The body of 14 year old Matthew Barclay was found on Thursday 29 March after he disappeared the day before, during the junior national surf lifesaving titles at Kurrawa Beach in Queensland. Barclay was a member of the Maroochydore Surf Life Saving Club and was competing in an under-15 board relay race when he went missing. His board washed ashore but his body was not discovered until the following morning, 1.5kilometres away from the race area. Kurrawa beach, located to the south of Surfer’s Paradise was endorsed by the Bligh government as the venue for the national surf life saving title (also known as ‘the Aussies’) until 2017. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), Andrew Short of the University of Sydney’s school of geosciences said that Kurrawa is ‘not especially dangerous’, comparing it to Manly of Bondi in terms of its hazard rating. Yet, Matthew Barclay is the third teenager to die at Kurrawa during the national titles. Teen ironman Saxon Bird and Kurrawa under-18 boat crew member Robert Gatenby both drowned there in 2010 and 1996 respectively.

According to the SMH, Chris Branson QC, who represented Saxon Bird’s family at the coronial inquest into his death, criticised Surf Life Saving Australia’s (SLSA) decision to hold the Aussies at Kurrawa. He was quoted in the SMH as saying that SLSA “has not learnt from previous deaths” and the reasons for continuing to hold the event at Kurrawa beach are ostensibly commercial”.

Surf Life Saving Australia’s CEO, Brett Williamson refuted this statement and drew on the research of Andrew Short from Sydney University to suggest that conditions at Kurrawa should not have been too unsafe to sustain this event last week. As part of a safety audit conducted of Australian Beaches, Short found that Kurrawa Beach has a hazard rating of 6/10. According to the SMH, he said, “like all beaches, danger increases under certain conditions. But I’m unaware of the circumstances on Wednesday (the day of the incident) that would have required extra caution.”

Barclay’s death has brought a number of issues that were raised in the Saxon Bird inquest last year back into the public domain, most significantly, the issue of risk controls in junior lifesaving events. An outcome of last year’s inquest was that the coroner recommended the use of flotation vests and helmets during surf lifesaving competitions. However, not only has this control been deemed by the lifesaving industry  to be ‘ridiculous’ and a potential cause of further accidents, in safety risk management, it is also an example of applying personal protective equipment (PPE) under the hierarchy of controls, as the least effective means of control.  For major risks or those with a high consequence outcome, such is the case here, PPE is the last line of defence, and is generally inappropriate unless supplementing other higher order controls.

The hierarchy of controls (pictured in the diagram below) is a commonly used set of mitigating control principles applied in safety risk management. The hierarchy applies a prioritised order of strategies ranging from elimination, (the most desirable strategy), to 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 (if possible) or, if this is not possible or appropriate, to minimise exposures to as low as reasonably practicable.

In the case of the Aussies, the risk requiring treatment is the drowning of a competitor – based upon the history of this competition, an apparently significant risk.  Personal protective equipment alone may therefore be an inappropriate control method and higher levels from the hierarchy are required. Given that surf conditions are subject to change which can be sudden and dramatic, it seems important that an option be in placed to either eliminate the risk completely by cancelling the event, or relocating the event (even at short notice) if required. Substituting Kurrawa Beach for a location with less dangerous surf conditions is likely to reduce the risk of drowning far more significantly than helmets and life vests. Alternatively, the implementation of a system of ‘isolation’ could be implemented whereby junior events, whose contestants are physically more at risk than adults in large surf, could be postponed until conditions abate.

The tragic deaths of Matthew Barclay, Saxon Bird and Robert Gatenby while competing in junior surf lifesaving titles suggest that the risks involved in these competitions require more stringent controls than those currently in place. Despite the fact that surf lifesavers are universally praised for risking their lives to save others, it is the responsibility of the organisers of junior competitions to take all reasonable measures to ensure the safety of participants.

In risk management theory, risk culture is an important part of effective risk management.  That is, the culture of the organisation must be one that is forward thinking, innovative and risk aware.  While surf lifesaving is undoubtedly progressive and aware of the risks associated with the ocean and the surf, it is an organisation that has a long history in Australia with entrenched cultures.  The challenge will be to reflect on these incidents and challenge long held beliefs about the way such events are held.

While undoubtedly all members of surf lifesaving understand and accept the risks associated with their movement as do participants in competition, there is a public expectation that iconic sports such as this are safe. This is particularly so where presumably parents or guardians are approving of the level of risks on their children’s behalf. With three junior deaths in close succession clearly this is unacceptable and something needs to change.