What is true safety?
The difference between policy and education*
The Health and Safety Reform Bill is currently before parliament (see more here and here). This reform to the current health and safety in employment act is taking place in an attempt to reduce workplace injury and death by 25% by 2020. That’s a worthy goal, a goal that everyone should support. However, I don’t wholly support the methods that are being proposed in order to achieve the goal. I’m going to use a story from the parkour world to describe my reasoning:
In parkour, we regularly have would-be practitioners – and perhaps more often their parents – asking if there is a soft, padded, “safe” environment where they can learn parkour. The irony of this question is that these environments often lead to the opposite of what these people want. When somebody, especially a new practitioner, trains in an environment full of mats, padding and foam they inevitably switch off the risk assessment system in their brain, thinking “I can do and try anything I want because this place is safe”. Wrong, unfortunately. One of the most important components of whether an accident or injury is going to occur is our ability to understand what we a capable of, what is required of us in a situation and whether we can manage the risk that is present. I have seen and heard of more serious injuries occurring in these supposed “safe” environments, because people push their limits without assessing the risk and without having true respect for themselves, their abilities or the environment.
We can use the story to draw some parallels: The soft, “safe” things equate to our workplace health and safety policies. Yes, policies have their place, but I make the case that the most important thing is to have safe people. No matter how rigorous, restrictive and “safe” you make a policy or an environment; there will always be somebody who finds a way to get hurt. By and large, that is not the fault of the policy but the fault of the individual. Safe people make fewer mistakes and know how to manage the risk in any environment, but unsafe people will get hurt no matter the circumstances.
Policy says – “Wear gloves to prevent cutting your hands, i.e. policy will keep you safe.”
The long term effect of this policy is that most people will rely on the gloves to prevent the injury, ignoring their own ability to avoid having their hands in dangerous places. Inevitably, somebody will find a way to hurt themselves regardless of the gloves/policy.
Education says – “Train yourself to a) avoid hurting your hands and/or b) toughen up your hands so that they don’t get hurt, i.e. having positive habits will keep you safe.”
The long term effect of this is the building of sound habits that will stick with most people no matter the situation. It’s possible that somebody will hurt their hands, but with education the expectation is that the individual will train harder, become more aware and thus more careful in the future.
As I said before, this is not an argument for removing all policy, but for the inclusion of education and training based initiatives to create safe people so that people are truly safe. The longer I train parkour and the more I’m involved with the parkour community the more I see its ability to positively transform other areas of life. Can parkour training teach us something about health and safety? I think so.
At a time where schools in some countries are banning simple activities like handstands and cartwheels, an AUT and Otago University study enlisted a number of primary schools to investigate explorative, free-range play to see its consequences on children’s activity, behaviour, bullying and risk management. They say:
“The increased emphasis on academic success and structured supervised activity at the expense of explorative free-range play is thought to have the unintended consequence of impairing children’s ability to manage risk. In turn, this is believed to increase their involvement in far riskier – than climbing trees – behaviours when they are older.”
The results of the study: Teachers report higher concentration levels, no need for their timeout area for bad behaviour during lunchtime, less injury and less bullying [1-4]. Grant Schofield, professor of public health at AUT who worked on the study, said that the frontal lobe of the brain is developed when children are taking risks, which allows them to calculate consequences – a necessary skill to be sure. It’s great to see these schools taking part in this study and encouraging to see that the results line up with what many of us, especially in the parkour community, believe to be common sense.
The body of knowledge surrounding the importance of play is ever growing, and more recently it has begun to focus on play beyond the years of childhood [5-10]. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, director of Temple University’s Infant and Child Laboratory in Pennsylvania, U.S.A and author of Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less (about the nature and importance of play time for adults) says that “we associate play with childhood, and therefore “playing” with childishness”, but as George Bernard Shaw said “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” It is likely that the lack of play in adults has contributed to the cotton-wool / bubble wrapping mentality that we are trying to combat today. So, if risk taking in play is essential to learning how to effectively manage risk [11-13], and parkour is essentially play for all ages – running, jumping, climbing, swinging, rolling, vaulting, overcoming challenges (sounds like play to me) – then parkour is a way of playing that results in effective risk management; a valuable tool that young people and adults alike can use to further the benefits of play from childhood into maturity.
Persons outside the parkour community often consider parkour to be an activity practiced by delinquents, thrill seekers, or only for the physical elite. In reality, parkour is an activity that all people who move can use to improve a myriad of skills, including physical fitness, self-esteem and self-efficacy, creativity, risk management and trust. With a non-competitive focus, this process of playing and learning can be achieved at any level of participation. If we as adults take cues from our children and engage in risky play like parkour – i.e. education and training – and spend less time coming up with restrictive rules – i.e. policy – would we not create a society that is healthier, smarter and safer? It would take longer than 2020 for this to permeate New Zealand society, but the lasting effects might dwarf the 25% reduction in injury and death sought through the Health and Safety Reform Bill.
The consequences to making a bad decision in parkour are often immediate and can be painful. The consequences of our choices in the rest of our life are not always so clear. This is one of the reasons why parkour is so valuable – it causes us to think critically about our choices and the actions we choose to take. We think about our end goal and make calculated decisions so that we can get there safely. We have to make decisions everyday, things that affect our relationships, our jobs, our mental wellbeing; by practicing parkour, we give ourselves a safe and practical outlet for learning to make sound decisions for our greater good.
One day, we’ll stop fighting to have parkour and other educative tools accepted and understood by the masses. Instead, we’ll be celebrating together at the strides we’ve made (parkour pun intended), the fun we’ve had, how much we’ve learned and how much safer we are.
Bring on that day.
– Damien Puddle, CEO of NZ Parkour
*Education as in learning, not to be confused with the mainstream education system which may not actually produce desired results.