This article focuses on safety culture and asks if outdoor professionals could apply the same principles.

Credit to the IOL and author Loel Collins.

Thanks to the IOL- Horizons from ‘Horizons Spring 2022’


In the first article of this series (Horizons issue 96), we considered the value of creating good habits. For example, we advocated driving to work via the same route to reduce demands on your decision-making resources.

However, have you ever driven home after work and realised you don’t remember the last five minutes of the drive? Almost as if you switched into autopilot?

When we perform an action repeatedly, it becomes habitual, one that doesn’t engage us. This contrasts with the positive habits encouraged in the first article. Habits can become unsafe outdoors if the instructor is not cognitively engaged in the decision-making process. Such lapses can be especially costly when instructors need to verify that a particular action has been completed — we don’t want critical safety checks disconnected from their purpose

What if instructors have developed bad habits with karabiner, knot or buoyancy aid checks when they’re working with groups? The challenge is not having habits form in critical aspects of those final safety checks before an activity occurs. We may be able to learn a lesson from the Japanese railway network.

One practical approach in ensuring safety checks is called ‘pointing and calling’. The Japanese rail system implemented pointing and calling as a method of occupational safety. Principally, to avoid mistakes by pointing at important indicators and calling out their status.

It may sound odd, but consider the last time you performed a critical safety check when under pressure; there is a good chance you did this! For example, you may well have physically checked the karabiner while saying (even under your breath) ‘done up’. Instructors frequently know ‘what’ to check (the buoyancy aid waist ties need to be done up) and ‘why’ (to make sure the buoyancy aid does not ride up on the wearer if in the water)— pointing and calling is the ‘how’!

Known in Japanese as ‘shisa kanko’, pointing and calling works by associating a specific task with a physical action and vocalising that action, raising the consciousness levels, engaging the checker and consequently improving the quality of the check – three legs to the safety check stool (see figure one).

Figure one: Three-legged stool of in-action safety checks

In the Outdoors, rather than just relying on the instructor’s eyes or habit, each step in a task is reinforced physically and verbally to ensure the stage is both complete and accurate. Pointing and calling has a particular value in time-constrained tasks. By necessity, these tasks are identical, repetitive and prone to the damaging habits (automation with a lack of engagement) highlighted earlier; attaching someone at the top of a zip line, or at the head of an abseil or lower off; climber to a rope on a climbing wall, may all be typical examples.