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What is reasonably practicable?

We hear the term reasonably practicable throughout many pieces of legislation and guidance documents, but what does it really mean?

Firstly, let us look at the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. Section 2 (1) of the Act states:

It will be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of his employees.

So, what does reasonably practicable mean here? There are many definitions out there for this term.  The definition was first set out in case law by the court of appeal in its judgement in Edwards v. National Coal Board, [1949] 1 All ER 743.

‘Reasonably practicable’ is a narrower term than ‘physically possible’… a computation must be made by the owner in which the quantum of risk is placed on one scale and the sacrifice involved in the measures necessary for averting the risk (whether in money, time or trouble) is placed in the other, and that, if it be shown that there is a gross disproportion between them – the risk being insignificant in relation to the sacrifice – the defendants discharge the onus on them.

In other words, you could say it is about weighing the risk against the sacrifice needed to further reduce it.

It is a calculation of a control measure in terms of the reduction in risk (which can be the likelihood of the incident occurring the consequence of an incident or both), against the sacrifice in implementation that control measure.

The sacrifice is in terms of time, effort, and money. The control measure must be implemented unless the sacrifice is grossly disproportionate to the reduction in risk.

If you were to follow the guidance documents issued by the Health and Safety Executive or an industry governing body or association, then it is likely you are doing what is reasonably practicable.

In simpler terms we could say if the risk of injury is very small compared to the time, effort and money required to reduce it, then no action would be required.

Here are two examples of the same issue, but with different scenarios, to explain the different ways reasonably practicable can be taken.

Office premises doors

In this premises they may pose a risk of occupants trapping their fingers in the hinges of the doors.

The risk could be reduced by installing finger guards for all doors. They would need to be installed by a competent person, according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and then once installed should be part of a periodic inspection to ensure they are free from obvious defects and that they are still fixed securely and in place.

Typically, adults will be working in this type of premises. The likelihood of an adult accidently or deliberately placing their finger a door hinge is low.

The consequence of injury would likely be a bruise. In this scenario the sacrifice in terms of money to purchase them, pay someone to install them, the time to install them and effort to then inspect and check them is relatively high.

When calculated against the already low risk it can be said that in this scenario it is not reasonably practicable to install them. So, in other word the sacrifice is grossly disproportionate to the risk.

Primary school doors

Again, in this premises the doors may pose a risk of occupants trapping their fingers in the hinges of the doors.

But, while the sacrifice does not change, the risk does. Young children are much more likely to place a finger, accidently or deliberately, in the hinge of a door.

With younger children, who have smaller fingers, the consequences are greater, and the injury could be a broken bone or even worse. With this risk calculated against the sacrifice, it can be said in this scenario that the fitting of finger guards is reasonably practicable and so this control measure should be implemented. So, in other words the reduction in the risk versus the sacrifice is not grossly disproportionate.

So, we can summarise by saying, reasonably practicable is the balancing of a control measure in terms of the reduction of risk against the sacrifice in implementing that control measure, in terms of time money and effort.

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