Standards — Friend or Foe?

by Charles R. (Reb) Gregg and Catherine Hansen-Stamp

A standard, according to Merriam-Webster, is "something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value or quality." (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.)

Following the American Camp Association's (ACA) recent revision of standards contained in the ACA Accreditation Standards for Camp Programs and Services (1998), we discuss here the broad definition of "standards" and their value and risks to camps and other recreation providers.

What Is a Standard?

Standards may be developed to provide guidance to others, promote uniformity in design and methods, elevate (or "standardize") the practices within an industry, and in many cases contribute to the management of the risks presented by the person, place, thing, or behavior, which is the subject of the standard.

Standards are only as good as the person or organization that establishes them. While somewhat unusual, a standard developed by a single credible and experienced individual or organization may be taken seriously in the market place. A standard set by a consensus of credible practitioners or producers may enjoy more acceptance.

Standards may be established under the supervision of public and private agencies and industry groups that seek to develop standards from a diverse group of advisors, recognized for their experience and talent.

Standards may also be developed, unintentionally as far as the public is concerned, by a single producer or practitioner who has demonstrated, over the years, outstanding proficiency and success. A certain camp, for example, may set a standard for a certain activity or method simply by virtue of its extraordinary success in doing what it does. Portions of the handbook of a noted outdoor recreation or education program may become a "standard" by which others in the same business conduct similar activities.

Standards, in the broadest sense, include those that may be developed internally by an organization. For example, a camp may develop internal standards, presumably in compliance with ACA standards, to deal with practical issues related to its particular operation.

Competing organizations may generate and publish competing standards, forcing the public to make choices based on the reputation of the standard setter, general acceptance in the marketplace, and trial and error. As noted below, competing standards may cause problems.

Standards may be as formal as those established by law (statutes, for example), or developed by an association or agency to award certification or accreditation. Standards may be as informal as simply exemplary practices developed by an organization, or the generally accepted "way to do things" in a particular industry.

Standards can be rigid and precise, or flexible and general. Standards can be quite specific, as in matters of staff to camper ratios, the strength of supporting cables, and adherence to health and safety rules and regulations. They may also offer room for judgment and variation by the use of such terms as "appropriate," "reasonable," etc., in which case explanatory notes may be offered. The best standards are those which leave room for judgment, allowing deviation if appropriate. This flexibility is more applicable to standards of conduct, screening, supervision, etc., than to matters of engineering efficiency — weight bearing loads and strength issues for example.

The term "standard," like the term "policy," can have many meanings, even within the same organization. Some may view a standard as the "best" (or only) way to design, build, or do something; others as the "preferred" way; others as the "accepted" way; and others may treat a standard as only a guideline.

The bottom line is this: whether the announcement is termed a standard, practice, guideline, or something else, it will probably be interpreted (including by a court of law) as it has been observed. For example, a practice or measurement called a guideline, whose users are told it must be followed, may be fairly viewed as a mandatory requirement. A standard that is only casually observed may be properly considered to be only a guideline. Any announcement of a standard should be quite clear as to what is intended, and describe not only how, but for whom and for what purpose the standard has been developed.

It is important that newly written standards not contradict established standards unless there is a very good reason for doing so. Standards should not conflict with existing law, and in fact standards may reference pertinent laws. Standard setters should coordinate with other standard setting organizations whose operations may overlap — to achieve consistency and avoid confusion in the marketplace.

The Value of Well-Developed Standards

Flexible and well-drafted standards (whether used in conjunction with an accreditation program or otherwise) can provide many benefits for organizations and their customers. Correspondingly, poorly drafted or vague standards can cause serious problems for organizations or individuals attempting to comply with those standards, and in the event of litigation.)

Standards, developed by an industry association — the ACA, for example — can elevate the performance of an industry, increase the public's confidence in that industry and protect persons who buy the products and the services of that industry. Specifically, standards can help a camp more comprehensively address the many important program, risk management, and legal issues included in the business of running the organization. The ACA, for example, historically has emphasized its standards as an important means of educating camps about "best practices" in the industry.

Standards can assist in the accrediting or certification of organizations (including camps) and individual practitioners, thereby sharpening the skills of those persons and declaring to the consuming public that those organizations and persons seek excellence. Organizations which demonstrate compliance are probably more likely to attract thoughtful clients.

Conflicting Views About Standards Development

While it would be difficult to argue against the importance of standards for elevating, or at least making more predictable, the performance of an industry, some, even some lawyers, caution that standards can be a trap. This is their reasoning:

  1. A standard, however carefully crafted, may be wrong, and thus, reliance by an organization on that standard may not provide a successful defense to the organization if an injury occurs and litigation follows. Critics emphasize that industry providers must consider carefully what may be regarded as a standard in the industry, for courts have found an entire industry negligent in the conduct of a practice. Ultimately, "the way everybody is doing it" may not always be even the reasonable, much less the best, way.
  2. Failure to abide by a standard may be considered by a judge or jury as some evidence of negligence: that is, an organization which ignores or contradicts a standard established by the industry of which it is a part must be able to explain the deviation or face the consequences. Ignorance of, or failure to comply with, a relevant standard may indicate significant deficiencies in the quality of that organization's risk management and other policies and practices.

Industry Standards — Is the Effort Worthwhile?

The prospect of an organization's performance being measured against standards is real. But the solution is not to avoid setting standards, or for an organization to ignore compliance with established standards. The solution is for standard setting organizations, and those who may fairly be judged by those standards, to assist in the effort to assure that such standards are reasonably created, understood, and followed. The camp or other organization that does not follow the ACA standards, for example, does so at some risk. The ACA is sufficiently well-established and credible that camps, whether ACA members or not, may fairly be judged by its standards.

Standards are not a safe harbor. However, paying attention to and complying with appropriate standards is a better practice than proceeding down the shoreline with only internal practices and procedures, uninformed by what the rest of the world is doing! It is important that organizations that may be judged by established standards (whether members of a standard setting organization or not) participate vigorously in the standard setting and revision process.

Legal Implications — External and Internal Standards

Standards have legal implications, as suggested above. They may be used in a court proceeding to show the violation of a duty of care (that is, the failure to act as a reasonable professional would have acted under the same or similar circumstances . . . negligence). In determining the reasonableness of a person's conduct, the court or jury may look to the organization's own internal standards, to statutes, and to standards or prevailing practices in the industry (ACA standards, for example). Experts may testify, and even disagree, about these "standards" or practices of an industry. With regard to camps, experts may refer to practices or announced standards of well-established and successful camps for examples of reasonable conduct. As noted above, the ACA accreditation standards are an important and reliable source of reasonable practices. Certainly, state and federal statutory requirements should be reviewed for compliance. A court or jury can use these standards, practices, or statutory mandates as evidence of liability in certain circumstances.

A camp (accredited or not) should endeavor to thoughtfully craft its own internal practices, and see that those practices conform to — or at least do not contradict — applicable ACA standards. A camp's internal practices or procedures may address, for example, hiring and training staff, conducting classes or activities, and how to handle emergency situations. Organizations and their leaders must take care in documenting standards or policies. If a lawsuit is filed, attorneys for the complaining party will most likely be able to review those writings. Serious litigation issues may result if the organization's internal policies have not been followed or do not conform to ACA standards.

Because written standards can have both legal and practical ramifications, it is critical that any standard be carefully drafted, flexible, internally consistent and agreed to by respected members of the industry group. In addition, the practices should contain appropriate language outlining the intent and limits of the practices (and if you are purporting to set standards for others, appropriate disclaimer language). Standards should be reviewed on an ongoing and regular basis, and adjusted as necessary. Whether standards are developed internally or industry-wide, standards are constantly evolving. Organizations must commit to a regular and systematic review of applicable written standards.

ACA Revised Standards 2006

ACA standards are established by a process that includes careful analysis of existing issues, publication of proposed standards for comment, announcement of the standards finally adopted, and a periodic review and updating to reflect new challenges, new understandings, and new technologies. The recently approved 2006 revisions of the 1998 ACA Standards were developed over considerable time, presented to ACA members for comment, and adjusted in response to those comments.

The following examples of those revised standards emphasize the value of responsible standards development, and illustrate the points made in this article.

  1. HW-XX — availability of an AED. This new standard recognizes that a camp should make "an assessment of the need for an AED (automated external defibrillator)" at the camp — recognizing the increasing use of this relatively new piece of emergency equipment. Importantly, the standard does not require the camp to have an AED on site, but simply to assess whether to have one on site. The standard's comment advises camps to take several general factors into consideration in the assessment process, including seeking the advice of medical and legal authorities. Wisely, the standard does not require the AED, but in light of the increasing availability of these devices, recognizes a need for camps to determine whether one should be in place. It gives the camp room to make a thoughtful judgment, rather than mandating specific compliance. A camp's choice in this regard should not be made casually. Children's needs for AEDs are not the same as those of adults. The freedom to address particular camp populations and needs is important.
     
  2. OM 4 — Risk Management; revised. This revised standard continues to recognize that camps should address risk management considerations in a proactive manner. OM-4 comments reflect that the ACA standards, as a whole, address many risk management considerations, but that camps also need to have a "big picture" approach to risk management. That is, they should implement an approach that addresses overall operations, including risk management issues that may not be covered by individual ACA standards. Wisely, the standard does not dictate that the camp develop a specific, unitary, risk management plan, but that the camp develop "written materials for risk management planning," that focus on this overall approach. The standard provides flexibility for camps, recognizing that the size, mission, and resources of the camp may dictate, to some degree, the nature of a camp's risk management approach. The standard also provides some flexibility on what to assess, rather than a specific and detailed list, the standard outlines three general areas where overall risk management should be addressed, leaving the camp with flexibility in determining how to structure its approach.

    This is a sensitive standard, because compliance requires that the camp develop internal written materials to address overall risk management. Two important issues for the camp are these: 1) it must comply with the standard, and 2) once it has complied with the standard (that is, developed writings reflecting a risk management plan) the camp must be prepared to carry out the plan. Like standards themselves, a risk management plan is a live document that must be reviewed and attended to (and updated as appropriate) regularly. A camp must understand that if it develops written materials identifying how it will address overall risk management, it must be prepared to adhere to its own internal directives. As mentioned previously, a camp's failure to comply with or adhere to its own internal practices can create serious issues in litigation. If, for example, a risk management plan calls for designation of a committee to meet regularly to discuss the camp's plan, that committee should be designated, and should meet.
     

  3. HR-4 staff screening. This standard has been revised to include a mandatory component stemming from recently enacted sex offender laws and regulations on the local, state and national level. This standard is a good example of how revision reflects changes in the industry — laws and regulations promote more specificity in standards, so that camps will adhere to applicable laws, and address resulting changes in industry practices and approaches in this sensitive area. The Comments to the standard provide additional detail.
     
  4. HR-11 precamp staff training. The revised standard identifies the topics that should be included in staff training, and the Comments suggest amounts of time that might be required to cover those topics. The evolution of HR-11 from its 1998 predecessor recognizes that the substance of staff training is more relevant than the amount of time spent training instructors (the focus of the old standard). The revised standard provides general guidance on substantive training, but refrains from providing a bullet list of topics for staff — some of which may be inappropriate for some camps.

Conclusion

Standards are the friend of those in the industry who strive for excellence and who are willing to invest time and effort in developing standards which are current, thoughtful and practical. Standards may be a threat to those who are lax in their practices and slow to take advantage of the advanced thinking of the industry. But with standards, come responsibilities. Study the ACA standards, be active in the development and revision of these standards, and demonstrate thoughtful compliance. In addition, consider other standards that may pertain to your organization. Create, review and revise your organization's internal practices or policies regularly. If you attend to standards, yours will be a better camp, and your camp families will be better served by you.

©2006 Charles R. Gregg and Catherine Hansen-Stamp

Originally published in the 2006 Spring issue of The CampLine.
 

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