As my friends will know, I am not hugely impressed by much of the HSE (Health, Safety and Environment) industry, in particular its Health and Safety aspects. Protection of the Environment, and all that lives within it, is an objective I fully support.
I recognise, of course, the need for people to live and work safely, in conditions that do not unduly threaten their health. Too often, though, the pursuit of health and safety is used by officious individuals to impinge on people's individual liberties, in the name of protecting them against things from which anyone with just a modicum of common sense can quite happily protect themselves.
A near-perfect example from Britain is the local council authority which has set about cutting down horse-chestnut trees in school playgrounds. These trees produce a fruit, known as a "conker", which, for generations, has been collected by children, has been pierced with a string put through it, and is then used in a game whereby the owner tries to prove the strength of his own conker by breaking that of his friend into pieces.
Why has the council decided to cut down the trees? So that boys - for it's usually boys who play the game - don't get tempted to climb the tree to collect conkers in case they fall down and hurt themselves.
Trees are trees - and boys will be boys. They should be climbing trees. Often that's how they learn to be careful and to judge risk. It's part of growing up.
I recently came across two rather nice examples of Health and Safety rules in a UAE context. I was staying for the weekend in my favourite East Coast hotel, which I have been visiting almost since it was built 30 or so years ago. With a small child in tow, I was, naturally, obliged to go for a swim. Since I have a fair complexion and have had a few pre-cancerous areas of skin removed from my arms and face, I covered up well, popping a hat on my head and wearing a clean shirt. I probably looked a bit odd, but, in the interests of my own health, it seemed the best thing to do.
After a few minutes, the pool guard came over. "Sorry, Sir," he told me, "but you are not allowed to wear a shirt in the pool." I've worn a shirt in that pool for years.
When I asked him to explain, he told me that the shirt, which was fairly loose, might slow me down when I was swimming and that, therefore, it was not permitted on Health and Safety grounds, though a t-shirt, I gathered, was considered to be acceptable. Since I was standing in water that scarcely came up to my stomach, that seemed a rather peculiar reason, but he insisted. "Health and Safety rules … "
That was the day that the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. The next morning, I strolled down to the hotel's beach to find that the steps down to the sand were being blocked off by wooden boards being nailed into place. I was told that management had decided that this was necessary to guard against waves that might be larger than usual, because of the tsunami in the Pacific Ocean.
I thought of trying to explain to the beach attendant that the UAE's East Coast actually faces the Indian Ocean, not the Pacific, and that any waves caused by the Japanese earthquake wouldn't be coming anywhere near Arabia, but decided not to bother. After all, he was only doing his job.
I'm all in favour of taking precautions to minimise or to mitigate risk - and, indeed, of trying to teach people to do so. That's a simple matter of common sense, after all. Moreover, it is surely the case that people learn to judge and to deal with risks, whether large or small, more through experience than through lectures that lay down rules that provide little in the way of explanation. When learning to climb up a tree or to scramble around on a mountain, you've got to learn how to balance yourself, or where to put your weight. Starting with small trees or easier rocky slopes, you may slip at the beginning and graze a knee or get a bump, but from that you learn to do things more carefully and more safely the next time.
Where it is genuinely necessary to impose restrictions for Health and Safety reasons it does help if those restrictions appear to be based on common sense and can be easily explained to those upon whom they are imposed. If that is not the case, then, quite simply, they won't be observed properly, unless there is someone around to enforce them. That does nothing to inculcate a wider recognition of the need for everyone to become conscious of health and safety issues and that, surely, should be the key objective.
In many activities, whether swimming, rock-climbing, driving a car and much else, there is always a risk to the safety, and, therefore, the health of an individual.
Teach us. Tell us. Encourage us. Educate us to use our own common sense. But don't simply lecture us - it really doesn't work.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant who specialises in the heritage and environment of the UAE