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Skateboards, Tigers, Polar Bears and Kidnappers

Skateboards, Tigers, Polar Bears and Kidnappers

How many of you include "polar bear" as a worst-case scenario in your risk management plan? Photo Credit: Thinkstock

I admit it: I was stumped. A long-time friend of the magazine, the senior safety and environmental compliance manager at a company that is on the list of America’s Safest Companies, contacted me with an unusual problem.

He wanted to know if EHS Today had ever published an article about skateboards in the workplace. “I can’t find any references online on what other companies’ policies are on skateboarding on company premises,” he told me.

Well, I had to hear more about this because I know this man and I know that he and his employer are risk-aversive, so what is up with skateboarding in the workplace?

As it turns out, the skateboard is being used as a mode of transportation. “We have one employee, a young mechanical engineer, who uses his skateboard to travel to and from his car in our main parking lot to one of our aircraft hangars where his office is located,” said the safety manager. “Unfortunately the tarmac (in aviation terms, the paved area in front of a hangar) is not in the best shape and our parking lot needs resurfacing as well.”

Both improvement projects are planned for later this year, he added, but in the meantime, he’s concerned that the employee could fall and be injured. In addition, the employee does not wear PPE (helmet, kneepads, gloves and kneepads) while skateboarding. “We currently have no company policy or guidelines addressing skateboarding in the workplace,” the safety manager admitted.

And why would you?

The safety manager placed calls to the company’s insurance broker and insurance carrier, both of which indicated the company has exposure and could be held liable if the employee falls and injures himself while in the parking lot or on the tarmac. The end result likely will be that the company will prohibit skateboarding to reduce its exposure to claims.

His story reminded me of other unusual risks I have reported over the years.

In September 2012, I was asked to comment on an incident at the Bronx Zoo. A zoo visitor, allegedly claiming he wanted to “be one with the tiger,” jumped from the zoo’s monorail into the tiger enclosure. The 17-foot drop nearly killed him; fortunately, the tigers didn’t finish the job.

“What could the zoo have done differently to prevent the incident from happening?” a reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked me.

The easy answer is that you can’t plan for crazy; it’s difficult for rational people to anticipate the actions of someone who is mentally ill.

But in reality, was the tiger situation that much different than the skateboard situation? People take risks all the time at work and situations come up that we cannot anticipate. It is the job of a risk manager to anticipate worst-case scenarios and plan for them before someone is injured, which brings me to the company that would win the “most unusual risks” award if I handed one out.

“How many of you had a new case of malaria diagnosed this week? How many of you had a group of indigenous people with guns and clubs hold your facility hostage? How many of you had a polar bear break into your infirmary and eat your morphine supply?” the global director of OA/HSE for a drilling company once asked a group of people I was with.

All of these things and more have occurred at the company’s drilling locations. So, he was asked, when faced with indigenous people carrying guns and clubs and polar bears, what do you do? In the case of one of their facilities in South America, which was taken hostage every six months or so by indigenous people blocking entrances and exits, they paid a ransom of several pallets of peanut butter and socks. In the case of the bear, they waited for it to sleep off its high and wander back out of the building.

“I call it ‘applying techniques of readiness,’” he said. “We have unique risks that other companies don’t have and that won’t be addressed in safety textbooks.”

Therefore, his contingency planning was based on “worst-case escalation.”

“You know how some companies have procedures for snake bites or spider bites? We ramp the severity up and insert ‘polar bear,’” he said.

At this particular company, civil unrest, terrorism, kidnapping, hostage taking and yes, polar bear protocol, is part of employee training. It’s all part of creating a work environment that encourages employees to stay on task and remember that everyone has the same goal: to work safely and efficiently and get the job done without suffering injuries and illnesses.

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