Safe design: thinking it through

STATE Mining Engineer (WA) Martin Knee examines the process of safe design in minimising hazards.

STATE Mining Engineer (WA) Martin Knee examines the process of safe design in minimising hazards.

So-called safe design is a process that eliminates occupational health and safety (OHS) hazards, or minimises potential OHS risk, by involving decision makers at an early stage and considering the life cycle of the designed product.

A safe design approach will generate a design option that eliminates OHS hazards and minimises the risks to those who make the product, to those who erect or install it, to those who use it and maintain it throughout its useful life and to those who may have to demolish it, dispose of it or recycle it at the end of its productive career.

Why should we consider a safe design approach? Safe design is important to employees; designers (architects, engineers, industrial designers); manufacturers, importers and suppliers; employers; inspectors; and OHS practitioners. It is good management practice. And it helps decision makers understand and implement the OHS risk management approach.

Safe design principles can be applied through the life cycle of the designed product whether in the:

  • construction, use, maintenance or demolition of any building or structure;
  • manufacture, supply, installation, use, maintenance or disposal of plant or equipment;
  • manufacture, supply, use or disposal of chemicals; or
  • implementation or use of any system of work or process or any other physical attribute or system associated with either the work place or the interface with people

The opportunities to create safer workplaces are most cost effective when captured in the earliest phases of the lifecycle of designed products or processes.

The most effective risk control measure — eliminating the hazard — is often cheaper and more practical to achieve at the design or planning stage, rather than making changes later in the lifecycle when the hazards become real risks to clients, users, employees and businesses.

It is estimated that inherently safe plant and equipment would save between 5 and 10% of their cost through reductions in inventories of hazardous materials, reduced need for protective equipment and the reduced costs of testing and maintaining the equipment. The direct costs with unsafe design can be significant (e.g. retro-fitting, workers’ compensation and insurance levies, environmental clean up and negligence claims). Since these costs impact more on parties downstream in the lifecycle who purchase and use the product, the incentive for these parties to influence and benefit from safe design is also greater.

In the early phases (concept and detailed design process) there is greater scope to design-out hazards and incorporate risk control measures that are compatible with the original design concept and functional requirements of the product. Decisions can be made to eliminate OHS hazards in the systems of work, methods of manufacture or construction, or the use of materials involved in creating the designed product.

This means that a designer must have a good understanding of the lifecycle of the item they are designing, including the needs of users and the environment in which that item may be used.

Subsequent stages of the product’s lifecycle should not proceed until the preceding phase design reviews have been considered and approved by those persons with control.

A safe design approach results in many benefits, including:

  • simplified risk control;
  • prevention of injury and disease;
  • improved useability of products, systems and facilities;
  • a greater ability to predict and manage production and operational costs across the life cycle of the designed-product;
  • a greater ability to predict and minimise costs associated with injury and environmental damage;
  • better prediction and management of production and operational costs over the lifecycle of a product;
  • a more informed ability to meet legislative responsibilities;
  • a reduced need for redesign and retrofitting, and its associated costs; and
  • innovation (in that safe design demands new thinking)

In summary, safe design involves understanding, identifying and analysing potential OHS hazards and risks throughout the designed product’s lifecycle as part of the design process to improve its safety.

Further safe design information and examples may be obtained from the excellent 2006 publication Guidance on the principles of safe design for work, available from the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) or

This article first appeared in MINESAFE (Vol. 16, No. 3 December 2007) published by the Resources Safety Division of the WA Department of Consumer and Employment Protection.

Martin Knee

State Mining Engineer

Mining Safety and Health Branch

WA Department of Consumer and Employment Protection

08 9358 8142

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