Creating a culture of safety in creative spaces

Picture the scene: a third-grader, her eyebrows furrowed in concentration, working on her first carpentry project using a Japanese wood saw. She’s distracted by another student and takes her eyes off of her work just as the saw jumps from the slot and starts skittering along the wood toward her hand.

As I saw this event unfold before my eyes, I realized that any minor injury would be just the beginning. After overcoming the physical injury, this creative young person would then face a justifiably increased fear of tools — the very things that could enable her creativity. It’s likely that she could form an “I’m not good with tools” self-image which could ultimately send her on a different, and perhaps less fulfilling or rewarding path.

Fear-based mindsets get established very early and injuries have a tendency to cement them. At a program level, most parents and educators don’t view injuries as a powerful learning experience, so injuries can have further negative implications beyond the individual students who get hurt.

While we all agree that safety is a critical component of any makerspace or school shop, there’s frequently no standardized approach. Visiting another private school, I asked the shop instructor how they handled safety. She answered that they were “very safe and very thorough”, but she wasn’t able to articulate any sort of process or guidelines. Nor did I see any signage around the room emphasizing safety or process.

Our goal in all of these hands-on educational programs is to develop “producers” in the world — students who have the confidence and competence to identify problems and create novel solutions on their own. But to do this effectively, we need to create a culture of safety. Our concern is twofold: to prevent injury and to ensure injury doesn’t prevent the learning process.

An established culture of safety provides a framework for students to approach a new tool, determine how it works, and how it might cause harm. Once this culture is established, it becomes an integral part of the learning process, teaching students to approach any tool with a healthy respect for the harm it can do and an appreciation for its utility. These are lessons that can be broadly extended into other areas of life. For instance, a teenager who gets their first car will have a greater appreciation of the benefits and harm inherent in a 3,500 pound piece of moving metal.

So how do you build a culture of safety in the creative spaces at your school or youth organization? Here’s the approach I use when working with teachers to build a culture of safety around tools. This approach is guided by three ideas:

First, all information about tools is just-in-time. In other words, the time to learn about using a saw is right when a student needs to use it. This way, the learning process is relevant to the project, current and tied to real world experience.

Second, the approach to safety is less about memorization of policies and procedures, and more about being able to think through the possibilities when confronted with a new tool or situation. The goal is to build a culture of safety based on these standards and practices. While there are certainly answers that need to be included, the emphasis should be on thinking through the process of using the tool, not on nailing every answer in exactly the right order.

Third, I always ask the following four questions for every tool. These create a safety framework for every tool I’ve encountered and they provide a firm basis for a culture of safety:

  • What does it do?
  • How does it work?
  • How can it hurt me?
  • Where is the blood bubble? (sounds scary, I know, more on this below.)

Let’s see how this approach works in action, looking at the example of a drill. We’ll start by teaching students about the drill when it’s in front of them. We’ll talk about the specific safety precautions of the drill and tie them into our overall framework, citing other examples and reinforcing the culture of safety. Now let’s take a look at how we’ll address the four questions I listed using the example of the drill:

“What does it do?”, a student might respond that it drills holes and turns screws. Good enough. The teacher or instructor demonstrates the uses including proper safety precautions.

“How does it work?”, a student gets hands-on and learns how to hold the drill, how to change a bit, how to change speeds, how to reverse, how to avoid breaking a bit and how to secure the material.

“How can it hurt me?”, a teacher or instructor outlines the possible dangers: you can drill into a finger, break a bit and send pieces flying, spin the material and hurt somebody, wrap hair around the bit and so forth. This question also leads to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as goggles, ear protection and anything else that is needed and forms a part of the culture of safety.

“Where is the blood bubble?” The last question is borrowed from Gever Tulley and his school, Brightworks. While it may sound a bit shocking, that’s part of the point. While our long-term interests are learning and development, our immediate concern is always to prevent injury. The blood bubble is anywhere the tool can hurt the person using it or anyone in the vicinity of the person using the tool. For example, reach out your arm and make a sweeping motion across the front of your body. This is the blood bubble for a knife, the space where you or someone else can be harmed when the knife is in your hand. Even simple tools like hammers have blood bubbles: the space in front of it, any space behind it (since you can hit something on the backswing) and anywhere that a nail can fly (which means anyone around you). Talking about the blood bubble seems to cement the idea that the tool can cause serious injury as well as how to avoid it. It’s a shocker that gets kids (and adults) to pay attention. For our example of the drill, the blood bubble is right in front of the bit and anywhere something can wrap around it.

It’s important to reinforce these principles for every project and tool. This reinforcement creates the culture of safety, teaching the core principles of safely working with tools, which can then be applied to any tool, or more broadly in the real-world situations outside the classroom. To reinforce these safety principles when working with students, I ask them to run through a short mental checklist before they take a swing with a hammer, power on a drill, or use any tool. The Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation recently codified this stop-and-think moment into something they call a “CareCheck” routine. MVIFI describes much of their program here.

Students use the CareCheck routine before using any tool and, in a larger sense, at the end of the class to reset the room. MVIFI also created this graphic to remind kids to make sure that their hands were clear, the work secure, the blood bubble is clear and to pause before starting for a final internal check.

To return to the nerve-wracking scene at the head of this piece: I had instructed the students and showed them what the saw was used for. Then, the students themselves learned how it worked by holding the saw and trying some small cuts with direct supervision. Next, we talked about how the saw could harm you, in particular, keeping your hands clear. We talked about taking a pause before starting and we outlined that the blood bubble is mostly your hands and anything that can catch on the saw or the material.

What seemed like an instant, but was likely a few seconds or more before injury might occur, the third-grader stopped and asked for help: “You told me I shouldn’t have to push hard on the saw to get it to work, but I feel like it’s not working.” Crucially, it was learning how a saw works, part of the larger framework of learning, that prevented injury, and opened the door to a learning experience, which thanks to the culture of safety we built, will stay open and won’t be closed by fear.

Originally published April 2016 on medium.

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