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Workplace Safety is Like Riding a Bike...

Or is it? As a safety professional, this is what I’ve been wrestling with over the past week as I sit on my front porch watching my 8 year old son “teach himself” (not entirely true, but...) how to ride a two wheeled bicycle without training wheels in the burned-out grass of our front yard. After only a single week (totaling less than 6 hours), he’s gone from being able to make less than one complete revolution of the pedals (an early metric I established) to being able to complete linked turns and stop using the brakes instead of gravity and friction. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement, and my wife and I couldn’t be prouder.

Those of you who I’ve worked with in the past have likely heard stories about how my wife and I approached childproofing. While we guarded many electrical outlets with childproof inserts, the majority of plugs stayed uncovered. We didn’t securely close cabinets, and we didn’t pad sharp corners on furniture. My thinking on this was that the world is full of sharp edges (literally and figuratively) and things that you just need to know you shouldn’t touch. Our approach (in addition to not taking our eyes off of him for more than 5 seconds at a time) was to warn and educate, not guard. As soon as my son was able to talk, I’d quiz him on the hazards of a hot iron (e.g., hot, heavy, electrical, sharp) while I ironed my shirt for the day. Same drill when I made waffles on Sunday morning with a red hot waffle iron. My son’s first words weren’t exactly “Careful! Could be dangerous!”, but he started repeating it like a parrot not long after he started talking. The end result is, I think, that my boy is well trained in both hazard recognition and hazard assessment. That’s a good thing!

This brings me back to “the Boy” and his bicycle. Despite repeated requests, threats, and orders, my son refuses to wear any PPE beyond his helmet (which he himself wouldn’t dream of riding without). For someone who has only recently mastered balancing on two wheels, a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals are woefully inadequate. That’s what he insists on learning in, though. Sadly, I’ve caved – at least for now. My own hazard assessment skills kick into overdrive as he starts to make short forays onto the driveway. At some point I’m going to have to play the role of “safety policeman” (a role that all safety professionals hate) and insist on more appropriate attire (“PPE”) as he gets used to the risks associated with asphalt versus grass. My early career enforcement-side experience will serve me well here.

So how does this all relate to what we as safety professionals do in the workplace on a daily basis? Despite the risks, experienced bicyclists seldom cycle in PPE extending beyond helmets and closed-toe shoes. My son isn’t far off from that. As I pointed out earlier, he’s got his own well developed hazard assessment abilities. The cycling knowledge I’ve imparted through demonstrations and lectures (balance is easier with momentum, lean into turns, nothing that happens is “the bike’s fault”), constitute pretty thorough “on the job training”. All of this, I suppose, moves his individual risks from "upper right red" (in the safety heat map) to somewhere in the yellow band.

I can’t help thinking, however, that if OSHA had jurisdiction they’d write me a “willful” for letting my son learn to ride on his own terms -- elbows and knees all exposed and vulnerable. In the meantime, I guess I’ll get my training documentation squared-away for the informal...


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