So, before you decide that this is a boring safety blog, why not make a cup of tea and have a read of something that could make a real difference to your next overseas trip. Having worked in the expedition industry for over 15 years and being a risk management specialist for the last 11 years I have seen all sorts of things go wrong and in many cases these could have been avoided.
I have led expeditions all over the world and still enjoy nothing more than planning my own adventures, so I am not out to spoil anyones fun. My intention is to raise awareness of the things that can go wrong in order that you are better placed to make informed decisions regarding your own safety and the safety of those travelling with you. I think the best way to do this is in the form of a chart countdown and for those of you old enough, consider this a veritable hit parade of things that can go wrong.
10. Kidnap and Ransom
You may think this will never happen to me. Well, surprisingly thats what the 20,000 people a year who find themselves being kidnap victims said before they were taken.
Although often referred to as the safest form of travel this does depend where you are in the world and the airline you are using. You can check the safety record of most airlines through the Aviation Safety Network, but if you do find yourself on a dodgy aircraft some things you can do to increase your chances of survival include, listening to the safety briefing (even if you are a regular traveller), wear your seatbelt and actually practice putting it on and taking it off. Sit towards the rear of the aircraft and never more than 5 rows from an exit. Aisle seats are going to allow you a quicker exit from the aircraft.
Count the number of rows from your seat to the nearest exit. It could be dark in there and you may be upside down. Read my Plane Safety blog.
8. Human/Animal Conflict
For many people heading off overseas, this is one of their biggest fears. However, the truth is its quite rare, but when it does happen, its usually big news. Best tips for avoiding conflict are to respect animal environments, always keep your distance, get properly trained before entering locations where animals are a hazard. Listen to local advice and if you dont need to be on foot in areas where theres dangerous wildlife, dont be. Make sure you have adequate precautions in place and your equipment is serviceable and people know how to use it. And if the worst happens make sure you have appropriate 1st Aid training. Statistically, more people are killed by cows each year than by sharks.
So, I guess the message here is dont go swimming with cows!
7. Trips, Slips and Falls
This includes so many variations and perhaps the most commonly reported recently have been falls from balconies. Last year 14 Brits died overseas after falling from balconies. Thats a ridiculous figure and it many cases the victims were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Often these occur when people are locked out of their accommodation, so rather than get a spare key from reception, their brain goes through a process of deciding that the best idea is to scale their building from the outside!
Other falls occur in mountain regions where there steep drop offs and people get too close to the edge. Even dodgy pavements in some areas can cause significant harm, particularly those that have iron rods protruding from them. No matter how adventurous an explorer you think you are, you cannot defy the laws of gravity, so stay clear of edges and balconies.
More common than a lot of people think and usually avoidable. A lot of drownings occur because the victims were not familiar with local conditions, or because they hadnt adequately assessed the risk. Another reason is the lack of proper personal flotation devices (PFDs). Water is dangerous to humans and therefore taking common sense steps to prevent this in your planning, is well, just common sense. Yet you would be surprised how many victims of drowning are those who go in to help people in trouble without thinking about their own safety. If you are on a vessel that goes down and even if you are wearing a life jacket you may not be safe.
I once investigated an incident where all those who were wearing a life jacket drowned. Why? Well, all the other passengers who didnt have lifejackets saw those with them as floatation devices and clung on to them and pushed them under the water in the panic to survive.
5. Scams and Violence
Unfortunately this seems to go with the territory nowadays with overseas travel and the key is to be familiar with the local scams, which can range from getting you to sign a petition to support a local cause while their mates are liberating your pockets and bag of your valuables to being caught up in something more serious and sinister. Scams involving accusations of rape or sexual assault are on the increase and these can involve corrupt police officials and victims ending up in the local jail until a bride is paid. Spiking of drinks is also on the increase, so never leave your drink unattended, especially if you are drinking alone. Speak to those who have been in country a while and get the latest advice from FCO/Lonely Planet/Blogs etc
It sounds obvious, but I am always astounded by the number of people who travel without adequate travel insurance. Your policy needs be to fit for purpose for the travel you are undertaking. The policy you get from your local supermarket or the one that comes free with your new credit card usually only provides minimal cover and certainly wont cover many of the adventurous activities you are planning. Make sure you check your policy carefully and pay particular attention to the exclusions section. If you dont and you get injured, you could be hit with a very hefty medical bill. For those of you heading to altitude, be aware that many insurance policies will only cover you up to an altitude of 2,000 metres. So, if you are going higher than that you will need to get specialist cover. Many policies are also nullified if you are under the influence of drink or drugs at the time of an accident.
3. Health Issues
The need for looking after your health is a key part of your travel safety. You should know about every illness and disease you are likely to encounter in the region you are travelling to and take every precaution to avoid getting it.
The know before you go approach is key to avoiding many of the local nasties. Equally, your first aid kit needs to be appropriate to the type of travel you are undertaking. Dont go taking a standard urban 1st Aid kit if you are planning an expedition to the jungles of the DRC. Think also about taking a giving kit, so at least you have set of sterile needles and cannulas should you need them.
The greatest risk here is a fire within a hotel, house or hostel. Similar to aircraft, make sure you know where the nearest fire exit is and count the number of doors between your room and the exit. Take a portable smoke detector with you, as many hotels overseas do not have these fitted. Make sure fire exits are not blocked or locked and if they are, get the management to do something about it, or change hotel. A great and simple security device once you are inside your room is a door stop. So, even if someone unlocks your door whilst you are inside, they wont be able to open it with a small piece of wood wedged underneath it. Never accept rooms on the ground floor, as you are at greater risk of being broken into and if you are travelling to a region where terrorism is a problem always get a room above the 4th floor and not overlooking the car park.
And finally, at number 1 is the most dangerous part of any overseas travel..vehicles. I have written a whole blog just on this subject (see Getting taken for a ride), but heres a few facts from the World Health Organisation. Road traffic crashes injure or disable between 20 and 50 million people a year. 90% of road traffic deaths occur in low to middle income countries (the sort of places you like to travel to) Over 1.2 million people a year die in vehicle crashes. (Thats 3,242 people a day!) And over 25,000 of those people are tourists (Thats the category you fall into.) Which brings me to what YOU can do about this.
If you are the leader of an expedition, you have a responsibility to those in your care for their safety. Your mindset should be one of I'm the leader, Im in charge, I need to act and even if you are travelling independently, you owe it to yourself to always try to make sure the transport you select is safe. Check tyres, seatbelts and the driver. Dont be afraid to ask a driver to slow down If you think a driver is unsafe, get off and wait for the next bus Dont be afraid to turn down a sub-standard vehicle and demand something better Make sure your driver is well rested Don't drive at night Traffic death rates are three times greater at night than during the day 55% of all driving fatalities occur after dark 62% of pedestrian fatalities occur at night Make sure everyone wears a seatbelt. Now, I know that many of you will be thinking that its near impossible to get decent transport in some of the countries you are planning on visiting and I agree, this is not an easy task.
However, unless we as travellers make the demands, we will continue to get sub-standard vehicles and people will continue to get hurt. If transport providers and overseas agents realise that we wont accept poor quality vehicles, it becomes a business decision for them and already we have seen a shift for the better in standards of vehicles overseas. Hopefully I have not put you off travel or exploring. I spend my working life trying to find ways for people to continue exploring and to come back better for the experience. The more aware and informed you are the greater your chances of having a safe and memorable expedition. But one final word of caution, dont ride your luck, luck is unreliable!
First published on the EC blog in November 2013. Written by Lloyd Figgins, Field Safety Expert Accident Investigatorand published on his blog www.lloydfiggins.com