‘So Far As Is Reasonably Practicable’ Explained For Health And Safety

Summary

'So Far As Is Reasonably Practicable' Meaning Explained for Health and Safety Compliance and Legal Definitions

The term ‘So far as is reasonably practicable‘ frequently appears in health and safety regulations. But what does it indeed mean? How do you determine if an action is reasonably practicable? And how does the law define this concept? Let’s delve into the details of this critical health and safety phrase.

If you spend some time looking at health and safety regulations, you will find the term so far as is reasonably practicable. It’s occasionally abbreviated to SFAIRP. But what does this phrase mean for health and safety?

While this term tells you to do something, it’s unclear what to do. Should you do everything possible to reduce risk? What is reasonably practicable, and how do you decide if something is reasonably practicable?

(1) It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 General duties of employers to their employees

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) imposes a duty on employers to ensure all employees’ health, safety, and welfare at work as reasonably practicable. It’s the first duty under the Act, so you might think it’s essential.

To show that you comply with health and safety regulations, you need to demonstrate that you are reducing risk as far as is reasonably practicable or as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP). So, how do we measure what is ‘reasonable’ and ensure we are doing enough to minimise risks and protect our workforce?

You can’t remove risk altogether.

‘So Far As Is Reasonably Practicable’ Meaning Explained For Health And Safety

In an ideal workplace, there would be no risk. Everyone would be completely safe. But that’s not practical—we don’t live in an ideal world. There are risks everywhere. From the moment we get out of bed in the morning, accidents can (and do) happen when we cross a road, climb stairs, or go for a walk.

And it’s the same at work.

Notice that it’s not a legal duty for employers to remove all risks or stop all accidents—not even to remove risks ‘as far as is possible’. It would certainly be possible to prevent all falls from heights by avoiding all work at heights. That’s possible, but it’s not practical because some work needs to be done at heights.

As an employer, you are not expected to eliminate all the risks your workforce exposes. Everything carries a risk, even everyday activities like walking down the stairs or crossing the road. It would be impossible to remove all of the dangers all of the time, and importantly, it would not be reasonably practicable.

Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it is reasonably practicable to implement it. The costs or consequences of controlling a hazard might far outweigh the small risks it presents. But just because something is expensive or will take time doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be expected to do it.

It’s a question of balance.

Determining that risk has been reduced so far as is reasonably practicable, as required by the regulations, is a question of balance. It involves assessing the risk to be avoided and comparing it with the sacrifice (in time, money and trouble) to take measures against that risk.

… in every case, it is the risk that has to be weighed against the measures necessary to eliminate the risk. The greater the risk, no doubt, the less will be the weight to be given to the factor of cost.Edwards v The National Coal Board

The Court of Appeal’s ruling in Edwards v National Coal Board described a scale of risk and measures to avert it. Therefore, assessing whether you have complied with the duty ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ involves carefully balancing the two.

Only when the risk is insignificant compared to the sacrifice can the need for the measures and the duty to implement them be discharged.

If the risk is very low and you need to spend a large proportion of money and time to eliminate the risk, then you would not be reasonably expected to put the control measures in place to eliminate the risk.

For example, if it would take a month and cost 1 million pounds to put in place a control measure that would eliminate the need for one person to work at height on a task that is only going to be carried out once, this would be grossly disproportionate and not reasonably practicable.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to do anything to control the risk. There could be other control measures that would be easier to put in place to minimise the risk. Where these measures are proportionate, they would be reasonably practicable to implement.

In the example above, you still need to put control measures in place to reduce the risk of that worker suffering a fall during the work at height activity and ensure the work can be carried out safely.

Remember to consider the hierarchy of risk control when deciding the best control measures to manage your risks.

The greater the risk involved, the less consideration should be given to cost, and the more effort will be required to reduce the risk to comply with your duties.

Weighted in favour of health and safety

The decision to balance what is reasonably practicable isn’t black and white. It’s not a decision weighted in favour of the size of the business or the cost of a life. It’s a decision weighted in favour of health and safety. All employers, big and small, have the same duty: to protect people and prevent harm.

So, it’s not a case of thinking a control measure could eat into your profits or is slightly more costly than you expected, and it can be ruled out. If a risk is insignificant compared to the time and cost to mitigate it, it can be determined that control is not reasonably practical—in other words, grossly disproportionate.

The presumption will always be that the control measures should be implemented. The decision to balance risk and sacrifice will be weighted in favour of health and safety rather than balancing the cost and benefits of measures. Only where the control measures are grossly disproportionate to the risk can they be ruled out?

More money, time, and trouble should be spent controlling higher risks, which would be reasonably practicable.

For example, construction sites are high-hazard environments due to the nature of the work. You would expect more time and money to be spent on control measures in this work environment.

The HSE will not expect the working environment to be risk-free should they inspect your site, either routinely or following an accident. They will expect that you have adequately assessed the risks and reduced them as low as expected. If you are inspected, you must show that you have put suitable control measures proportionate to the risks involved.

Using common sense

In deciding what is proportionate and what measures come under ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’, you should apply common sense and relevant good practice guidance to the risk.

Good practice is often found in professional bodies, trade publications and the HSE. In most circumstances, compliance with good practice will (in most circumstances) be sufficient to demonstrate that risks have been reduced as low as reasonably practicable.

However, it is essential to apply the guidance to your specific business activity and ask yourself if any further measures could reduce the risk. Where further measures are highlighted, these should also be applied if, on the test of the remaining risk vs. the time and resources to put the control in place, you assess these control measures as proportionate.

Remember, unless the measures are grossly disproportionate and the risk insignificant in comparison, the weighting should always be on implementing the measures and reducing the risk. Not only will this help you comply with the law by applying measures that are ‘reasonably practicable,’ but it will also help keep your workforce safe and productive.

This article was written by Mathew Oldham (HSQE Consultancy Ltd). Mathew has over 20 years of experience in health and safety and an MSc (Hons) in Construction Management. Mathew is NEBOSH Health and Safety, Construction, Fire, Environment and Diploma qualified and CertIOSH.

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