Guidance for Combined Rock Water and Water Margin Activities


Combined Rock/Water Activities

This guidance sets out what is considered by the Health and Safety Commission’s Adventure Activities Industry Advisory Committee (AAA) to be good practice for the provision of combined water/rock activities and draws from the Adventure Activity Licensing Service’s collective interpretations.

Combined water/rock activities are activities where hazards associated with a rock environment may at times combine or alternate with those of a water environment. There are a number of different names and definitions used to describe the range of combined water and rock activities including:
  • Sea-level traversing, (primarily a dry rock climbing activity and sometimes requiring the use of ropes and other rock-climbing equipment);
  • Coasteering (usually a wet activity often involving swimming and/or jumping from a height into water as an integral part);
  • Canyoning (usually wet. It traditionally involves the descent of a steep water course and sometimes involves technical rope work);
  • Adventure swimming (another name for coasteering or a non-technical variation of canyoning);
  • Gorge walks, ghyll scrambles or scrambles, (can be wet, dry or alternating);
  • River running (deliberately swimming down white water rapids)
This list is not exhaustive. This guidance provides generic information that can be applied to most situations involving combined water/rock activities.

Risk Assessment and Accident Prevention

Under health and safety legislation activity providers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of those who participate in their activities, i.e. group leaders and clients. They also have a duty to ensure that no one else is harmed as a result of their activities, i.e. non-participating members of the public.

As part of this duty they must ensure that a risk assessment which covers those risks that are reasonably foreseeable is undertaken by a competent person. This includes assessing foreseeable changes and planning for contingencies arising from them. The AAA guidance Adventure Activities Centres: Five Steps to Risk Assessment will help providers develop their risk assessments.

As there are so many different factors to consider each time an activity takes place, providers will need to determine what the site specific hazards are at any one time including the hazards associated with the route to and from the venue where the activity is taking place. However, when producing a general risk assessment for combined water/rock activities, providers may find it useful to assure themselves that the following issues have been considered:

Impact with a solid object
  • rock falling from above;
  • falling or slipping on to rock, etc. below;
  • jumping/ falling onto submerged rock;
  • jumping from a height into water;
  • being swept or smashed against something solid.
Drowning
  • entrapment under water;
  • repeated submersion in stopper waves or sea swell;
  • suddenly rising water, e.g. freak waves, flash floods, dam releases;
  • slowly rising water, e.g. trapped by rising tides or rising river levels;
  • falling into water and/or being swept away;
  • sudden immersion (dry/secondary drowning)
Hypothermia
  • inadequate personal clothing or equipment during or after the activity;
  • submersion, e.g. being swept out to sea

Controlling the Hazards

Control measures could be thought of in three contexts:
  • Where there is no (realistically) foreseeable possibility of a participant ending up in the water.
  • Where participants MAY end up in the water.
  • Where participants WILL end up in the water.
It would be appropriate, in cases where participants MAY end up in the water to apply the precautionary principle, and control measures (and test them accordingly) as though participants WILL end up in the water.

Group leader competence

One of the keys to ensuring the safety of participants during an activity is the competence of the group leader. In order to ensure that group leaders have the necessary competencies, activity providers need to put in place a system to identify and verify the required competence for each venue. The risk assessment will help identify the skills, knowledge and competencies needed for group leaders at each venue. They will probably include:
  • climbing and other rock activities
  • characteristics of water, i.e. surf, tides, currents and river flows
  • site-specific hazards
  • leading a group, including identifying the competencies within the group
  • instruction techniques
  • communication skills
  • life saving
  • rescue and emergency techniques
  • first aid
  • the equipment needed, including emergency equipment
  • weather or sea conditions

One of the key competencies any group leader needs to have is the ability to know when it would be inappropriate to allow the activity to take place or when it is too dangerous to continue.

An induction process is likely to be required, i.e. accompanying someone who knows what they are doing, and learning from them. This would need to address, amongst other things, control measures for the hazards and risks identified above. It must be clear who is to conduct this induction, what it covers, what form it takes, etc. An induction checklist will help to ensure consistency. Local knowledge is likely to be one of the major safety factors in the delivery of these activities.

In order to ensure that group leaders acquire and maintain their skills a programme of training, which includes site specific training, will be needed. This will often include training at the venues and ideally should include at least some practical incident and accident scenarios and responses. Once acquired these skills should be tested on a regular basis, defined by the frequency of the activity, to ensure appropriate skill levels are maintained. For activities affected by variable water levels, reconnaissance trips under different conditions are beneficial.

Competence of participants

A policy on informing the participants of the nature and extent of risks and what to expect from the activity is recommended. This is particularly important where the participants may have no concept or prior knowledge of this type of activity. The identification of risks should be made clear and allow realistic and uninhibited options to any participants, who as a result, may wish to decline the activity. A policy of identifying the competence, experience, special needs, physical and medical condition of the participants is advised. Particular attention may be needed to try to establish the water confidence and swimming ability participants before undertaking activities which may result in them finishing up in deep or moving water.

Group size

The size of the group and the number of group leaders required will depend on a number of factors including the skills and competence of the group, the venue used and the experience of the group leader. Providers will need to ensure that for each activity the size of the group is appropriate to the skills, knowledge and overall competence of the group leader. If necessary, measures should be taken such as the provision of additional group leaders, reduction of the size of the group or splitting the group and providing a competent group leader for each group.

It will generally be appropriate to have a policy on ratios, maximum group size, use of assistants, etc. This should take account of group management difficulties associated with only having one instructor, which can arise at some venues. Similarly some providers find it useful to have two separate groups operating at the same venue, and available to give mutual support if required.

Briefings and communication

Participants should be advised on what they can do to help ensure their own safety. It may not be appropriate for group leaders to deliver all relevant instructions in one briefing. Verbal communication at some venues can be very difficult. Providers should decide whether other systems of communication are necessary and introduce these at an appropriate point.

The venue

It is vitally important that the venue selected meets the needs of the group. Therefore, alternative venues and access and exit points are advisable to ensure that the degree of difficulty and the duration of the trip are appropriate to the group. On the day the most appropriate venue or variation of venue should be used taking into consideration:
  • weather conditions
  • competence and expectations of the group
  • the number and experience of staff available
In addition, emergency exit points and ‘safe areas’ will need to be identified in advance of the activity taking place in case there is a need to stop the activity at short notice.

Clothing and equipment

What is appropriate will vary from day to day, and venue to venue. For most activities, particularly those that involve entering the water, a buoyancy aid and a helmet will be needed. The need to have rescue or emergency items, such as extra warm clothing/blankets, flares, ropes, means of contacting others for help, should be considered. As stated earlier the risk assessment should identify the equipment needed and the competencies required to use it safely. A system for ensuring that the equipment is maintained and checked for suitability before being used for the activity is essential.

Forecast of conditions

A policy for obtaining and interpreting weather forecasts, water levels and conditions at sea will generally be needed. It must be clear who is to do this, when it is to be done and the action to be taken for a range of possible forecasts. These could include, but may not be limited to, modification of the venue, change of venue or even cancellation of the activity for that day. Each venue may require "cut-off" conditions or levels identifiable by leaders and/or management. Fluctuating and rising water levels will be particularly significant. Again the considerations of who, when and ‘what do they do about it’ apply here.

Emergency Action Plans

All involved in the activity need to be aware of their responsibilities in the event of an emergency. A system should be implemented to ensure the relevant authorities are notified: staff at the base should know what to do and who to contact. When and how does an over-due group become a 'stand-by for action'? or 'action required' and what action, and by whom? etc. Those leading the activity need to have the competencies required to deal with any immediate problems and, if necessary, use the emergency equipment and get help if it is needed. Since a rapid response to a complex situation may be required, the emergency action plan may well be used to guide an instructor’s training. This might include the appropriate use of a canoeing throw-line, and positioning and briefing of competent assistants to best effect a rescue.

Jumping into water

It is advisable to carry out a reconnaissance immediately prior to this activity, even at known venues. Depending on the location this may include physically checking entry and exit points (depth, projections, obstructions, swell etc), as well as considering whether the leader needs to be anchored.

Safety boats

Some providers find it helpful if groups are accompanied by or have access to a rescue boat. If the precautions previously mentioned have been considered, this solution is rarely needed. However, it has been effective, for example, where there is a risk of the group being cut off in sheltered but inescapable bays by a combination of delays and rising tides.

First aid

First aid considerations will generally include a procedure for re-warming cold participants and should take into consideration the nature of the venue and transport arrangements. Some scenario-based first aid training is advisable to ensure that group leaders are able to deal with the types of injuries that may be sustained during activities. Activity providers also need to consider the health implications for first aid staff when dealing with cuts or open wounds.

Relevant Qualifications

Mountaineering Instructor Award - summer (MIA), Mountaineering Instructor Certificate (MIC), British Mountain Guide (BMG), Cave Instructor Certificate (CIC), one of the BCU sea kayaking, surfing or white water rescue awards, Swift-water Rescue Technician, surfing awards, other rescue experience and/or qualifications and first aid awards. There may be a combination of more than one NGB award which adequately provides the necessary competencies. Alternatively a process of ratification by one or more suitably experienced and qualified person(s) may be appropriate.

Case Study 6: Combined Water and Rock Activities*

The Anglesey coast is a popular location for the pursuit of Coasteering and Sea-Level Traversing (SLT) by Outdoor Activity Groups. The coastline boasts a mixture of zawns, inlets and coves with variable rock quality. Some cliffs have safe pools below while others hide rocky shelves below the waterline at various states of the tide.

The venue usage covers a variety of methods from deliberate immersion-based journeys, usually wearing wetsuits and other water-sports gear, through to journeys where the objective is to remain dry, wearing sandals, “wellies” or even rock shoes and perhaps utilising technical climbing equipment. Onlookers on the coastal paths and beaches, or in watercraft, also need to be considered. The environment is less fragile than other water-margin activities, such as gorges and ghylls, but it does have its own unique ecosystem that can and does get incorporated into some of the teachings of the sessions, depending on the aims.

A nearby Outdoor Centre that uses the coastline regularly for Combined Rock and Water activities initially sent a senior member of their staff (an MIC holder, and very experienced in the delivery of SLT and coasteering) to assess the hazards and risks associated with these activities. A decision was made that the skills needed to safely lead at these sites meant that the instructional staff needed to be holders of of ML plus SPA or above with proven, relevant, ‘water margin’ experience and at some specific sites the minimum requirement was MIA.

Either way, it was deemed necessary that all instructors should have observed sessions being run at specific venues for familiarisation, have attended a training session, and have been officially signed-off by either the Head of Centre or the Appointed Technical Advisor, who themselves needs to be an MIA, MIC or Guide, with considerable proven ‘water margin’ experience (in this case also a very experienced paddlesport coach in various disciplines).

In other places where this Outdoor Centre conducts Combined Rock and Water Activities (Gorge Walks etc) then other criteria may be applied to the choice of staff. There is no one set of qualifications or set level of experience that can cover all the aspects of and types of activity incorporated into the title of Combined Rock and Water Activities. However, certain key considerations must be part of the process:
  • What are the hazards that are likely to be encountered?
  • What are the skills required of the instructor leading the activity with a group?
  • How much personal and site-specific experience does the leader have?
  • What is the required level of training, observation and signing-off process?
This is not easy to quantify as the hazards associated with these types of activity are varied and not easily pigeonholed; the approach to deciding who can lead groups on these activities needs to be adaptable, well-structured and well-documented.

* Case study provided by M. Richards (MLT Board) and D. Brown

Group Safety at Water Margins

This guidance sets out what is considered by the Central Council of Physical Recreation and the Department for Education and Science to be good practice for groups operating at the water margin. It was developed by a working group comprising the following organisations: AHOEC, BAALPE, IOL, NAFSO, MLTE, lifesavers (RLSS) UK, Girlguiding UK, AALA, RoSPA

This information is for teachers, lecturers, youth workers, voluntary leaders and anyone else who might organise and lead the type of educational visit described below. It covers learning activities that might take place near or in water - such as a walk along a river bank or sea-shore, collecting samples from ponds and streams, or paddling or walking in gentle, shallow water. It doesn’t cover swimming and other activities that require water safety or rescue qualifications and equipment, or water-going craft.

Hazards are always present. This information lists a number of things to take into account which will help to plan and lead a safe and enjoyable visit.

Things to think about before departing:
  • There are many reasons for leading a visit near water. Off-site visits can bring the curriculum to life. They can also develop team-working skills and improve self-esteem - which can help to raise achievement. Perhaps more importantly these experiences can help young people begin to learn how to look after themselves in an unfamiliar environment. They can also be fun!
  • Whatever the reason for going, having a clear purpose and plan will help the group to get the most from the day – and will help to maintain safety.
  • What is the age range of the group? Is the group used to an outdoor environment? Can the group members’ behaviour be trusted? How physically able is the group? Do any group members have special educational or medical needs? Will group members have warm, waterproof clothing and suitable footwear? Each of these factors may impact on the choice of venue and activity.
  • Leaders need to accurately assess their own competence to lead the proposed visit. If they are a school teacher they should refer any plans to the head teacher and educational visits coordinator or outdoor education adviser. If they work in a local authority or are a voluntary leader, they should find out who is responsible for advising on visits within the organisation, and ask their advice.
  • If the proposed activity is beyond your level of competence or resource, then you should make different plans, which are within your capacity. Alternatively you could approach an external organisation to lead those aspects of the visit that are beyond your capacity.
  • Whatever you choose to do, be sure that all those present know who is responsible for what should be happening at every point during the visit.
Getting ready to go:
  • If you do lead the visit yourself you should take a number of steps to identify the foreseeable hazards, and to minimize the risks these present to your group. This is commonly known as risk assessment. Some of the things you will need to consider are listed below.
  • You will need enough competent helpers on the day. Consider what ratio of leaders to group members is appropriate to your group, activity and venue. The person responsible for advising on visits in your organisation can assist with this. Ask the same questions about your helpers as you would about the group. You should also brief them fully on the purpose and plan for the visit, and ensure that they understand their responsibilities throughout.
  • Telling group members in advance about the purpose of your visit, the environment you are visiting and any hazards it presents will help them to prepare and to participate appropriately on the day. If appropriate obtain informed consent from group members’ parents.
  • You should always check out a venue before you go there with a group. A competent person accompanying you on any exploratory visit can help you to identify hazards, and assist you if you get into difficulty. If in the last resort, a pre- visit is not possible then the group leader should obtain information in other ways in order to prepare adequately for the visit.
Here are some of the things you should think about on an exploratory visit:
  • Look for the hazards.
  • If you will be working near water, how likely is it that someone will fall in?
  • If they do, could you get them out by reaching with a towel, a stick, a piece of clothing or any public safety equipment that is available? Could you wade in to get them without putting yourself in danger? If not then you should move to Plan B. Remember that sudden and unexpected immersion in cold water has a rapid and dramatic effect on the body’s systems and will impair people’s ability to reach safety.
  • Check out what lies downstream, or around the corner from your work area – is there a fallen tree, a fence, a weir, a waterfall - or any other hazard? If you are not happy with your choice of location, look for another, safer one.
  • Do you intend your group to get into the water?
  • First consider whether entering the water is appropriate to the purpose of the visit, and what you expect your group to be doing in the water.
  • If you do plan to enter the water, your group must be able to get in and out easily. Find some gradually sloping land and check that the bank is not slippery, and that there is no deep mud or vegetation.
  • You also need to be sure there are no underwater hazards (such as rocks or roots which can trap feet, rusty cans or wire which can cut, or strong currents). The best way to check for hazards is to wade in using a strong stick to support you – and ensuring you have a colleague to assist you.
  • Remember that fast moving water above knee height is likely to knock people off their feet. Consider whether this is likely at your venue. You may need to move to Plan B.
Think about what could change:
  • Your surroundings.
  • Are there cliffs above you (could someone knock loose stones down) or below you (how close to the edge are you)? Is there livestock nearby (could it enter your work area)?
  • Get a weather forecast before you go and ensure you understand how it might affect your location and planned activity. Heavy or persistent rainfall can alter situations vastly – even when falling elsewhere. Riverbanks will become slippery, and streams and rivers can rise quickly and flow faster. You may need to move to Plan B.
  • If you are working near the sea or an estuary check tidal conditions with the coastguard, so you know when high tide is, how high it will reach, and whether there are any strong local currents. Could your work area be cut off or submerged by a sudden wave or quick rise in the tide level? The tide may advance more quickly than your group can retreat. Also beware steeply shelving shingle beaches, where one step could take someone out of their depth. Again you may need to move to Plan B.
  • Ask somebody with good local knowledge (perhaps the land or water owner) if there have been any changes to the area, or whether the local environment alters regularly.
Think about what to wear:
  • In damp, cold weather wearing a few layers of clothing with waterproof trousers and jacket will help to keep your group warm and dry. Wellingtons or other waterproof boots may be a good idea – however remember that wellingtons can fill with water and make it difficult to reach safety. You should also take some spare clothing and towels with you. In warm weather sunscreen, baseball caps and long sleeves will protect your group from burning. Your group should keep footwear on at all times during the visit.
What’s Plan B?
  • Plan B is an alternative – not an emergency procedure. You may need to change your plan for any number of reasons. Plan B might mean doing the same activity at a different location, or a different activity altogether. Be prepared to move to Plan B before or even during the activity. You need to pre-check your Plan B also.
  • If you visit a place regularly you might be able to identify “cut-off criteria”. These are signs that circumstances have changed such that you need to move to Plan B. Examples might include the river or tide having risen above a certain point. However, remember that visiting one venue once a year for ten years is ten days experience – not ten years.
Things to think about on the day:
  • Make sure that somebody at your usual base knows where you are going, what you will be doing and when you expect to return. Also leave details of any alternative plans.
  • Although you have prepared your group and helpers in advance of the visit, you should also brief them on the day. Make sure that the group and the helpers know what they will be doing, and what is expected of them. Also let them know about any foreseeable hazards that you identified on the pre-visit. This will help you achieve your objectives – and lessen the chance of something unexpected occurring.
  • Always get a local weather forecast on the day of your visit – and know how this will impact on your plans and location.
  • On arrival at your venue reconsider the key issues that were raised in your pre-visit. Has anything changed that means you should now switch to Plan B? You should review the situation continuously, as conditions may change at any point, meaning you have to change plan or cut short your visit.
  • Your group may well be disappointed if they cannot complete the activity that was originally planned – particularly if they or another group have enjoyed it before. A well-briefed group and a good Plan B can help to overcome this disappointment. If you move to Plan B be sure to notify your base of this.
  • Just because you did it last year does not mean that you have to do it this year!
  • Just because it was safe last year does not mean it is safe this year!
Group Control:
  • Agree the safety rules before the visit and stick to them. If you decided on your pre-visit that it was unsafe to enter the water, then have confidence in your decision and do not be pressured into changing it.
  • If you do enter water, keeping the group on task will help to ensure safety, as incidents are more likely to occur during unstructured activity.
  • The group needs to be aware that pushing, dragging or ducking others into water are unsafe and unacceptable practices.
  • Set physical boundaries beyond which the group should not venture. You might use fixed landscape features such as a wall, or place your own markers.
  • Having small groups, each with its own leader, is often better than one large group with several leaders. Ideally there would be enough leaders so that the overall leader does not have their own group. Each group should appoint a “head-counter” to check regularly that all members are present. When walking along narrow tracks near water (e.g. a single track canal tow-path) make sure that you, or the sub- leader, makes each group aware of the danger of working in such a restricted environment.
  • The prudent leader will often choose to get between the group and a potential hazard.
  • If your group needs to change their clothing, normal sensitivity should ensure that neither you nor they are put in a vulnerable position. This issue should be covered in your child protection procedures.
Health & Hygiene:
  • Water quality is important and can be affected by a number of factors such as rainfall or hot weather. Bacteria may derive from chemicals, sewage, dead animals or other causes. Have a look round for any obvious signs such as cloudiness in the water, or froth on the surface.
  • Make sure your group wash their hands before eating, and if appropriate shower upon return. If any members of your group fall ill following the visit advise them to tell their GP where they’ve been and what they were doing.
  • Ensure that the group has sufficient food and drink for the visit. In hot weather it is particularly important to drink water to avoid dehydration.
First Aid & Incidents:
  • The group leader should have a good working knowledge of first aid and ensure that an adequate first-aid box is taken. Any wounds should be cleaned and covered quickly.
  • Emergency procedures are an essential part of planning a visit. Ensure that you know where the nearest hospital is and that you can gain assistance if needed. Remember that mobile telephones may not work in remote areas.
  • If you have been trained, and are currently practised, in the use of throwlines you may wish to take one with you. However, remember that taking a throwline is not a reason to take a risk. Using Plan B is preferable to using a throwline.
  • Record any incident which may have given you cause for concern. This will help you to understand how and why it happened and how to avoid it in the future.
In the long term:
  • The more often you visit a venue, the more confident you will become – but beware complacency! It is still important to check the venue before each visit, as things could have changed since your last visit. You could also do a number of things to develop your own skills and those of others further:
  • Visit more venues so that you have a range of alternative plans. This will also help you to develop your understanding of the outdoor environment and the weather.
  • You could maintain and develop your own skills by asking for training, and assisting on visits led by more experienced people. You could also help others to develop by asking them to assist on your visits.