Almost one year after lifesaver Saxon Bird died during a race in the Gold Coast, the State Coroner has released his findings into the teenager’s death. Bird drowned in March last year after being struck in the head by another competitor’s surf ski and falling unconscious.

Coroner’s Recommendations

The main recommendations handed down by Coroner Michael Barnes related to the use of personal protective equipment, recommending the use of personal floatation devices for ironmen and women during competition, as well as the obligatory wearing of helmets for those involved in races with boards and surf skis.

In response, a number of current and former ironmen and women have suggested that the Coroner’s recommendations are impracticable. Ironman Shannon Eckstein said “it is not practical from the devices I have seen” while Kristen Askew said “it would make the race harder. You would be more fatigued and more likely to get injured with those sort of things weighing you down and in your way.”

Hierarchy of Controls

When considering risk mitigation for safety hazards including those in surf lifesaving competition, the hierarchy of controls provides a useful guide for determining appropriate safety controls.

The hierarchy of controls is a commonly used set of control principles, applied across sport and industry in the mitigation of safety hazards. The hierarchy applies a prioritised order ranging from elimination, (the most desirable strategy), to – as with this case – personal protective equipment, (the least desirable strategy). 

The more significant the risk, the higher the control strategy from the hierarchy, or combination of control strategies should be applied. The ultimate aim is to eliminate safety hazards and their subsequent risk or, if this is not possible, to minimise exposures to as low as reasonably practicable.

Applying the Hierarchy of controls

In the case of a lifesaving competition in which large, powerful waves, or surf skis are considered to be a hazard, a number of different alternative controls may be considered. These include:

  • Cancel the event altogether (Eliminate)
  • Move the event to a more suitable location or postpone the event (Substitution)
  • Install warning signage and develop safety and emergency protocols for monitoring competitor welfare during the event (Administrative)

What is Reasonably Practicable?

Although event cancellation may completely eliminate the risk, this drastic measure would generally not be considered reasonably practicable unless the risk was deemed to be extreme and unacceptable. The difficulty with managing events such as lifesaving and surfing at the elite level is to balance the safety of competitors with the challenge and risk inherent in the sport of succeeding under variable and difficult wave conditions.

The reaction to the recommendations highlights the importance of ongoing communication and consultation with all stakeholders required to achieve a satisfactory risk management outcome.