What if “reasonably practicable” was applied to a disease outbreak?

There seems to be an increasing trend for the principles of occupational health and safety (OHS) to be applied to matters outside the workplace.  OHS principles were created to reflect the values of society in the 1970s and 80s and, although the laws have changed to reflect economic needs, the principles remain basically the same.  A major legal change has been the move away from preventing harm “at the source” to one of reasonable practicability and this can reduce the overall level of safety available to workers and others.

It is interesting to note that statements on the current Ebola outbreak argue the sense in dealing with the outbreak “at the source”.  Why do we accept a reasonably practicable control measure for harm at work but expect a stronger preventative measure for public health threats?  Shouldn’t we be aiming to reduce all harm “at the source” regardless of the type of harm?

Prevention of harm

On one its educational webpages, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states that:

“The most effective method of controlling hazards is to control at the source by eliminating the hazard or by substituting a hazardous agent or work process with a less dangerous one.”

Safe Work Australia’s 2011 code of practice for controlling risks advocates “separating the source of harm from people” (page 14) in its discussion of the hierarchy of controls.

These OHS recommendations are based on solid logic and the experience of controlling hazards and reducing harm by removing the cause of the harm.  When investigating incidents, one looks for the root cause or primary cause in order to avoid a recurrence.  Focusing on the source of harm is a sound and proven strategy in workplaces that is reflected in public health strategies, illustrated most topically with the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

A media release from St Michael’s Hospital based on research published in The Lancet reports:

“Controlling the Ebola virus outbreak at the source in West Africa is the most effective way to decrease international risk of transmission… (emphasis added)”

President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Brian Owler said on October 2014 and again today:

“Well, I think the problem is, though, that unless we actually tackle the problem at its source, we are not going to see the problem go away.(emphasis added)”

Australia’s Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek has endorsed the AMA’s approach.

On the current Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that:

“The national authority in Nigeria is working closely with WHO and partners to ensure that this incident case is contained at the source. “

The Center for Disease Control has also advocated this approach.

Controlling workplace hazards at the source is advocated by OHS authorities in Australia and internationally. Controlling public and international health threats at the source is also being advocated by health experts.

Reasonably practicable

In the OHS context, employers have been granted flexibility in reducing potential harm from workplace activities through the inclusion of the concept of “reasonably practicable” in hazard control strategies.  Safe Work Australia (SWA) lists several essential elements of reasonable practicability in an interpretive guideline:

  • “The likelihood of the hazard or the risk concerned occurring
  • Degree of harm that may result if the hazard or risk eventuated
  • What the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know, about the hazard or risk and any ways of eliminating or minimising the risk
  • Availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or minimise risks
  • Cost of eliminating or minimising the risk” (page 2-4)

The first three relate to an evaluation of risks and the state of knowledge about the hazard  – a disease that was first identified in 1976 according to the World Health Organisation.  The fourth element relates to the Hierarchy of Control (HoC)_ and suitability of risk control measures.

The process outlined above provides flexibility for employers and others to identify the most suitable control measure and is based on the assumption and/or legal obligation that action will be taken along the hierarchical steps.  Frequently, though, the steps are acknowledged but the path is not followed.  Applying the HoC is often more like hopscotch where steps are missed out in order to reach the preferred target.

SWA outlines the determination of suitability:

“A way of eliminating or minimising a hazard or risk is regarded as suitable if it:

  • is effective in eliminating or minimising the likelihood or degree of harm from a hazard or risk;
  • does not introduce new and higher risks in the circumstances; and
  • is practical to implement in the circumstances in which the hazard or risk exists.” (page 4)

The last bullet point allows business the wriggle room to argue the unsuitability of a control measure as impractical, and allows for the undermining of an effective hazard control strategy.

Some readers are likely to argue that the risk control approach to workplace hazards should not be applied to a global health threat like Ebola, and vice versa.  But if occupational health and safety is increasingly being interpreted on the basis of values and on cultural indicators, it is reasonable to compare this interpretation to other hazard control strategies in other areas and disciplines.  By comparing, contrasting and discussing these issues across disciplines, it should be possible to identify weaknesses, opportunities and, possibly, hypocrisies in the way we treat each other be they workers in a factory in Thomastown or a member of an infected community in West Africa.

Kevin Jones

4 thoughts on “What if “reasonably practicable” was applied to a disease outbreak?”

  1. Good topic for discussion. It is my understanding that “reasonably practicable” is applied to risks which are very low. In situations (like oil spillage on the shopfloor/work at height) where the severity is like certain injury/death, we have to address “at the source”. But, if the hazard is, say, wet floor in the bathroom/normal flooring in the offices or shopfloor where person may fall if he is not attentive; or presence of chemicals in the work atmosphere below the levels which were proven to have no ill effect, etc, in such cases, we can apply “reasonably practicable” .
    However, we have to analyze all hazards in detail and decide to address “at the source” or ALARP.

  2. The basic flaw in your logic (apoloies for starting a sentence with what could be construed as an attack, it is not the intent) is that all sources of harm are the same. Let me explain with examples: If you want to eliminate the harm to the eyes while welding, you would need to remove the UV from the arc in arc welding. This would mean finding a technology for welding that is cost competitive and does not produce UV light. Since this technology does not exist (yet), how can you remove the harm at the source? That would mean not welding at all – defeating the reason why you needed to weld in the first place.

    Another example would be to manufacture a product from hazardous chemical raw materials. If there is no alternative process, you either have to stop making the product (accodring to the logic in the article), or prevent exposure (as is done in the plants). Here you manage the hazard at its source (the reactor, tank or pipeline), but if something goes wrong, there is still exposure. You then have plans in place to limit the exposure. The second example is managed according to the way ebola is managed.

    On last comment – ebola is not an inherent risk in any commercial process – you can run any process I know without HAVING to expose the workers to ebola, so keeping it away from your process is an option. This is not the case with the harm associated to other processes.

  3. Didn’t the Feds recently apply resonably practical to the ebola dilemma as to whether or not to send medicos to the source of the problem? Were the SWA provisions (as clearly stated above), considered in refusing to deploy personnel to these regions. It sounds quite plausible.

    1. Brad, you may be right but I haven’t heard the Australian Government’s response expressed in terms of reasonably practicable. I would be interested if the strategy is reasonably practicable and whether it fits with the Hierarchy of Control.

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