29 September 2012

The ALARP Principle

Have you ever tried typing with waterproof plasters around two digits? That strange splint-like feeling where you’re reduced to using rigid digits to strike keys means things happen more slowly than usual. I know this because as I type this post the thumb and index finger on my right hand are immobilised in this fashion. This was a small wood-cutting accident brought on by my own willingness to be helpful.

It doesn’t hurt... cut deep enough and the sensation just ceases. It’s just numb and immobile. Having an accident brings me neatly onto the course I’ve been on for the past week and one of the lessons I’ve learnt that will inform my practice as a technical author.

We learnt about the ‘ALARP principle’. ALARP relates to the management of risk and stands for As Low As Reasonably Practicable. This principle is grounded in the work of the Health and Safety Executive. (For foreign readers, this is a government organisation which is much maligned for introducing ‘red tape’. In reality they’re very good at making sure food is safe to eat, and that workplaces have First Aiders. They’re probably the main reason that our newspapers aren’t filled with stories of people being cooked alive in their workplace because the management have decided to use the fire exits for additional storage space...)

The documentation I’ve been working with this week is all to do with the processing of explosive munitions and it makes for very interesting reading.

The weight of legislation in this sector is immense, and the requirement for good documentation cannot be understated... and what is considered ‘reasonably practicable’ is still more dangerous than many other activities. For this reason facilities have hardware and accompanying policies and procedures in place to deal with everything up to and including lightening strikes, and it would appear the level at which they cease documenting and planning is up somewhere between ‘tornado’ and ‘meteorite impact’. This is also reflected in the precision of the documentation. That being said, the subject matter is still high explosives and there are always going to be risks, which is why the focus is on ALARP and not total elimination, which would see this industry unable to function.

When I consider the main business of Clearly Stated, I can see ways that we apply the ALARP principle to our business practices. Clients’ documents are protected against fire, power and system failure, and flood. We use a good quality virus checker for everything. But there are potential events (like alien invasion) that we just can’t plan and prepare for.

I am also going to use ALARP as a principle when authoring, considering the risks encountered by the end-users of my documentation. Is it reasonable to expect the users I’m writing for to ‘experiment and play’ with a system, and can I allow for this in my authoring in order to reduce the risk of them or the system getting stuck? Do users need a lot of hand holding? Well, again that depends on the anticipated user and the system, but I am also conscious that ALARP-friendly documentation may not cover every eventuality (like alien invasion) in favour of practicability.

This brings me back to the damaged hand. Yes, I cut my hand, but the axe was necessary in order to have a nice warm fire going to keep me warm during dinner. An ALARP-friendly axemanship manual wouldn’t say, “Don’t swing the axe”, but it would have a section on the application of plasters and dressings!


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