effective tools.
“Framing the value of checklists matters,” says Andrews. “Staff will ask, ‘Is this just a liability thing, or am I doing work that is necessary to make today successful?’”
For Annas, the answer to that question is simple: “Checklists provide accountability, and they help people do their jobs better.”