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Where does ‘Reasonably Practicable’ come from?
The term Reasonably Practicable is fundamental in UK Health and Safety law. It allows those responsible for health and safety to balance risk reduction against the time, money and effort required.
We’ve put together various resources for you to learn what is reasonably practicable. First off, you can listen to our podcast (top of the page) from Safeti School. Once you’ve done that, we have a short animation below to make sure you have grasped the concept. Then, if you like, you can read our post for an in-depth example and we also take a look at some myths around the term ‘reasonably practicable’.
What is Reasonably Practicable? - Animated Tutorial
Watch our animation below for an overview of the concept of reasonably practicable, before we dive deeper into some examples.
OK, so let’s look at the law first.
In the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 it simply states that it is the duty of employer’s to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employee’s.
The good news is that because this term is implied into UK legislation, UK employer’s are enabled to apply common sense and risk-based approaches toward health and safety management.
How do we decide what is reasonable?
We need to look at our options and balance the time, cost and effort against the level of risk reduction that we foresee being achieved.
If we can strike the right balance, we can truly add value for both the employee’s and for the business.
If we have a low risk, low frequency task. It wouldn’t be reasonable to have to spend lots of money on plant and equipment to further reduce what is already a low risk.
On the other hand, if we have a high frequency task that presents a significant risk to our employee/s. It starts to make sense to apply resources toward mitigating that risk.
The expectation is that we try our best to get the risk as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP). OK, but what does this look like in practice?
Reasonably Practicable Example
Let’s look at an example to put this theory into some practical context:
Joe, a newly appointed maintenance technician, was getting stuck into a few tasks on his first week at work.
The offices that he was looking after had been without a maintenance or facilities technician for a number of months. As a result, he was asked to go around every air conditioning unit in the building to clean the filters.
As he normally would, he got his stepladder out and started going about removing and cleaning the filters on the air conditioning units.
It was getting near lunchtime and Joe was up the ladder trying to remove a filter on a unit that had been placed a bit higher than the rest. As he couldn’t quite get a could grip of it from the level he was working from, he decided to step onto the top plate of the stepladder.
As he went to reach toward the unit to get access to the filter, the stepladder wobbled causing Joe to lose his balance. Joe crashed to the ground along with the ladder, resulting in a broken wrist and 6 weeks off from work.
Do you think the employer did all that was reasonably practicable to keep Joe safe? Questions to ask might be…
Could they have controlled the risk of falling more effectively? Should they have done more to prevent Joe from falling?
It’s useful to first take a look at the immediate causes of the accident to assess if there were any obvious opportunities for improvement.
Joe had to step on the top section of the stepladder, which meant that he lost the ability to keep 3 points of contact on the ladder. This resulted in the loss of balance and the fall from height.
From this information, it appears that this particular ladder was not appropriate for the task.
The company have a duty to ensure the health and safety of Joe as he is carrying out his work.
Let’s consider some options to prevent this immediate cause from recurring:
- Hire a scissor lift for this task
- Use a mobile scaffold/podium
- Use a more suitable ladder e.g. safety ladders
When considering what is practicable, we need to consider the time, cost and effort of each option. Note, the task of removing the filter the air-con system only takes about 2 minutes per unit.
Option 1: the small scissor lift, is going to cost around £100 per day to hire or £5000 to purchase new. However, there is no access lift suitable for the equipment to be moved up and down the building. As a result, it would not reasonable to expect this option to be implemented. NOT REASONABLY PRACTICABLE
Option 2: The best mobile scaffold system for this job would be a podium step, which can be used by one person. The appropriate one for this job would be around £1000. Unfortunately, after measuring out the dimensions, this system would not be suitable due to the restricted access around the offices. It would require moving desks and other fixed equipment to enable access and therefore would be too time, effort and cost intensive. NOT REASONABLY PRACTICABLE
Option 3: After considering different ladders options, it was determined that a safety ladder system would not suitable due to lack of storage capacity and an internal lift. The best alternative option is to purchase a professional ladder with stabilisation that reaches the required access height. The cost is approximately £200. BEST PRACTICABLE OPTION
As you can see, things aren’t always as simple as they seem. Options that may spring to mind initially are often not practicable in reality.
In this scenario, it would be reasonable for the company to simply choose a more suitable ladder. They have proved that the other options are not practical.
In addition, the ladder is being used for a very short duration, on level ground and in a safe environment.
Of course, the company will need to assess whether appropriate training is being provided to staff on the use of ladders. They must ensure that those using them are competent i.e. have had instruction an understand how to use the equipment safely.
They also may want to consider whether it would be appropriate for certain tasks to require two people rather than one, to improve levels of safety.
For the purposes of this example, we won’t worry too much about the other factors that may have been involved in this instance. Hopefully this case study demonstrates the appraisal process of considering whether different option are reasonably practicable for your business.
Some myths around ‘Reasonably Practicable’
Myth 1: You must continually raise standards:
Deciding whether something is safe enough (i.e. the risk is reduced ALARP) is a separate exercise from seeking a continual improvement in standards. Of course, as technology develops, new and better methods of risk control become available.
Those with responsibility should review what is available from time to time and consider whether they need to implement new controls.
But that doesn’t mean that the best risk controls available are necessarily reasonably practicable. It is only if the cost of implementing these new methods of control is not grossly disproportionate to the reduction in risk they achieve that their implementation is reasonably practicable.
For that reason, for example, it may not be reasonably practicable to upgrade older plant and equipment to modern standards.
With that said, there may still be alternative or partial changes that can be made to reduce the risk.
Myth 2: Best practice from others is the new expectation
Some organisations implement standards of risk control that are more stringent than what standard industry or good practice would suggest.
They may do this for a number of reasons. Such as meeting corporate goals, because their client demands it or because they have agreed something specific with their workforce.
It does not therefore mean that these risk control standards are reasonably practicable, just because a few companies have adopted them. Until the practices are evaluated and recognised by the regulator (HSE) as being good or expected practice, you should not seek to enforce them.
Importantly, it is also acceptable for a duty holder to relax from a self-imposed higher standard to one which is accepted as ALARP e.g. bringing it into line with an Approved Code of Practice.
Myth 3: You need to use all possible risk controls
Reducing risk to ALARP does not mean that every measure you identify must be implemented. This is a big mistake from many in the H&S profession. Perhaps through lack of confidence in their own decision-making or understanding of a risk,
Most of the time, there are several ways of controlling a risk. These controls can be thought of as barriers to prevent the risk being realised.
There is a temptation to require more and more of these protective barriers, to reduce the risk as low as possible i.e. belt and braces.
You must remember that the law allows you to evaluate whether a particular strategy is worth the investment from your business. These are important financial decisions that should be well-informed, using industry and regulatory guidance to help steer you in the right direction.
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Use ‘Reasonably Practicable’ with caution!
Applying this principle is useful in many circumstances, though we must be careful.
There are also other specific regulations and approved codes of practice that have been laid down to deal with some high risk and common workplace activities e.g. COSHH, LOLER, PUWER, Work at Height Regulations etc.
It’s important to know what they are and how they apply to your business.