Babies, Bathwater, and Australian Safety LawsThursday, February 16, 2012
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The old saying goes, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” But it looks like a number of people in Australia may be in danger of doing just that with their response to the country’s newly harmonized health and safety laws.
Australia’s new Work Health and Safety Act says company officers “… must exercise due diligence to ensure that the person conducting the business or undertaking complies with that duty or obligation.” An organization also must ensure “workers and other persons should be given the highest level of protection against harm to their health, safety and welfare from hazards and risks arising from work … as is reasonably practical.”
So far, the Act is consistent with what most people would regard as commonsense ALARP (As Low As Reasonably Practicable) risk management. It is, in fact relatively easy to argue that the safety lifecycle approach is the most logical method of ensuring a company can achieve the highest level of protection from harm as reasonable practicable.
But some critics are interpreting the Act as a rejection of the safety lifecycle standards such as IEC/AS61508, IEC/AS61511 and IEC/AS62061. They assert that, because these standards allow a company to set a fixed risk tolerance and thus potentially ignore other reasonable means of further risk reduction, the standards should be rejected completely. The problem is not with the standards. The problem is using them to justify bare-bones risk management that ignores intelligent, practical means of risk reduction once an arbitrary fixed target is reached. In the extreme, one could set a high risk target, say that no safety is needed to achieve that target and then claim standards compliance. This was never the intention of the standards. Such theoretical extremes do not justify rejecting the widely accepted good engineering practice of risk analysis, safety equipment specification, design, and operation within the new legal framework.
The problem of risk management engineering and the law centers on the fundamental difference between engineering and the legal system. As engineers, we deal with the unknown, but reasonably predictable future. Legal cases deal with the fully known past. It is our challenge as engineers to both understand the potential risks in the future and take all reasonable means to ensure they are managed. This standards-based approach will minimize the number of legal cases and, if a case does go to court, show that we did the best reasonable job at the time. The legal case can then focus on the assessment of what is reasonable with the information to make that assessment intelligently.
These engineering and legal challenges are all the more reason to apply good practices and methods such as those in the safety lifecycle standards. But that is not enough. We must also apply them in the context of an existing industry with other existing means of risk reduction to ensure that we do apply all reasonable means at our disposal or, in the current phrase of the moment, “exercise due diligence.” So the new Australian legislation does not reject the safety lifecycle standards. Rather, the Act requires that the standards be used to assess risk intelligently, apply all reasonable means of risk reduction including SIL rated SIFs, and monitor equipment operation to ensure that reality is consistent with the predictions and make any reasonable changes as needed to fix any identified problems.
However, we must not fall into the trap of choosing risk targets much higher than is broadly acceptable and then using safety lifecycle standards to justify this instead of using them as part of an ALARP approach. The safety lifecycle standards are tools to achieve a level of risk, and the choice of accepting that risk should be based on ALARP according to the new laws. The safety lifecycle standards should not be rejected, but rather used intelligently in achieving the desired result of ALARP risk.