How I Learned Safety from my Son

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“It’s just my bad luck to have a dad that’s a safety geek” my son exclaimed.  “I don’t do ‘vert’ where kids fly up in the air and try to land back on the ramp.  I do ‘ground boarding’ like when I make the board jump and flip then try to land on it”

“And I always wear my helmet”.

My son was right.  He did always wear his helmet skateboarding (he had been wearing his helmet snow skiing since he was 3) while many of the kids at the skate park don’t wear the protective gear.

The issue between my oldest son and his safety-consultant dad had to do with wearing elbow and knee pads. His grandmother had lovingly gotten him these pads from Goodwill, but he said he stopped wearing them because they were too small and “looked stupid”.  So I bought him brand new ones from the coolest skate store in our county.  I thought, “Problem solved”. 

So you can imagine how I felt when I drove up the driveway and saw him doing his boarding with no pads.

Thus, we had one of those early adolescent talks between fathers and sons where the son is the purely rational one and dad just gets his way because he is bigger.

“So son, I’ve seen you with the scrapes and bruises.  You’ll be able to avoid those and more serious injuries if you wear the pads.  So why are you not wearing them?”

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“Dad,” my son said with some impatience as if I was missing the obvious.  “They are uncomfortable and sweaty.  And they make me less safe.”

“Less safe? “ I said with astonishment. “Let me cite some safety statistics that blah, blah, blah… (insert Charley Brown teacher sounds here).”

“But you’ve seen the tricks I do where I use my legs like arms to flip the board.  Those leg pads keep me from bending my knee well enough and then get in my way.  When that happens I’m more likely to get hit by the board, fall and get hurt.”

In my psychologist’s mind I knew he was right.  Consider the concept of the basic Response Cost & Benefits Ratio.  Simply stated, the personal cost my son experienced for complying with my request to wear pads (from his perspective) was: a) discomfort, b) inhibit performance, c) inconvenience to put on, and d) looking silly (with the bulging knees and elbows that was not the fashion for pre-teens).  In contrast, what was the benefit for wearing pads: a) Dad’s approval. Thus, the Cost/Benefit Ratio shows a greater cost for safety.  When the costs outweigh the benefits, the safety-related behavior does not happen. 

Principle 1: Safety-related behavior is often less convenient, less comfortable, and provides less dexterity than the more risky alternative

But, what could possibly be more important than Dad’s approval?  After a little investigation of his skateboard world I found out.  Skateboarding magazines contain the ultra-cool boarding professionals photographed in impossible aerial poses, all with rock-star hair, the hottest gear, and… no pads (rarely helmets).  I saw these same pros showing up on popular shows such as MTV’s Jackass careening down handrails to thrash-rock music then slamming their body on pavement as others laughed into the microphone. 

Surely, this wasn’t influencing my son.  But, when I took him to the new county park’s skate park, build by a responsible community-minded group trying to find safe alternative activities for teens, I saw other kids had the tricks, the styles, even the laughter of the pros…all with the absence of pads and helmets.

Principle 2:  We are influenced by others, especially if they are considered “cool.” Consider the experienced employee who everyone goes to for advice or the newer employee whose production numbers are praised by supervisors.  Their approach to safety is modeled by others.  What messages do they communicate about safety?  What behaviors are they doing to promote safety?

So I did what any dad would do.  With all the male bravado I could muster I declared a “threat”.  “You WILL wear your pads when skateboarding or you will…. never……. skateboard……….. again (echo here).”  And he complied, or so I thought.  The next week I drove up the driveway to my son taking his pads off after boarding.  It was an illusion squashed when his younger brother tattled that he had just spent the afternoon boarding without pads.  When he saw my car he ran to his pads, shoved them on, and then acted as if they had been on the whole time.

Principle 3:  Threats and discipline are only effective when the disciplinarian is present.  Ask any supervisor or safety manager and you’ll hear countless stories of employees scurrying to correct their safety behaviors when they see the supervisor walking up. I’ve even talked to some employee groups who had secret whistles and tapping codes to let each other know that “trouble is coming”.  Who of us hasn’t been driving when oncoming traffic flash their headlights to indicate a police trooper is ahead taking speed gun readings?

My threats did not work so I upped the ante.  I proceeded to contact the county parks director and county commissioners announcing myself as a safety professional and detailing what I had seen at the skate park – how unsafe behaviors were being modeled, and how there were no policies or signs requiring helmet and pad use in the skate park.  I was not the only one.

Soon thereafter the county commissioners passed a law that all patrons of the skate park must wear helmets and pads.  Up went the verbose sign with the new statute.  Nothing changed.

Principle 4:  Policies and signs only direct behavior, they do not motivate safe behavior.  They cannot without consequences (see Principle 3 to review what happens to consequence without oversight).  Is the only solution is to have a consequence provider watching at all times?

That’s what happened.  The county hired a security guard to enforce the new safety policy. 

It was then when my son, whose father is an opinionated local safety professional, wrote this letter to the editor of our local paper:

Some people are misguided on the issue of protective gear. I have nothing against helmets because I’ve banged my head a few times with it on and it still hurts and I know people who have become seriously injured because they were not wearing one. Though I have nothing against helmets, I disagree with skateboarding pads because they affect your looks and most importantly performance. Mainly skateboarding pads are used for a style of skating called vert, half pipe mini pipe and ramps, but it has been proven that pads can decrease your performance and lead to further injury in other more technical non-ramp styles of skateboarding most of the skaters at the skate park perform. Myself and the majority of skateboarders I know are refusing to come to the skate park because of these requirements.

Yet our town is spending $40,000 for a security guard to enforce the rules.  We would be better to use that money to expand the park which would allow skaters to be more spread out decreasing the chance of injury. I believe this action by the county was not economic but rather a decision based on the stereotype that skaters are a bunch of hooligans and require a security guard. I know the skate park will lose the majority of it’s frequent skaters who will look to the streets once again as their place to skate, defeating the original purpose of the gift of the local skate park.

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He was right:  The park closed from lack of attendance that same year.  I was right:  He fell ground boarding, hurt his elbow and kept him on the DL during his baseball season.  I took the issue to higher authorities, he resisted even more.  We should have worked together. I guess we were both wrong.

But I got a second chance!  Life is good like that.

My son’s frontal lobe had matured enough at the age of 16 for the State of North Carolina to determine he could operate a car on his own.  Its interesting that the scary pre-teen, by the time they turn 16, now seem ready for so much responsibility.

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Well I wasn’t going to blow this one using policies and discipline.  However, I did start catching myself during my ride-alongs only saying something to him when he did something “wrong”.  “You didn’t come to a complete stop son”.  “Did you check your mirror before changing lanes?  I didn’t see it”.  I realized I was only trying to correct him and that more than likely resulted in him getting more tense and making more mistakes.

So I tried something different.  First I had to calm myself down so I started enjoying the view out of the side window instead of constantly looking for hazards during the drive.  That was a good break.

Then, I started only pointing out what he did safe.  “Very nice stop back there, it gave you time to check the road both ways”.  “I liked the way you hugged the inside lane when we went around the blind corner, if someone flew around that corner in your lane we would have been OK (we live in mountains).”  The truth is that he was doing a ton of his driving in a safe manner.

Principle 5:  Reinforcement is what increases the behavior you desire; point out the good and it will increase.  I had started REINFORCING him for the safe behaviors and guess what; He started driving much safer!  I went nuts, I told anyone when he was around that “My son is an excellent driver” and it even got to the point where he started remarking on my driving! 

As I pointed out in an early blog pointing out that Reinforcement is like Rebar, when you praise a safe behavior you strengthen it, you build upon it, and you make it more likely to happen.  The more you do it the more “behavioral momentum” is built and the at-risk behaviors extinguish in favor of the safe alternatives.

Happy parenting!


 If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at

Tim’s son Christian is a Sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and future King of the World.

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 Reader Comments

(This is the text of a forwarded email to colleagues - reprinted here with permission)


This is a blog entry from one of the Behaviour Based Safety consultants that is working with us.

Well worth a read. Please make sure you read to the bottom as principle 5 is key. Although this example is around Tim’s son and skateboarding and driving, the same arguments could equally apply to PPE compliance or other work related activities.

Key message is positive reinforcement of existing safe behaviours will build safe behaviour momentum which will help to reduce unsafe behaviours faster than focussing on the unsafe behaviours. ie constantly reprimanding someone for the things they do badly is not effective at increasing safe behaviours. Yes, they need the training to know how to do the job, but then it is about building on the good things.   

Building on this is the second blog entry that is linked at the bottom about reinforcement and rebar. Here, the manager of a warehouse asked his supervisors to praise 5 workers per week on something they had done that helped to keep themselves and/or their colleagues safe. The manager verified this by asking a random selection of employees if the supervisor had made any comments to them about their safe behaviours. Very soon the workforce was carrying out their own positive reinforcement of safe behaviours and the safe working culture evolved.

A further comment I would like to add here is…

I was travelling to the USA on vacation recently and while waiting in the immigration line a sniffer dog came past looking for fresh meat (illegal to bring into USA). The dog stopped at a traveller a few feet from me and sure enough they had some fresh products that they were not allowed to bring in. The dog was given a treat as a positive reinforcement. It was interesting to note that the treat was placed  on top of the package the dog had sniffed out. This, I assume, was to reinforce the distinctive smells of whatever it was the dog had found. No matter how good the training the dog had I cannot imagine that all possible products and smells are used. How does this relate to work? Well, no matter how good our training is employees will always face situations that are not covered precisely in training. How they manage these situations is critical as, in my experience, these are the times when accidents are more likely to happen. It is vital that we recognise these situations and provide the positive reinforcement as each is successfully overcome (eg testing a tool that has come back from the field may not be exactly the same as testing a new tool). Typically, the next will be more challenging and hopefully the employee who has had some positive reinforcement on how to cope with such situations will be better placed to make safe behaviour decisions.


Tim Voss

Hi Tim great story, I really like how you summarized in the end that working together with you son was the key to a win-win. I think that was a good analogy for the safety folks. Great post and thank you for sharing.

By Bill Coyne

Parenting, Safety. so much in common!! When is that we, safety people, be ablet to understand that to make good to people, people have to perceive the good. 35 years of OSHA pennalties did their work, but something else is needed.
Things are done in the safe way not because we say it, is because people believe it is the safe way.
Shutting down an activity does not make it safe, just move the hazard to other place, sometimes, a more dangerous place. We are not wrong, we safety nowadays is more about people that guards (I think or maybe not?).

By Rafael Domínguez

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