What is true safety?

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.


Because the outdoors are hard and unforgiving, we have to learn and have respect for our surroundings. That’s why exploring ones boundaries using parkour, allows us to learn real risk assessment skills rather than relying on policy to do it for us.

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.


  1. http://news.nationalpost.com/news/when-one-new-zealand-school-tossed-its-playground-rules-and-let-students-risk-injury-the-results-surprised
  2. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/new-zealand-school-bans-playground-rules-and-sees-less-bullying-and-vandalism-9091186.html
  3. http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2583576/free-play-at-school
  4. http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/school-ditches-rules-and-loses-bullies-5807957
  5. http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP092572842.pdf
  6. https://earlyyearsoutdooreducation.wordpress.com/outdoor-risky-play-for-all/
  7. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201404/risky-play-why-children-love-it-and-need-it
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3499858/
  9. http://www.manukau.ac.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/119942/08-Nicol-student-final.pdf
  10. http://www.springzaad.nl/litdocs/risk_and_play-a_literature_review.pdf
  11. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/11/15/the-importance-of-play-for-adults/
  12. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/oct/05/why-play-is-important-to-us-all-lauren-laverne
  13. http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/throw-out-your-computer-and-grab-some-legos



About The Author

Damien Puddle


  • Inny on November 24, 2015


    Your article has been shared with the korean parkour community. Thank you.

    While I was reading your article, I had a few thoughts so I thought I might as well leave a comment.

    I am a traceuse in Korea, and as my full time job I work in a chemical company.

    So here are my doubts:
    How many serious injuries do you think that are from the casual working environment e.g. offices? You mentioned extreme environments such as mining, but I work in a lab/factory and I wouldn’t call it an ‘extreme’ environment – think about how many factories there are in the world.

    For example in my lab/factories, there are a lot of people who don’t have a science background but they run the machines. And sometimes it is just too hard to explain the whole chemistry behind the rules – that would sometimes be equivalent to giving them a full uni chemistry course. So sometimes I just feel like the companies have to tell them what’s right to do.

    Even after being in this field for years I feel like I’m ignorant. It’s just too complicated that it’s not as simple as ‘toughen your hand’. For example, in some area you can’t carry your cards or phones because there are too strong magnetic fields. Education: ‘in some area, you might break your phone and your credit cards, so make sure you ask people when you enter every single place if you can carry your phone.’Is it realistic?, or ‘give training about all the hundreds of machines that they might not even use for the rest of their lives and teach them how the machines work’? Policy: ‘Do not enter this area. / Do not carry your phones when you enter’. I think for this case policy is just easier. I know this might be a bit extreme. But there are tons of examples like this in the work field. Another example: There are odorless, colorless liquids that might burn your finger. Here is when the policy is needed ‘wear the gloves at all time’, even after give them trainings about how they should be careful. YES I totally agree with you that education is needed but I personally think that education and policy have to co-exist.

    I have read the Safety and Reform Bill but I know that I don’t really know much about how these are carried out in newzealand, so maybe I can’t really say much but I just wanted to know what you think .

    Thank you.

    • Damien Puddle on November 24, 2015

      Hi Inny,

      Thank you for your response.

      The situations you discuss are certainly areas where policy has great value and I would not want to be seen to suggest otherwise.

      I also agree that education and policy have to and should co-exist, but I think my main aim with this post was to highlight how some policies may actually result in greater harm in the long run – preventing the possibility to learn and to take ownership of ones own safety.

  • Robbes on November 10, 2015

    Not entirely sure I understand. I get the part about kids learning and playing, and (of course) adults continuing to play. And I see the parallel you make to (parkour) training. Policy cannot replace a proper education and training. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is anything wrong with policy (not just “all policy”, but any policy); it just means that the policy needs to be grounded in well-grounded research. A “working environment” is not one where “play” or “training” is relevant. A working environment is one where mistakes and hazards are necessarily minimized.

    When we train parkour, we train with a certain intention. We decide on a path, we decide which body parts to use, how many steps to take, etc. Anything we do instead of that intention is a failure of that intention. When we aren’t training, however, everything and anything ought to become our tools when we need them. That includes gloves and whatever else we decide to have on-hand (there is a pun for ya).

    So I get and am 100% behind the push for better preventative education and “risk management” skillz, but… I’m not sure I understand the specific opposition to the Safety and Reform Bill. The link you’ve shared is dead, but what I gather from supplementary data doesn’t seem to discount worker training at all, but rather encourage business to do so.


    I hope I haven’t just misread everything.

    • Damien Puddle on November 10, 2015

      Hi Robbes, I appreciate you taking the time to reply. I don’t think you’ve misread anything and thanks for letting me know about the broken link. I’ll link to the two documents you added in your reply instead.

      While the reform is about a multilevel approach to work place health and safety (a goal I support), there appears to be a greater focus on adhering to policy and ultimate responsibility is put with the businesses. My argument is that safety is ultimately the responsibility of the individual. My thoughts are more applicable to the average worker, not so much those involved in truly high risk work such as forestry or mining, but I’ll discuss more of my thoughts around this in some later posts. To address a couple of your points:

      1. “Play” or “training” may not be relevant WITHIN or DURING the work environment, but my argument is that play and training as a lifestyle is extremely important for developing a culture and true understanding of how to conduct oneself safely anywhere, including at work.

      2. Certainly we should use the tools at our disposal, but we should do so out of a knowledge of why rather than “because I’m supposed to”. That would be the equivalent of telling someone the answer to a question so that they get it right but don’t actually know how to solve it themselves.

      3. There are lots of references in the documentation to worker involvement in health and safety, but from discussions with others who’s workplace policies have changed, that focus seems to be on workers adhering to their specific work health and safety policies (i.e. I have to put on my gloves) and not on actual education/training. Perhaps I’m a bit isolated in the parkour world, but in fact hear nothing about the improved education and training that workers are undergoing to become safer. Instead I hear about stricter policies that I believe undermine our abilities to learn true safety (e.g. workers can no longer stand on a step ladder – this means less familiarity with ladders so when people do use ladders outside of work or in breach of their company policy – remember that unsafe people will always find a way to circumvent the policy – they’re less prepared and an accident is more likely). I think it’s the bubblewrapping of our children on a larger and adult scale.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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