Recently I was in the hospital outpatients department watching everyone going to the fracture clinic. Being the sociable type, I asked why they were there and they said their accidents happened either at home or school. It was a rough and ready survey and nothing scientific at all but it highlighted the fact that the risk of accidents is always with us.
The great danger in trying to take the risk out of life, however, is that we halt progress. Mankind has progressed by taking risks. But that risk has to be managed.
In the summer of 1969, NASA made the Apollo 11 astronauts a great deal. In his book Rocket Men, Craig Nelson recounts how the NASA administrator Thomas Paine told the Apollo 11 crew to abort the mission without hesitation if they got into trouble.
“If you have to abort I promise this crew will be slipped ahead in the mission sequence. You will get another chance”. Paine wanted to prevent the first two men to walk on the moon from being the first two to not walk away from it. NASA had an inkling that two highly trained pilots might be tempted to land when the prudent thing would be to abort.
Why do rational people surrender their good judgement in the face of unreasonable risks? It’s because most times we get away with it. Modern psychology tells us that most people think that they are better looking, more skilled and more intelligent than they really are. The more competent we are in a given area, the more we are likely to overate our abilities.
In a low-risk situation, that may not be too bad. Crashing and burning when the chat-up line doesn’t work is not that serious. But in a higher risk situation, such as working at height, overrating one’s ability can be very serious indeed if it results in a fall.
We need to be honest about our capabilities. How many times do we say we can do something when we know we cannot? Thomas Paine knew his Apollo 11 crew might overestimate their abilities. To guarantee their best behaviour, he promised they would not lose the chance to be the first on the moon.
Perhaps our health and safety regime needs to shift to a better understanding of human nature and work with it rather than trying to smother it in bureaucratic cotton wool.