The is a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation and misinterpretation on what ALARP really means – this is one of the better explanations I have read. It is by WHS Lawyer Greg Smith and first published on his blog here: https://mysafetythoughts.com/2016/10/23/reflections-on-safety-reasonably-practicable/
Reflections on Safety: Reasonably Practicable
In August 2016, I wrote a WHS Update about the High Court decision,Deal v Father Pius Kodakkathanath  HCA 31 which considered the legal test of Reasonably Practicable in the context of Australian health and safety legislation. Shortly after that, one of my connections on Linkedin posted an article about Reasonably Practicable. The article offered an engineering perspective on “As Low as Reasonably Practicable” (ALARP), stating:
… recent developments in Australian workplace health and safety law place proactive responsibilities on senior personnel in organisations, so they must be fully informed to make proper decisions
This sentiment seemed similar to an earlier engineering publication which argued that ALARP and “So Far as is Reasonably Practicable” (SFARP) were different and that this difference was, in part a least as result of “harmonised”, WHS legislation.
In both cases, I believed the articles were misaligned with the legal construct of Reasonably Practicable and misrepresented that there had been a change in the legal test of Reasonably Practicable prompted by changes to WHS legislation.
This background caused me to reflect again on the notion of Reasonably Practicable and what it means in the context of legal obligations for health and safety.
To start, I do take issue with the suggestion that changes to WHS legislation have resulted in a shift in what Reasonably Practicable means. The basis of this idea seems to be an apparent change in terminology from ALARP to SFARP.
The term SFARP was in place in health and safety legislation before the introduction of WHS and jurisdictions that have not adopted WHS legislation still use the term. For example, the primary obligations under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 are set out in section 20, and state:
To avoid doubt, a duty imposed on a person by this Part or the regulations to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, health and safety requires the person …
Indeed, the architects of WHS legislation specifically retained the term Reasonably Practicable because it was a common and well-understood term in the context of Australian health and safety legislation:
5.51 Reasonably practicable is currently defined or explained in a number of jurisdictions. The definitions are generally consistent, with some containing more matters to be considered than others. The definitions ‘are consistent with the long settled interpretation by courts, ‘in Australia and elsewhere.
5.52 The provision of the Vic Act relating to reasonably practicable was often referred to in submissions (including those of governments) and consultations as either a preferred approach or a basis for a definition of reasonably practicable.
5.53 We recommend that a definition or section explaining the application of reasonably practicable be modeled on the Victorian provision. We consider that, with some modification, it most closely conforms to what would be suitable for the model Act. [My emphasis added]
In my view, it is unarguable that the concept of Reasonably Practicable has been well-settled in Australian law for a considerable period, and the concept has not changed with the introduction of WHS legislation.
If we accept that Reasonably Practicable has been consistently applied in Australia for some time, the next question is, what does it mean?
Reasonably Practicable is a defined term in most health and safety legislation in Australia. Section 20(2) of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, for example, states:
(2) To avoid doubt, for the purposes of this Part and the regulations, regard must be had to the following matters in determining what is (or was at a particular time) reasonably practicable in relation to ensuring health and safety—
(a) the likelihood of the hazard or risk concerned eventuating;
(b) the degree of harm that would result if the hazard or risk eventuated;
(c) what the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know, about the hazard or risk and any ways of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk;
(d) the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or reduce the hazard or risk;
(e) the cost of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk.
In the High Court decision, Slivak v Lurgi (Australia) Pty Ltd  HCA 6, Justice Gaudron described Reasonably Practicable as follows:
The words “reasonably practicable” have, somewhat surprisingly, been the subject of much judicial consideration. It is surprising because the words “reasonably practicable” are ordinary words bearing their ordinary meaning. And the question whether a measure is or is not reasonably practicable is one which requires no more than the making of a value judgment in the light of all the facts. Nevertheless, three general propositions are to be discerned from the decided cases:
- the phrase “reasonably practicable” means something narrower than “physically possible” or “feasible”;
- what is “reasonably practicable” is to be judged on the basis of what was known at the relevant time;
- to determine what is “reasonably practicable” it is necessary to balance the likelihood of the risk occurring against the cost, time and trouble necessary to avert that risk. [my emphasis added]
Another High Court decision, Baiada Poultry Pty Ltd v The Queen  HCA 14, emphasised similar ideas.
The case concerned that the death of a subcontracted worker during forklift operations. Baiada was the Principal who had engaged the various contractors to perform the operations and in an earlier decision the court had concluded:
it was entirely practicable for [Baiada] to required contractors to put loading and unloading safety measures in place and to check whether those safety managers were being observed from time to time ((2011) 203 IR 396 at 410)
On appeal, the High Court framed this finding differently. They observed:
As the reasons of the majority in the Court of Appeal reveal by their reference to Baiada checking compliance with directions it gave to [the contractors], the question presented by the statutory duty “so far as is reasonably practicable” to provide and maintain a safe working environment could not be determined by reference only to Baiada having a legal right to issue instructions to its subcontractors.Showing that Baiada had the legal right to issue instructions showed only that it was possible for Baiada to take that step. It did not show that this was a step that was reasonably practicable to achieve the relevant result of providing and maintaining a safe working environment. That question required consideration not only of what steps Baiada could have taken to secure compliance but also, and critically, whether Baiada’s obligation “so far as is reasonably practicable” to provide and maintain a safe working environment obliged it: (a) to give safety instructions to its (apparently skilled and experienced) subcontractors; (b) to check whether its instructions were followed; (c) to take some step to require compliance with its instructions; or (d) to do some combination of these things or even something altogether different.These were questions which the jury would have had to decide in light of all of the evidence that had been given at trial about how the work of catching, caging, loading and transporting the chickens was done. [my emphasis added]
In light of these, and other decided cases it is possible to form a practical test to consider what is Reasonably Practicable. In my view, it is necessary for an organisation to demonstrate that they:
- Have “Proper Systems” to manage the health and safety risks in their business; and
- Exercise “Adequate Supervision” to ensure that the Proper Systems are implemented and effective to manage the risks.
What constitutes Proper Systems and Adequate Supervision is a judgement call that needs to be determined with regard to the risks. It requires an organisation to balance the risk against the cost, time and trouble of managing it.
It is also worth noting at this point, that Reasonably Practicable is, generally speaking, an organisational obligation. It is not an individual,and in particular, it is not an employee obligation.
I often see, when working with clients, safety documents required be signed by employees that the state that risks have been controlled to “ALARP”. This is not the employee’s responsibility and the extent to which an employee does or does not control the risk to ALARP does not affect an employer’s obligations.
In broad terms, it is the organisation’s (PCBU or employer) obligation to manage risks as low as, or so far as is, Reasonably Practicable. The employee obligation is to do everything “reasonable”. This includes complying with the organisation’s systems.
It is the organisation’s obligation to identify the relevant health and safety risks and define how they will be controlled, ensuring that the level of control is “Reasonably Practicable. It is the employee’s obligation to comply with the organisation’s requirements.
So, what might Reasonably Practicable look like in practice?
This article is a general discussion about Reasonably Practicable and related concepts. it should not be relied on, and is not intended to be specific legal advice.