21 July 2014
As a society, we seem to have lost the innate ability to evaluate risk and act on our own initiative, says John Bowen.
I have just been sitting in the waiting room at my doctor's surgery and I passed the time watching the information being presented on the TV screen there.
One of these was on house fires; it was advising me to get out in the event of a fire being discovered with a line something like, "Your life is more precious than possessions or pets".
Lest you think that I am about to go off on a rant against health & safety, please first consider why I was seeing the doctor today. It was not because I was ill - it was to seek advice about an upcoming business trip abroad because my personal risk management regime includes such precautions. But then risk management was something that I learned the hard way long before we called it risk management.
Old adages are an interest of mine because they sum up in a few words some rather profound thinking. These days we call such stuff sound bites, and the expression that came to mind as I saw the TV message this morning was "Charity begins at home", or put yourself first. Now, there are times when that is unquestionably the right thing to do. In the event of the oxygen masks being deployed on the aeroplane you do need to get yours on before helping anyone else because if you don't you are likely to lose consciousness before you can help anyone.
I'm not going to argue with the general philosophy behind the 'save yourself' mentality, but there should be some freedom of choice in these matters. If an individual feels that he would rather chance losing his own life to save someone or something than live with himself knowing that he saved himself and let others die, then so what?
This is not about heroism because such things are in the eyes of others; it is about personal choice and, to some extent, basic humanity. Above all, it is about selflessness and is something that is far less obviously prevalent than it was in my youth. That is not to endorse stupidity or recklessness, but the nanny state that we have inflicted upon ourselves does not sit easily with me.
I know that there is a generation factor at play here and I support the right of anyone who wants to call me a dinosaur - feel free to insult me because I do not take offence easily (another modern failing). But I want the right to accept responsibility for my own actions, to be able to trust my instincts, intelligence and experience in the way that I live my life.
Take as an example some of the advice that we have been offered recently about the hot weather. To find that I am being told to avoid wearing thick or heavy clothing, to seek the shade and to ensure that I drink extra fluids seems extraordinary and implies that we have failed dismally in educating a generation or two, certainly in matters of common sense.
No, I do not want to go back to the days when workers were routinely placed in grave danger, and the development of safety is something that I will always champion, but only where it is necessary. Because there are some things that have an inherent danger and where people want to take part in such things, then they should be allowed to so without interference from the nanny state or the threat of ambulance-chasing lawyers.
As with so many other aspects of life, I yearn for a sense of balance in these things and abhor the extremism of those who have taken safety too far.
John Bowen is an FM consultant