How to guarantee safety in outdoor education

How do you judge the safety of a high ropes course? What questions should you ask of potential designers and builders? Against what criteria should you evaluate answers if you’re building a zip line?

These questions are critical. When it comes to safety your margin for error is zero.

Safety begins with design

Design affects everything: the experience kids have on your high ropes course, throughput, staffing and maintenance costs, product longevity, re-sale value and more.

But in the context of safety – the most important context of all – the key is ‘structural’ design.

Why you need to understand proof loading

If you build a ropes course or any other outdoor education experience, you need proof that the various elements can repeatedly, over the long term, handle the required load.

For example, a rock climbing wall will have belay or lifeline anchors at the top and bottom of the wall where climbers attach their ropes. For obvious safety reasons, each anchor must be tested (proof loaded) with expected loads before hand over to the client.

The main challenge often lies in designing a sufficiently rigorous proof loading test. High anchors are relatively simple: attach a wire and winch it down, with a prescribed level of force. But what about a ground-level anchor? One solution is to winch upward, from a tripod placed above the anchor.

Beyond designing an effective test, process is key. Effective proof loading relies on:
• Conducting the test independent of outside or confounding influences
• Accurately observing the results
• Recording the results via text, photographs and/or video
• Reporting the final results to the client.

Clear recording and reporting procedures are essential for your peace of mind, but also to protect yourself from any future liability.

Ultimate trump card: Engineer’s stamp

What if proof loading can’t prove that your high ropes course is safe? In this case, course inspectors and designers must absolutely work with an engineer.

To ensure maximum possible safety, to protect yourself from future liability, and to protect the value of your asset if you ever want to sell (an engineer’s stamp provides financial safety too).

How often will you need an engineer? It’s surprisingly common.

We hire engineers all the time. Everything we build is informed and guided by current or previous structural drawings.

Skilled verses unskilled labour

There is design, then there is execution. All the best laid plans in the world will come undone if they’re not built properly.

The bottom line: don’t settle for unskilled labour. Does your high ropes course builder hire ‘ring-ins’ to swing hammers? Or permanent staff who build courses for a living, week in, week out?

Building courses isn’t as simple as following instructions. Like it or not, on-site workers are responsible for implementing quality control systems. Every ropes course builder is different, but we constantly test how much tonnage our wires, ropes and terminations (where we secure a rope to make an eye) will take before they break.

If your workers are ‘hit and miss’ so you will be your safety standards.

When maintenance is make or break for safety

Any ropes course builder compliant with EN15567-1 standards must provide a maintenance manual with a new course.

This manual should tell you how to use the course, how to maintain it and how and when to inspect it. In short, it should tell you how to preserve and protect your facility.

But beyond enhancing your investment and saving you money over time, the manual protects you against liability by guiding you in safety and compliance.

There is an unavoidable gap between the design and building of a high ropes course (or climbing wall or zip line) and the operation of that facility. The maintenance manual bridges that gap – especially over time.

If, two years down the track, a new centre manager is in charge, he or she won’t have to rely on a personal connection with the company that did the designing and building.

He or she will have the manual.

Don’t sign off on a job without one.

Still worried about safety?

Call us on 0488 662 734 or email us at We’re happy to talk with anyone trying to raise the bar on safety in our industry.