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VPPPA 2014: Where Does Humor Fit in Your Safety Training?

Aug. 28, 2014
During a standing-room-only session at the 2014 National VPPPA Conference in National Harbor, Md., Tim Page-Bottorff of SafeStart offered tips for jazzing up stale training.

If you’ve come to the conclusion that your training sessions are sorely in need of a refresh, you’re not alone. A VPPPA breakout session on training – tantalizingly titled “Humor in Safety: From Blah Blah Blah to Ha Ha Ha” – drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 safety professionals.

Tim Page-Bottorff, senior safety consultant for SafeStart, kept the packed house engaged and laughing from the get-go with funny video clips, group activities and personal anecdotes – techniques that he encouraged safety professionals to employ in their own training sessions.

“You can apply humor across the board, whether you have a poor [learning] environment or a terrible classroom,” Page-Bottorff said. “Or you might have a terrible topic. How many of you have taught GHS in the last year and a half? Isn’t it enjoyable?”

Page-Bottorff kicked off the session by showing this video:

He noted that video clips are one way that instructors can leverage technology to make themselves “look really, really good or fancy.” But video clips should make a point.

“Don’t use random clips just because they’re funny,” Page-Bottorff said. “Make sure they fit.”


Page-Bottorff spent a few minutes “introducing” his family (via photos), and he talked about his experience as a Marine in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. The point: to open the door to his life.

“When you open the door, what does that do for everybody else? It gets them to open the door,” Page-Bottorff said. “You’re going to see automatic participation, whether you want it or not. Self-disclosure is huge, and you can have fun with it.”

For example, Page-Bottorff got big laughs when he introduced his 16-year-old daughter, Cameron, as “the most sarcastic person I’ve ever met in my life.” Likewise, the audience chuckled when he noted that his 20-year-old daughter, Courtney, is attending Arizona State University on a full-ride scholarship and that his 23-year-old son, Eli, recently graduated from Arizona State but “did not get a full-ride scholarship.”

As a corollary to self-disclosure, Page-Bottorff said instructors shouldn’t be afraid to talk about their foibles.

“It shows that you’re human and not superhuman,” he said. “Believe it or not, a lot of people are going to hold you to a higher standard, especially if you’re standing in front of them.”

Safety is a very serious topic. Our job is to save lives and protect people from injuries. But does that mean you can't have fun?

– Tim Page-Bottorff

To illustrate his point, Page-Bottorff recalled a time when he and his family were going through the Taco Bell drive-through. When he took a bite of his burrito, the contents “evacuated” onto his lap.

“And can you guess what my daughter in the back [of the car] said? She had the nerve to say, ‘Daddy, you’ve got beans in your jeans!’”


Early in the session, Page-Bottorff launched into a story about being stuck in the Denver airport for several days because of a ferocious snowstorm. While many travelers around him were taking out their frustration on the airline employees, Page-Bottorff said he made a conscious effort to treat them with respect and politeness.

Page-Bottorff passed the time by playing Tiger Woods Golf on his portable PlayStation, and by chatting with weary travelers who asked to plug in to his surge protector (“I always bring a surge protector”). “Who is the only person who can make the best of a bad situation?” He asked the audience. “You.”

Toward the end of the VPPPA session, Page-Bottorff reprised the story:

After a weekend of waiting for a flight out of Denver, Page-Bottorff heard his name on the airport P.A. system. When he got to the ticket counter, a man next to him was in the throes of rage.

“He was kicking the wall. He was cussing on his cellphone. He was flipping off all the [ticket] agents," Page-Bottorff recalled.

The agent explained to Page-Bottorff that he had taken away the angry man’s airline ticket because of his rude behavior. 

Then the agent told Page-Bottorff: "'You know what? You were the nicest guy to me all weekend long, and we just recently freed up a ticket this morning. I’m going to give it to you.'”

The VPPPA audience quickly put 2 and 2 together and erupted in laughter.

“This is a teaching technique,” Page-Bottorff said. “Open the session with a story, finish the session with the rest of the story.”

Among other tips and tricks that he discussed:

  • For annual training, don’t use the same material every year – “I love teaching the 24-hour hazwoper technician class. And the only way that I can show them how to develop the hot, warm and cold zones is to bring in Legos.” To keep things fresh, he might bring in tinker toys the next year, and Lincoln logs the next.
  • Get other people to teach what you just taught them – He asked everyone in the audience to share a YouTube video that tests viewers’ ability to pay attention. “Sharing something that you just learned with someone else helps you retain the information by 90 percent,” Page-Bottorff said.
  • Enjoy what you’re doing – “Because if you don’t enjoy it, guess what? Your students will see it. Your employees will see it. Remember, it all starts with you."      

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