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Safe design is about integrating hazard identification and risk assessment methods early in the design process, to eliminate or minimise risks of injury throughout the life of a product. This applies to buildings, structures, equipment and vehicles.  

  • Of 639 work-related fatalities from 2006­­ to 2011, one-third (188) were caused by unsafe design or design-related factors contributed to the fatality.
  • Of all fatalities where safe design was identified as an issue, one fifth (21%) was caused by inadequate protective guarding for workers.

A safe design approach

Safe design begins at the concept development phase of a structure when you’re making decisions about:  

  • the design and its intended purpose
  • materials to be used
  • possible methods of construction, maintenance, operation, demolition or dismantling and disposal
  • what legislation, codes of practice and standards need to be considered and complied with.

Designers need to consider how safety can best be achieved in each of the lifecycle phases, for example: 

  • Designing a machine with protective guarding that will allow it to be operated safely, while also ensuring it can be installed, maintained and disposed of safely.
  • Designing a building with a lift for occupants, where the design also includes sufficient space and safe access to the lift well or machine room for maintenance work.

Five principles of safe design

  • Principle 1: Persons with control—those who make decisions affecting the design of products, facilities or processes are able to promote health and safety at the source.
  • Principle 2: Product lifecycle—safe design applies to every stage in the lifecycle from conception through to disposal. It involves eliminating hazards or minimising risks as early in the lifecycle as possible.
  • Principle 3: Systematic risk management—apply hazard identification, risk assessment and risk control processes to achieve safe design.
  • Principle 4: Safe design knowledge and capability—should be either demonstrated or acquired by those who control design.
  • Principle 5: Information transfer—effective communication and documentation of design and risk control information amongst everyone involved in the phases of the lifecycle is essential for the safe design approach.

These principles have been derived from Towards a Regulatory Regime for Safe Design. For more detail see Guidance on the principles of safe design for work.

Figure 1: A model for safe design

a model for safe design

Ergonomics and good work design

Safe design incorporates ergonomics principles as well as good work design.

  • Good work design helps ensure workplace hazards and risks are eliminated or minimised so all workers remain healthy and safe at work. It can involve the design of work, workstations, operational procedures, computer systems or manufacturing processes.

Responsibility for safe design

When it comes to achieving safe design, responsibility rests with those groups or individuals who control or manage design functions. This includes:

  • Architects, industrial designers or draftspersons who carry out the design on behalf of a client.
  • Individuals who make design decisions during any of the lifecycle phases such as engineers, manufacturers, suppliers, installers, builders, developers, project managers and WHS professionals.
  • Anyone who alters a design.
  • Building service designers or others designing fixed plant such as ventilation and electrical systems.
  • Buyers who specify the characteristics of products and materials such as masonry blocks and be default decide the weights bricklayers must handle.

Safe design can be achieved more effectively when all the parties who control and influence the design outcome collaborate on incorporating safety measures into the design.

For more information on who is responsible for safe design see Guidance on the principles of safe design for work, the Principles of Good Work Design Handbook and the model Code of Practice: Safe Design of Structures and WHS Regulations.

Design considerations for plant

Examples of things you should consider when designing plant include:

  • All the phases in the lifecycle of an item of plant from manufacture through use, to dismantling and disposal.
  • Design for safe erection and installation.
  • Design to facilitate safe use by considering, for example, the physical characteristics of users, the maximum number of tasks an operator can be expected to perform at any one time, the layout of the workstation or environment in which the plant may be used.
  • Consider intended use and reasonably foreseeable misuse.
  • Consider the difficulties workers may face when maintaining or repairing the plant.    
  • Consider types of failure or malfunction and design the plant to fail in a safe manner.

Product lifecycle

The lifecycle of a product is a key concept of sustainable and safe design. It provides a framework for eliminating the hazards at the design stage and/or controlling the risk as the product is:

  • constructed or manufactured
  • imported, supplied or installed
  • commissioned, used or operated
  • maintained, repaired, cleaned, and/or modified
  • de-commissioned, demolished and/or dismantled
  • disposed of or recycled.

A safer product will be created if the hazards and risks that could impact on downstream users in the lifecycle are eliminated or controlled during design, manufacture or construction. In these early phases, there is greater scope to design-out hazards and/or incorporate risk control measures that are compatible with the original design concept and functional requirements of the product.

  • Designers 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.

New risks may emerge as products are modified or the environments in which they are used change.

Safety can be further improved if each person who has control over actions taken in any of the lifecycle phases takes steps to ensure health and safety is pro-actively addressed, by reviewing the design and checking it meets safety standards in each of the lifecycle phases.

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

Figure 2: Lifecycle of designed products 

Lifecycle of designed products

Benefits of safe design

It is estimated that inherently safe plant and equipment would save between 5–10% 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 associated with unsafe design can be significant, for example retrofitting, workers’ compensation and insurance levies, environmental clean-up and negligence claims. Since these costs impact more on parties downstream in the lifecycle who buy and use the product, the incentive for these parties to influence and benefit from safe design is also greater.

A safe design approach results in many benefits including:   

  • prevent injury and disease  
  • improve useability of products, systems and facilities
  • improve productivity
  • reduce costs
  • better predict and manage production and operational costs over the lifecycle of a product
  • comply with legislation
  • innovate, in that safe design demands new thinking.

Australian WHS laws impose duties on a range of parties to ensure health and safety in relation to particular products such as:

  • designers of plant, buildings and structures
  • building owners and persons with control of workplaces
  • manufacturers, importers and suppliers of plant and substances
  • persons who install, erect or modify plant.

These obligations may vary depending on the relevant state, territory or Commonwealth WHS legislation.

Those who make decisions that influence design such as clients, chief financial officers, developers, builders, directors and managers will also have duties under WHS laws if they are employers, self-employed or if they manage or control workplaces.

  • For example, a client who has a building or structure designed and built for leasing becomes the owner of the building and may therefore have a duty as a person who manages or controls a workplace.

There are other provisions governing the design of buildings and structures in state and territory building laws. The BCA is the principal instrument for regulating architects, engineers and others involved in the design of buildings and structures.

  • Although the BCA provides minimum standards to ensure the health and safety of building occupants (such as structural adequacy, fire safety, amenities and ventilation), it does not cover the breadth of WHS matters that may arise during the construction phase or in the use of buildings and structures as workplaces.

In addition, there are technical design standards and guidelines produced by government agencies, Standards Australia and relevant professional bodies.

Examples of safe design

Positioning air-conditioners for maintenance

Split system and other air-conditioning systems require maintenance access. Air-conditioning systems are sometimes located on roofs or attached to upper story walls creating fall risks for maintenance workers.

Air-conditioning systems should ideally be placed at ground level. If this is not practicable then fall protection can be provided through guard railing.

  • The person with control over the decision of locating the system may be the architect, building owner, builder or air-conditioning installer. All of these people need to consider the maintenance issue (as well as the installation) and ensure that accessibility can be gained safely.
  • The benefits of ground level location include reducing falls and awkward conditions for manual handling as well as reducing maintenance costs.

Air-conditioning systems example of safe design

Access for lighting maintenance

Maintenance of a lighting system can involve difficult access and work at heights. This means maintenance can be hazardous and expensive. A solution can be to install lighting systems on sliding tracks.

  • The person with control over the decision to install this system may be the architect, engineer, building owner, electrical contractor or builder. Maintenance personnel need to know the lighting system can be accessed via the sliding rails and how to operate the system. Although this may be evident such as in the photo above, notices should be placed where they can be easily seen.
  • The benefits of a sliding track system include minimising falls and reduced cost of maintenance work such as cleaning and changing bulbs and tubes, due to efficiencies achieved from using the existing walkways. The people that would benefit from this kind of installation include maintenance workers, cleaners and installing electricians.

sliding lighting systems example of safe design

Rollover protection for tractors

Many farmers, farm workers and other people who use tractors have been killed when tractors have rolled. ROPS provide protection for the operator in this event.

It should be noted that ROPS do nothing to prevent a rollover and the operator needs to remain within the boundary of the structure. This means seat belts and a cabin are associated solutions.

Falling object protection structures are also useful on tractors when working in areas where falling objects can be a risk, such as construction, forestry and mining.

  • It is the tractor designer and manufacturer who determine what ROPS should be fitted and users who determine where a retrofit ROPS is being added.
  • Those that benefit from this safety feature are farmers and construction workers. When a ROPS is fitted, information about the need for use of seat belts to maximise rollover protection effectiveness is essential. The best location of this notice would be on the tractor. An alternative approach would be installation of ignition or motion interlocks on seatbelts or other forms of restraint.

Rollover protection example of safe design

Our national approach

The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022 has identified healthy and safe by design as one of the seven national action areas.

Australian work health and safety legislation requires that all design parties consult, cooperate and coordinate their activities, so far as is reasonably practicable, rather than seeking to transfer or delegate responsibility to others, or assuming that someone else is taking care of a work health and safety matter.

Prevention activities and ongoing collaboration and cooperation during the design process will help to achieve the Strategy’s aim of:

  • reducing the incidence of serious injury by at least 30% nationwide by 2022
  • reduce the number of work-related fatalities due to injury by at least 20%.

Since the Strategy launched, Safe Work Australia and all jurisdictions have been working collaboratively with the industry, unions, relevant organisations and the community to influence and promote improvements in the design process.

Further advice

SWA is not a regulator and cannot advise you about safe design compliance. If you need help, please contact your work health and safety authority.



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