Risk Management: How to Assess the Hazards that Threaten Your Life

Life is a risky business, and the tragic fact is that we’re very bad at evaluating those risks. Children love to be frightened by nursery rhymes which tell of tiny tots like themselves being lost in an impenetrable wood far from their homes where they’re accosted by hobgoblins or big bad wolves. As adults we wallow in newspaper accounts of burglaries, rapes and violent murders, and as a result develop the firm belief that every day we stand in mortal danger of suffering a similar fate. This makes us anxious and insecure, and

often prompts us to take defensive action which is totally needless and may impair the quality of our lives. Maybe we stop going out at night, or take to carrying a can of pepper spray to deter the muggers we expect to meet at every turn of the road. As a result of the excessive media coverage we’ve grown to believe that the risk of being killed is rising, whereas in fact a person was fourteen times more likely to be murdered during the Middle Ages than they are today. The same applies to the bombardment of health warnings we receive on an almost daily basis. In the last few years 246 separate risk factors have been identified as potential causes of heart disease. These range from snoring and not eating mackerel to drinking either too much, or too little milk. You either ignore this plethora of advice, or worry yourself sick. In the same way, in the wake of the World Trade disaster, masses of Americans chose to drive rather than take domestic flights. This led to a vast hike in road accidents. According to researchers at the University of Michigan, driving the length of a typical domestic flight in the USA is 65 times riskier than flying, which means that the events of 9/11 would have to be repeated every month before flying became as risky as driving
Some risks we exaggerate, others we ignore. As Peter Sandman, a US ‘risk communications consultant’ affirms: ‘The risks that scare people and the risks that kill people are very different.’ He’s found that we tend to worry about things which are beyond our control, such as terrorist attacks and mad cow disease, rather than those which are well within our control, like obesity and heart disease. In the same way we worry about instant death, from gangsters, and forget the far greater long term risks of obesity and smoking. He explains this paradox by advancing an equation: Risk = hazard outrage. With obesity at present there is no outrage so we seriously under-rate the risk. A short while ago the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson estimated that only six per cent of British adults appreciated the health risks of being overweight. ‘Many people see fat as a vanity issue rather than a health issue,’ he said and they need to see it as a health issue.’ ‘Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, has sounded a similar warning. He told parliament that the prevalence of obesity had tripled over the last twenty years and continues to rise. Because of their excess weight, people were falling victim to heart attacks,

strokes, Type 2 diabetes and at least six forms of cancer. On average, he warned, that people who fell foul of these obesity-related diseases lost nine years of life. This has been confirmed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which carried out a detailed survey of the data they held relating to a large number of their policy holders, which showed that every inch a man’s waistline exceeds his chest measurement, he can deduct two years from his life expectancy. Our waist line is our life line. Anyone who is belly out at fifty stands a greatly increased of being belly up at seventy.


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