What does ‘reasonably practicable’ mean when it comes to health and safety?

Nick Wilson looks at how far businesses need to go to protect their employees 

The phrase ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ is key to understanding the general duties an employer has under the UK’s most important piece of health and safety legislation, the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. Under the Act, for example, employers must ensure their employees (and indeed others who are not in their employment but who may be affected from risks arising from their undertaking) are protected from harm ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. This means effectively managing risk, but how far do you go?

Weighing up the risk

Unsurprisingly, our starting point is to identify hazards and conduct a risk assessment. Your estimation of the risk will be informed by the likelihood of an incident occurring, the number of people who may be exposed to the risk and, of course, the outcome severity. 

Where there is a high risk it would be necessary for you to go to substantial expense, time and effort to reduce the risk for you to demonstrate that you have done all that is reasonably practicable. Conversely, where the risk is deemed to be very low, it would not be reasonably practicable to ask the employer to spend a large amount of money putting control measures in place to reduce it.

Think of it like a set of weighing scales. On one side you place the risk you are confronted with, and on the other the risk control measures you are going to introduce. The control measures must outweigh the risk you are trying to avert. If they don’t you have not done all that is reasonably practicable.

The role of a cost-benefit analysis

Essentially, a cost-benefit analysis will inform whether your steps are reasonably practicable. Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act, businesses are not expected to completely eliminate all workplace risks. Indeed, in regard to Covid-19, that would be near enough impossible with the exception of home working. Instead, employers must assess the risk level, what can be done to reduce it, and what is reasonable to do. For example, if the risk of injury (or, in the case of Covid, infection) is very small compared to the money, time or effort needed to remove it, then an employer could not reasonably be expected to take steps to avoid it.

However, this doesn’t mean you are excused from doing anything. If the risk can be reduced using easier and more proportionate steps, then they would be reasonably practicable. Be aware that, in health and safety law, the decision between risk and safety steps is heavily weighted in favour of health and safety. Only when safety steps are out of all proportion to the risk can they be ruled out.

Cost implications for SMEs 

The ability to afford a safety step is not usually a factor in assessing its requirement. The case of R v F Howe & Son [1999] confirmed that small employers with little money cannot operate 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.

Employers do not have to remove or reduce risk if it is technically impossible or if the cost, time or trouble involved deems it inappropriate. However, deciding what is reasonably practicable can be a fine line, and it can be beneficial to work with those with plenty of knowledge and experience in this area to help you identify sensible, proportionate solutions to your safety challenges.

Nick Wilson is director of health and safety services at Ellis Whittam