Agency Defines 'Unacceptable', 'Tolerable' and 'Negligible' Risks

A new document from the UK's equivalent of OSHA describes how the agency makes decisions about the potential to control of risks vs. cost to employers.\r\n


Ever wonder how a regulatory agency determines what defines an acceptable balance between risk and cost to employers? You''re not alone.

A new document from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) - the UK''s equivalent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - describes how the agency makes decisions about the control of risks from occupational hazards.

"Reducing Risks, Protecting People" was launched during the seminar "Trade-Offs in Managing Risks: Are We Getting It Right?" which was hosted in London by the HSC and the Policy Studies Institute (PSI), and chaired by Professor Glynis Breakwell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bath.

"Senior managers increasingly recognize that organizational success and prosperity require proper management of risk," said PSI Director Jim Skea. "This means taking advantage of opportunities for innovation and improvement as well as minimizing risk of harm, whether to finance, reputation, people or the environment. Making trade-offs lies at the heart of what senior managers have to do, and the quality of the decisions they make does much to determine the level of public trust and confidence in the organizations they manage."

When launching "Reducing Risks, Protecting People" (R2P2), Bill Callaghan, chair of the Health and Safety Commission said, "R2P2 is a landmark document. It starts from the basis that risks cannot, and should not, be eliminated, but that wherever possible we should aim to secure the benefits of work activities while ensuring that the risks are properly controlled."

R2P2 explains how the HSE and HSC, in consultation with stakeholders, determine when risks from work activities are "unacceptable", "tolerable" or "negligible".

"Inevitably, this requires us to balance ethical, social, economic and scientific considerations and it can sometimes mean making difficult decisions," Callaghan admitted. "R2P2 sets out the process we follow, the protocols we adopt, and the criteria we apply. It embodies our commitment to openness and transparency."

Timothy Walker, HSE''s director general noted that several factors, notably rail and food safety in the UK, have prompted a lively debate on where the balance lies between measures to reduce risks and the costs of doing so. "In this new version we have reaffirmed the importance of quantitative and qualitative risk assessment in our decision-making process. We have also expanded on the central role of good practice in determining the control measures that should be put in place to address hazards," he added.

Surprisingly, Callaghan admitted, "The Commission is not against risk. Economic activity - the production of what modern society considers important - inevitably involves risk. Our purpose is to ensure that risks from work activities are properly controlled. We have to make judgments and trade-off benefits, risks and costs in the context of the social, political, ethical, scientific and economic factors that surround each risk issue."

At the same time it launched R2P2, the HSE also published new internal guidance for its staff to help them judge whether employers have reduced risks in the workplace "as low as reasonably practicable" (known as ALARP).

"Reducing Risks, Protecting People" describes the internal decision-making process at HSE, rather than providing guidance to employers on what they need to do. Copies of Reducing Risks, Protecting People are available on the web at

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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