Climbing Wall Risk Management: Part 2

July 14, 2011

Employee Training, Participant Instruction and Competency

Jason Kurten, M.S.
Outdoor Adventure Coordinator
Director of Indoor Climbing Facility
Texas A&M University, College Station

Josh Norris, M.A.
Climbing and Adventure Education Coordinator
Adventure Leadership Institute
Oregon State University

This article is the second of a two part series devoted to risk management for artificial climbing walls. The first part of the article dealt with the physical facility. This article will focus on the human element involved in the sport. As many of us know from our larger recreation facilities, the human element can often be the most difficult to manage and sometimes the hardest to predict. However, once the physical facility is secured, the single most important way to mitigate risk in climbing walls is to develop a process to address human errors and issues, both in our employees and our patrons. In developing this process, the areas to focus on include: the concept of Demonstrated Competence and its application to both the skill instruction and testing of our patrons and the training and testing of our employees.

Demonstrated Competence is a process of evaluating skill mastery. As managers when we teach a new skill set we engage in a process where the employee or student is given more and more responsibility until we are sure they can accomplish the skills on their own, to an appropriate level. Each stage is accompanied by more knowledge and greater responsibility. Transition through advancing stages is marked by the instructor or teacher becoming less responsible for the outcome and the employee or the student gaining more responsibility. The goal being student or employee independence once they have literally demonstrated their competence. Often overlooked yet core to demonstrated competence includes the use of standardized curriculum, documented testing and standardized grading criteria. The future of our industry depends on these concepts becoming fully integrated into our policies, programs and facilities.

Examples of demonstrated competence that we are all accustomed to are: driver training and licensing, SCUBA certification, and the process involved in training medical professionals. In each of these cases, the student or aspiring professional is given an introduction to the task including textual references, scholarly information, demonstrations and how-to’s. The amount of this information depends on the complexity and the scope of the training. After the introduction to the material the students begin to practice skills while assisting a more knowledgeable instructor. This proceeds until the students are demonstrating the skills with the instructor acting as a backup, giving feedback and critique to the student. Lastly, the student is given a pass or fail evaluation of their skills. As the stages progress the instructor gets further removed from the locus of control while retaining the ability to physically intervene. The goal and progression is towards complete student independence.

We often follow this process in our climbing facilities. Many facilities have experienced instructors teach aspiring belayers the basics of belaying. They are then tested on their ability to demonstrate their belay skills, competently perform any additional skills and follow facility rules. These new belayers are then released to belay and climb on their own, but remain under the supervision of instructors or staff, who monitor the climbing facility. Much as a highway patrol officer in some states both tests new drivers before issuing a drivers’ license and then patrols the highway to enforce driving laws.

In the same way, we should use similar methods when training our climbing wall staff, especially if these staff members are the primary belayers in your facility (e.g., participants are not allowed to belay, rather all belaying is provided by climbing facility staff). They should receive consistent and standardized training. They should be tested throughout the training process and then ultimately be given a “pass or fail” grade on their abilities to meet documented standards. The process of Demonstrated Competence performs best when it is used as a paradigm of thinking that underlies everything a climbing facility’s employees do. When your instructors and staff think and work in terms of demonstrating their own competence and expecting patrons to demonstrate theirs, the process works well and effectively manages risks associated with behaviors.

A proven method for preventing poor belaying in a facility is to never allow poor belayers access to the facility. This is accomplished by rigorously controlling the instruction of belaying in your belay classes and the testing of patrons once the class is complete. A comprehensive risk management plan for patrons begins with accurate, documented, informed consent. Today this is routinely accomplished through a waiver, informed consent document, release or other legal form that outlines the inherent risks and informs the patron of those risks. In addition to the informed consent document, a complete patron risk management plan will include consistent and standardized outlines for what skill sets are taught and checked in the belay classes and skills checks. Often they break down into the following categories:

  1. Facility tour and facility rules and regulations/informing patrons of inherent risks
  2. Proper spotting and pad placement for bouldering
  3. Proper harness wear and usage
  4. Tying in or climber attachment to the climbing rope
  5.  Belay device set up and use
  6. Lowering (possibly a separate component if assisted locking devices are used)
  7. Commands and communication
  8. Auto-belay usage (if the facility has these devices)

In addition to having these skill sets outlined it is important for each to have definable benchmarks for patrons to achieve. These benchmarks allow the instructor to identify areas that the patron may need to improve on, and to know when to allow advancement to higher levels. As with everything in the management of climbing facilities it is important that all learning done and all skills demonstrated by the patron be documented. Being able to reliably identify the patron’s skill set and problem areas allows the climbing facility instructors and staff to build a better roadmap for how to best manage that patron and their time at the climbing facility. What if a patron exhibits proficient belay skills after a class in September then does not use those skills again until December and then makes an error such as not locking their belay carabiner? In this case it would be appropriate that that the facility staff is made aware of the climber’s mistake so that they can re-educate or re-test this patron. (How would you catch such a mistake and then document such an occurrence so that future accidents could be prevented?)

The underlying answer to many questions such as the one above is that we rely on our “boots on the ground” to take care of these issues. If you are reading this, then likely your job ties you to a desk most of the day or involves you in committee work, projects and big picture thinking, with little time left over for on the floor risk management. The fact is that the day-to-day risk management of our inherently risky facilities is being performed by our student workers and volunteers. Through the use of demonstrated competence we can know that they are trained to industry standards and are capable of performing their jobs.

This scenario and the problems being faced are not unlike where the aquatics industry found themselves in the early 1900’s. Faced with having to protect patrons from drowning accidents, educate them on how to swim and manage the physical components of the pool, the industry recognized the need for improved risk management and training. Over time, standards such as Lifeguard training and curriculum, Water Safety Instructor and Certified Pool Operator programs were developed. Today, several nationally recognized and consistent outlines and grading schemes have evolved for the training and certification of climbing wall instructors. The organizations providing this type of training are the Professional Climbing Instructors Association, the American Mountain Guides Association and the Climbing Wall Association. Each association’s courses differ in some ways, but many of the core topics remain the same:

  • Testing of instructor’s physical climbing abilities to a minimal level
  • How to effectively test belaying, harness wear, knot tying, spotting and communication between patrons
  • How to effectively observe the climbing wall patrons and correct errors
  • How to perform routine equipment inspections
  • How to react in an emergency scenario

Some of the programs also add in the following:

  • How to effectively teach belaying, harness wear, knot tying, spotting and communication between patrons
  • Basic route setting and movement skills
  • How to perform emergency vertical rescues and belay takeovers

These certification programs represent an effort to have climbing wall attendants demonstrate competence in a consistent set of skills that are paramount for the effective operations of our facilities.

As you can see from these two articles, the climbing wall industry has matured. We have now entered a new era of climbing wall management and operations. What once was a fringe activity practiced only by risk taking outdoor climbers has become a mainstream recreational pursuit that is not just expected by average recreation center users, but demanded. As operators, it is incumbent on us to make sure that our facilities are managed to industry standards and that our personnel are properly trained and capable of overseeing the recreation of our patrons, educating them, thus helping to empower them to effectively mitigate and take responsibility for inherent risks. Climbing is a dynamic, exciting sport. It is up to the prudent manager to make sure that the excitement is preserved, while providing the “belay” of proper management and today’s standard of industry practice.

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