Continuing Medical Education

Human factors: Predictors of avoidable wilderness accidents?

Rik De Decker, Gela Tölken, John Roos


A common misconception is that wilderness adventure travel is risky owing to the nature of the objective dangers that are encountered, such as avalanches, rock falls, flash floods, failure of technical equipment and so forth. However, when one critically examines the proximal causes of wilderness accidents, even those caused by such ‘objective dangers’, it is apparent that many are due to ‘human factors’ or non-technical skills. These are broadly defined as the continuous process of identifying and avoiding the activities, interactions and decisions that may jeopardise safe and effective response to adverse events. Objective dangers and adverse events are unavoidable, but the response to them is governed by how team dynamics, leadership and followership modes, situational awareness and experience may mitigate these risks or manage their consequences effectively. On the other hand, ignoring human factors during wilderness travel is predictive of wilderness accidents. This article outlines how an awareness of human factors may be used to reduce the risks of adventure travel significantly.

Authors' affiliations

Rik De Decker, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town and Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa; International Commission for Alpine Rescue Emergency Medicine Commission representative for the Mountain Club of South Africa Mountain Rescue team, Cape Town, South Africa

Gela Tölken, WildMedix, Cape Town, South Africa; Mountain Rescue, Hottentots-Holland Section – Mountain Club of South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa

John Roos, Department of Anaesthesia, Mitchell’s Plain Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa; South African Red Cross Air Mercy Service, Cape Town, South Africa

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Human factors; Wilderness; Accidents

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2017;107(8):669-673. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2017.v107i8.12677

Article History

Date submitted: 2017-07-28
Date published: 2017-07-28

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