It was a typical Saturday morning in September for Alex, his co-workers, and his employer. Alex and the other guides arrived with wet hair and coffee, jumping in to help pull equipment off the walls for the first zip tour of the day. The office staff was hustling to get the cash drawers ready, the computers booted up, and the receipt printer loaded with paper. Some staff fielded phone calls from patrons hoping to secure a last-minute zip tour spot for the holiday weekend. The day was off to a busy, hopeful beginning.
By the end of the day, though, the entire team was in grief and shock: Alex was dead, having been accidentally pulled, untethered, from a ground-based zip platform into the 50-foot-deep rocky ravine below.
This incident is fictional, but there have been several real incidents like it involving aerial adventure staff in recent years. The nature and details of the actual staff accidents vary, and in some cases only resulted in minor injuries. But in too many instances, workers have lost their lives, leaving their friends, family, co-workers, and employers to navigate the aftermath.
Lasting impacts. For employers, serious injuries to staff have meant not only the guilt and grief of losing a staff member, but also having to face state and federal OSHA investigations, their own culpability in workplace safety violations, and the lasting impact of expensive fines, lost revenue, and a damaged reputation.
OSHA Standards Are Not Optional
Within the aerial adventure industry, the topic of workplace safety and compliance with Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standards has often been addressed in fairly extreme ways, either (a) by assuming that our industry is so unique that said standards and laws don’t apply to what we do, or (b) with fear and avoidance, believing that OSHA and its agents exist solely to terrorize businesses by showing up with a smile to apply secret, arcane statutes and levy harsh fines.
The reality, though, is that OSHA exists simply to protect workers from dangerous and unhealthy work environments so as to avoid the negative outcomes associated with hazard-based illness, injury, or death in the workplace. Put plainly, OSHA standards help keep workers from getting injured or killed on the job. Given the importance and weight of that mission, it shouldn’t be surprising that OSHA standards are law and apply to any business with employees, including those within the aerial adventure industry.
An employer’s responsibility. It’s critical to understand that the primary responsibility for workplace safety lies with the employer. Employees play a key role, of course—they are responsible for following guidelines and procedures that ensure their own safety and that of their fellow workers. But it is the responsibility of the employer to not only develop those procedures and systems, but also to continually verify compliance with them.
The consequences for not having an informed, intentional workplace safety program can be very high indeed, starting with the loss of life and the related outcomes should the worst occur. But even if tragedy is averted, the penalties for non-compliance with OSHA standards can be severe, with minor infractions carrying fines north of $12,000 per infraction and more than $100,000 for repeated or willful violations.
A Culture of Safety
The level of attention given to workplace safety by individual companies in the aerial adventure industry runs the gamut from exemplary to “Holy cow, someone is going to die here.”
The latter condition is often the result of simply not knowing what’s required of an employer or a lack of proper training. It can also be the result of cavalier carelessness that sometimes can be seen in adventure sports like rock climbing or whitewater paddling—where the risk of injury or death is part of playing the game—and gets subtly absorbed within the culture of an aerial adventure company. Sometimes it’s a combination of all of these.
But the most common factor within organizations that lack an informed, robust workplace safety protocol is a lack of consideration for their responsibility as a company and a clear view of the consequences for non-compliance.
Intentionality. In contrast, an excellent workplace safety program never happens by accident. Many companies within the aerial adventure industry have taken the time to foster the right organizational attitude about workplace safety. These companies have put in the work to develop systems and procedures to protect their workers and ensure that they are, as much as possible, in compliance with the codes and laws that govern worker safety.
For these organizations, workplace safety is of the highest priority, and they have invested significant time, resources, and energy into the development and implementation of these systems.
There’s a Video for That
If your organization isn’t quite there yet and this column is making your palms sweat, help is on the way. A new “Challenge Course Pro Tips!” video series and column—coming this summer—from The Adventure Guild, in partnership with Adventure Park Insider, will zero in on the information and resources companies need to bring their workplace safety program into compliance. The series will help provide a path for those who feel bewildered by the process and don’t know where to start. In these upcoming videos, we’ll address topics like:
- The necessary mindset surrounding workplace safety, and the development of a culture of safety within your organization.
- Developing your workplace safety protocols through hazard assessment, and where to get help with that process.
- Familiarization with the different OSHA codes and the overarching scope of workplace safety, which goes far beyond issues related to fall protection/work-at-height.
- The requirements for ongoing staff training and engagement.
- The documentation requirements for workplace safety; and more.
Though not designed to be a comprehensive roadmap, these video resources are intended to help you gain the knowledge and discover the resources needed to develop your own systems and move your organization toward workplace safety compliance.
It Takes Work
Developing these systems is no small task. It requires a significant amount of investment from an individual or a group to assess where you currently are in terms of compliance and what work there is yet to do. It can be surprising (and overwhelming) to discover how much there is to get in place, particularly regarding documentation.
However, one can’t get to the finish line without starting the race. And these video resources will help organizations not only start the race but push toward a solid finish to the benefit of their employees, their organization, and the industry as a whole—since worker safety affects us all.