One of the questions we are often asked is “What does reasonably practicable mean?” In this article we explain the meaning of this commonly used health and safety phrase.
As health and safety legislation has to apply to every employer in the UK it therefore encompasses a wide range of industries, job types and working environments. This means that if health and safety legislation is too prescriptive it would be impossible for every employer to comply with it. The format of health and safety legislation is to place the responsibility on the employer to identify and combat the hazards and risks that are specific to their workplace.
This is where the phrase reasonably practicable comes from. It means that the employer can exercise judgment in balancing the reduction of risk against what it costs to achieve it. Cost being in terms of time, money and effort.
Can you give me an example?
The HSE gives the following (extreme) examples on their website which illustrate the principle nicely:
- To spend £1m to prevent five staff suffering bruised knees is obviously grossly disproportionate; but
- To spend £1m to prevent a major explosion capable of killing 150 people is obviously proportionate
So it is down to me as an employer to decide what is reasonably practicable?
In brief, yes that is how health and safety legislation in the UK works. Be aware, however, that where the phrases “must” and “shall” are used in health and safety law, there is an absolute duty to remove the risk and “reasonably practicable” measures are not sufficient.
But if it is down to me as an employer to decide, then does that mean I cannot be prosecuted if the HSE disagrees with what I consider reasonable?
No. If you end up in court then it is up to you as the defendant to prove to a reasonable degree that an informed decision was made regarding the balance of risk against costs.
How do I ensure that my control measures are reasonably practicable then?
As with everything in health and safety you should start by making sure your risk assessments are suitable and sufficient for the work your employees are carrying out. The risk assessment should list all of the potential hazards and state the level of risk associated with them. From here you can identify a range of control measures that would reduce the risk to acceptable levels. If your range of control measures is comprehensive it should be a simple matter to look at the cost of them against the associated level of risk. This also needs to be looked at in relation to your operational budgets, turnover and profit as the HSE and courts will also take company finances into account when deciding upon what is reasonably practicable.
Therefore if I do not have a large operational budget does that mean I do not have to provide such expensive control measures?
The ability to afford a control measure is not usually a factor in assessing its costs. Indeed, the greater the risk the less weight should be given to cost. In other words, the bigger the risk the bigger the effort needed to reduce it. The courts believe that small employers with little money should not get away with a lower safety standard by pleading poverty. However, resources are sometimes considered. For example, a big organisation may reduce risk using the latest engineering controls that a small employer may never be able to afford. Just because risk is reduced in this way does not make it reasonably practicable for everyone.
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