Risk assessment in youth work

Accidents happen and everybody knows it. However, I dare to say that probability of an accident is proportional to the number of young people grouped together in a given area for a given period. Nothing may happen to Maria at home or at the university but if you send her on a 7-day-long camp with 40 other Marias and Joans you may me sure that something is going to happen.

The first youth exchange I participated in (still as a teenager) must have set a peculiar standard of safety for all my future international endeavors. In 2006 I joined a group of fire artists on a journey to Bulgaria where I supposed to have a role of cameraman. As the guys were really nice, I finally joined the group and started juggling with fire myself. This obviously meant that I had to take some precautions against burning myself and hurting others. That experience and the responsibility I had for the participants made me think about plan B, C, D and ER (emergency) every time I was preparing a youth exchange or work camp. I was preparing risk assessment plans, collecting basic health information about the participants and in-case-of-emergency-contacts, contracting insurance with high coverage of treatment costs and third-party liability, etc. No matter how well I tried to prepare myself, life got a surprise for me.

Traditional masonery

In 2008, I went to Spain with the same group of fire jugglers. It was summer, it was hot and it was great. Everybody arrived on time except a few guys whose flights or busses got delayed. As we were waiting for them, we were chilling outside the gym in which we slept during that stay. The gym was located on the premises of a local secondary school whose students had just started holidays. The organization that hosted us hired a security guard to keep unwanted people out of the school premises and to keep eye on our things when we were away doing activities in town. We were all outside practicing and learning new tricks when we saw that one of the guys we were waiting for is coming. He was a slackliner (doing tricks on an elastic band). He left his luggage and started attaching his slackline to the tree to join the rest. As he couldn’t find the appropriately thick tree, he spotted a brick chimney that, as he concluded from its 5-meter height, might do well. Once the line was stretched between the tree and the chimney, he sat on it to check whether he should tense it a bit more. He sat on it, we heard a crack and his bottom touched the ground unexpectedly. The chimney started his majestic descent towards to tree. Luckily, he had enough time to run away and there was nobody in the demolition zone. A hubbub of laughter and chatter was interrupted by the blast of bricks hitting the ground. Nobody said a word while the dust was hanging around and slowly falling down. Nobody was hurt and the insurance covered the reconstruction of the chimney but they have never been allowed to host a camp in that secondary school.

Fun and games

In 2011 I coordinated the most complex project in my life. We were building the playground for kids in an underdeveloped part of town. Almost 40 people from Lithuania, Germany and Poland lived and worked together for three weeks. As it is usual in this kind of activities, at the beginning participants play games to brake the ice and get to know each other. Some games, however, are played during the whole camp to promote the interaction between people. One such game is a killer game in which everyone has a randomly assigned victim that they have to “kill” with a randomly assigned object. Another game is called “grenade” in which every participant can shout the word “grenade” once during the entire camp. When this happens, everybody around ust fall to the ground for 2 seconds. You can imagine that the intensity of grenades is much higher at the beginning of the camp and people select the most inconvenient moments to shout it, for example while the group crosses wide busy street and the green light is about to turn off.

On Sunday morning our group went to visit the Auschwitz memorial. Yes, exactly what you think about. One of the Lithuanian participant, who was also one of the youngest, had a brilliant idea to shout shout “the word” at the entrance to the museum. What is even more embarrassing is the fact that a couple of days of conditioning made most of the others fall to the ground (but not all the people). I will keep the details of the aftermath of this incident to myself but ask you a question. Would you have thought it would be necessary to say that “we are not playing this game in Auschwitz” during the preparatory meeting the evening before? I thought it wasn’t (as participants were mostly 18-19 years old) and I was wrong.

We’ve nailed it!

In 2012 a folk dance ensamble came to Poland to meet with local group and learn traditional dances from each other. We were located in a little village roughly 30 minutes drive from one hospital and 40 minutes from the other. It was part of a risk assessment plan. One morning, a boy asked me for betadine (antiseptic ointment). I was surprised and skeptical about giving it to him without seeing what is going on, so I followed him to his room. When we were approaching the room I could hear some shouts of suffering coming from the en-suite bathroom. The door was open and when we entered we saw one boy on the bathroom floor surrounded by a considerable amount of blood and some people trying to hold him. As I quickly realized, he was going out of the shower cabin and slipped on the wet floor and his big toe got stuck in the space between the door and the floor lifting his nail 90 degrees. We went to the nearest hospital where he was attended by an English-speaking doctor for free thanks to the European Health Insurance Card. By lunch he was back with the rest, though he wasn’t able to participate in the final show.

Does the last story seem boring compared to the previous once? When risk assessment plan has been done properly and procedures are in place you do not have to improvise and you are in control. The last story is just one of many situations in which I could follow the plan and therefore I acted quickly and efficiently.