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MSA Training: Why It Is an Important First Step

You likely wouldn’t hand over your car keys to someone who had never learned how to drive, nor would you trust a surgeon who hadn’t been to medical school. Getting the appropriate training for a job – no matter what that may entail - is essential in life, and that is why Mountain Safety Awareness (MSA) Training is so critical to working in mountainous terrain. Understanding why MSA Training is important isn’t a challenge. Mountains are inherently dynamic terrain with variable surfaces, unpredictable weather, and with sites that are physically demanding to access. When workers receive MSA Training, many of these risks can be mitigated and people become exponentially safer – it’s getting workers prepared and confident to work in a potentially unfamiliar environment.

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Jeff Relph, VP of Operations at Global Mountain Solutions, has decades of experience in mountainous terrain both for recreation and professional reasons. Listening to him explain the various facets of MSA Training, it is easy to see both how comprehensive the course offerings are as well as how vital they are for crews before undertaking work. Teaching people to understand the requirements of their environment so they know what to expect, before they ever set foot on a mountainous work site, means that a worker has a higher probability of showing up prepared, executing work tasks safely, and not incurring injuries or accidents while engaging in work. Jeff relates it to a recreational example – saying you wouldn’t just ask or expect an average city-dweller to just “climb a mountain”. Often, the individuals that attempt that without appropriate knowledge or training are the ones that end up in the most dangerous situations. MSA Training is “teaching mountains to non-mountain people” for the purposes of accomplishing work (such as seismic exploration or petroleum industry jobs).

MSA Training is typically customized to the needs of a client and the particular program they are running, but the fundamentals of the coursework are consistent. The primary objective is always to educate field workers to recognize and identify mountain terrain features, to understand the associated hazards, and to learn how to apply the appropriate risk mitigation techniques for safe travel in that terrain.

For a two-day MSA Training course, the first day will be spent in the classroom, teaching anywhere from a handful of workers to a large crew of 60. The group will go through the project, analyzing the terrain map and focusing on the areas that will be worked in. Part of MSA Training is learning to use the correct terminology to talk about this terrain, so that communicating locations can be done clearly and accurately. Where many of us just see a steep slope of rock, training instructs workers to identify terrain features such as ridges, cols, and gullies - implementing the mountain pedagogy that is second-nature to trainers. Appropriate communication and individual and group decision-making are part of this Day 1 training, as is emergency preparedness and instructing on an emergency response plan. Knowing what to wear, what equipment to bring, and what to watch out for (any hazards can be covered, from inclement weather to bear safety) are all critical components of training.

On Day 2, workers will go out into the field to practice travel techniques and movement skills that help to mitigate risks and hazards. Here, crews have the opportunity under the guidance of an expert trainer to recognize and classify the terrain based on their own assessments. Jeff also explains that this field experience is also valuable for increasing safety and improving efficiency, reducing energy by finding the path of least resistance. For example, Jeff describes a ridge with firm rock and a scree slope with loose rock to the side. By choosing to walk just a short distance to the side and avoiding the scree slope, someone could easily save themselves a lot of effort and avoid potential risks. Clearly, even with such choices, operating in mountains is physically demanding, and crews need to be fit – both mentally and physically. Jeff explains the assessments that happen in MSA Training, which help to identify which workers possess the essential situational awareness that makes them alert to their surroundings and safe, as well as which workers have the physical capability to access more challenging sites.

Other elements often make it into MSA Training, such as working in and around helicopters. One of the great benefits of MSA Training, and something that other types of workplace training can’t always offer, is its fully customizable nature depending on a project’s needs. By the conclusion of the training, all workers going onto a mountainous site should be fully prepared for the situations they are likely to encounter.

The experts that deliver MSA Training truly are experts in all facets of it – mountains, safety, and (situational) awareness. Given the confidence it instills in workers, the risks it mitigates and the knowledge it imparts on an entire crew, it’s clear why it is not just an important, but an essential, first step.

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