Reliable transmission of activity from nerve to muscle is necessary for the normal function of the body. The term 'safety factor' refers to the ability of neuromuscular transmission to remain effective under various physiological conditions and stresses. This is a result of the amount of transmitter released per nerve impulse being greater than that required to trigger an action potential in the muscle fibre. The safety factor is a measure of this excess of released transmitter. In this review we discuss the practical difficulties involved in estimating the safety factor in vitro. We then consider the factors that influence the safety factor in vivo. While presynaptic transmitter release may be modulated on a moment to moment basis, the postsynaptic features that determine the effect of released transmitter are not so readily altered to meet changing demands. Different strategies are used by different species to ensure reliable neuromuscular transmission. Some, like frogs, rely on releasing a large amount of transmitter while others, like man, rely on elaborate postsynaptic specialisations to enhance the response to transmitter. In normal adult mammals, the safety factor is generally 3-5. Both pre- and postsynaptic components change during development and may show plasticity in response to injury or disease. Thus, both acquired autoimmune and inherited congenital diseases of the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) can significantly reduce, or even transiently increase, safety factor.