A requirement to meet the “state of the art” in safety is given in various standards and laws. This is a term which I didn’t fully understand so I went looking for more guidance on it. This blog is a compilation of what I discovered. 

 Figure 1 - The ISO/IEC directives part 2 defines “state of the art”

Examples of the use of the term include:

  • The machinery directive states that “The essential health and safety requirement should be satisfied in order to ensure that machinery is safe; these requirements should be applied with discernment to take account of the state of the art at the time of construction and of technical and economic requirements”.
  • the EU guides to the lift directives states “components designed and manufactured according to the present state of the art should be used”.

I like the Wikipedia explanation “state of the art refers to the highest level of general development, as of a device, technique or scientific field achieved at a particular time. It also refers to such a level of development reached at any particular time as a result of the common methodologies employed at the time”.

Figure 2 - Dilbert on state of the art

I also looked at the Wikipedia definition of “best practice” and to be honest it also sounds very like “state of the art”.

The guide to the machinery clause 16 is entitled “The state of the art” and highlights that the state of the art depends on economic cost along with technical capabilities and even better states that “harmonized standards provide a good indication of state of the art that must be taken into account when applying the essential health and safety requirements”. Based on this compliance with ISO 13849 and IEC 62061 are often taken as meeting the “state of the art” requirement from the machinery directive. However just as you think you know what to do the guide to machinery directive muddies the water by saying “a harmonized standard provides an indication of state of the art at the time it was adopted” and goes on to say that the standards represent the minimum which should be done.

I haven’t seen it written down anywhere but to me the above seems to be getting closer to the idea of ALARP. ALARP stands for “as low as reasonably possible” and is discussed in Annex C of IEC 61508-5:2010. The annex describes ALARP as “one particular approach to achievement of tolerable risk”. The reason I suggest it is relevant to a discussion on “state of the art” is that it factors in the expense of reducing risk further. However it does involve putting a cost on a human life and if the cost to reduce the risk further below that level is disproportionate then you might be justified in not taking those measures. I am unsure how such thinking would work out in the court of public opinion.

Figure 3 - ALARP from IEC 61508-5:2010

I was tempted to continue the discussion into the areas of product and producer’s liability along with strict liability but not being a legal person I decided to leave it at the above. An interesting paper if you want to learn more is “Should ‘State of the Art’ Safety be a defense against Liability?” by James Boyd and Daniel E. Ingberman. The paper is from 1995 which shows the issues raised in this blog have been around a long time.

This week’s video is the recent Falcon heavy launch and landing – definitely state of the art in my view – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLCXn445-eQ. I must find out what safety standard SpaceX design to. I seem to remember someone telling me NASA required quadruple redundancy for safety systems which could lead to the loss of life.