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Safety Debriefs

BY CHIP DAVIS
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Congratulations! Like every other rowing program, yours made it through the 2022 spring racing season without killing anyone and without breaking anything so badly that it made the national news. But that’s how it should be, every time, every season, everywhere.

“Rowing is an incredibly safe sport, with fatalities and serious injuries exceedingly rare,” said Matthew Lacey, general manager of the Rowing Industry Trade Association and a member of the USRowing safety committee, “But one is too many, so we’re always looking to do even better.”

Instead of just counting on going another year without tragedy or disaster, your program should be actively ensuring that next season does go well and safely. Having a ‘safety debrief’ now, when you have the time following the busy season—and documenting it—is a great way to set up for another successfully safe season.

Debriefing, a practice regularly used by those who work in life-and-death professions like the military and aviation, is the structured learning process designed to improve plans and their execution. Debriefing can be as simple and concise as a 10-minute conversation, or as prescribed as what the leadership and strategy consultant Doug Sundheim described in Harvard Business Review.

Sundheim wrote about debriefing for general purposes, but the elements he recommends work well for safety debriefings:

  • A scheduled time and place;
  • A “learning environment” where errors can be admitted and vulnerabilities shown in a non-punitive setting;
  • A review of four key questions:

What is our standard for safety? 
How did we hit or miss it? 
What caused those results?
What should we do differently or the same?;

  • A record of what you learned for later reference.

You can make it as casual and easy as a coaching staff having an intentional conversation over a post-season coffee or lunch. 

You might ask each participant simply to think of the three most likely scenarios in which something could have been broken or someone could have been hurt in the year or season just completed. Get everyone’s honest input, and then move the discussion into how your program will improve to minimize the identified risks. Should you install an NK weather station at the boathouse to facilitate the checking of weather each and every time a crew prepares to launch? Do you need to have more regular and regulated swim tests to ensure all participants know how to swim, and to give aging masters a way to retire from single sculling to the erg without having to be confronted? Should you give a day on the ergs to crews who row out of sight of a coach’s launch? Should you replace the coach who allows that to happen in the future? Are your launches stocked with appropriate and required safety equipment?

Like rowing, the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it, and a good debriefing effort will be rewarded with improvement in safety. Documenting it proves that you did it and gives you something to use in a constantly improving, and safe, program.

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