30th September, 2021

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

So far as is reasonably practicable is a term that comes up a lot in health and safety. But what does it mean? How do you decide if something is reasonably practicable? And how does the law define it? Let's look in detail at the health and safety phrase 'So far as is reasonably practicable'.

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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 not exactly clear what you should 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.

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

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

Unsure what your risks are? Use the free risk calculator to create a risk list for your workplace.

You can't remove risk completely

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. When we cross a road, climb the stairs, or go for a walk. From the moment we get out of bed in the morning accidents can (and do) happen.

And it's the same at work.

Notice 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 remove all falls from height by preventing all work at height. That's possible. But it's not practical - because some work needs to get done at height.

no entry sign

As an employer, you are not expected to completely eliminate all of the risks that your workforce is exposed to. 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 risks 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 put it in place. The costs or the consequences of controlling a hazard might far outweigh the small risk it presents. But just because something is expensive or will take time to do, doesn't mean that 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 compare this with the sacrifice (in time, money and trouble) in taking 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.

The ruling by the Court of Appeal in the Edwards v National Coal Board case described a scale of the risk and the measures to avert the risk, therefore in assessing whether you have complied with the duty 'so far as is reasonably practicable' involves a careful assessment of the balance between the two.

Only where the risk is insignificant in comparison with the sacrifice can the need for the measures and the duty to put them in place be discharged.

If the risk is very low and to eliminate the risk entirely you would need to spend a large proportion of money and time, then you would not be reasonably expected to put the control measure 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 get your risks under control.

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 of balance in 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. 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. It's only really if a risk is insignificant compared to the time and cost to mitigate it, that it can be determined a control is not reasonably practical. In other words, grossly disproportionate.

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

More money time and trouble should be spent controlling higher risks, and it would be reasonably practicable to do so.

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

danger death sign

The HSE will not expect the working environment to be risk-free should they inspect your site, either routinely or following an accident. What they will expect is that you have adequately assessed the risks and reduced them as low as can be expected. If you are inspected you need to be able to show that you have put in place suitable control measures that are 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 can often be found from professional bodies, trade publications and the HSE. Compliance with good practice will (in most circumstances) be sufficient to demonstrate that risks have been reduced as low as is reasonably practicable.

However, it is important 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, then the weighting should always be on putting the measures in place and reducing the risk. Not only will this help you to comply with the law by applying measures that are 'reasonably practicable', but it will also help keep your workforce safe and productive.


Use the free risk calculator to create a risk list, in priority order, for your workplace.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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