Last reviewed 13 October 2021

Can we “design out” risks before we get to the workplace? Andrew Christodoulou investigates.

Research studies all over the world are in agreement about the important role of design in the occurrence of workplace accidents and disease. Attention to design issues may make accidents and ill health less likely by making systems of work, machinery and plant, etc safer from the start. It is also well known that the majority of incidents in the workplace are caused by human behaviour, that is human error. Proper consideration of the role of design can reduce the chance of such error.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSWR), schedule 1, require organisations to follow a hierarchy of risk control methods, which includes as a first priority “avoiding risk”. This may be achieved at the design stage.

The question is: are organisations placing enough emphasis on design when considering risk control in the workplace? Is there enough awareness about the importance of design? Is there enough expertise?

Legal obligations

Organisations are obliged to make reference to the “general principles of prevention” contained in schedule 1 to the MHSWR. These principles establish a hierarchy of control of risk as follows.

  1. Avoid risks.

  2. Evaluate the risks that cannot be avoided.

  3. Combat the risks at source.

  4. Adapt the work to the individual, especially as regards the design of workplaces, the choice of work equipment and the choice of working and production methods, with a view, in particular, to alleviating monotonous work and work at a predetermined work rate and to reduce their effect on health.

  5. Adapt to technical progress.

  6. Replace the dangerous by the non-dangerous or the less dangerous.

  7. Develop a coherent overall prevention policy which covers technology, organisation of work, working conditions, social relationships and the influence of factors relating to the working environment.

  8. Give collective protective measures priority over individual protective measures.

  9. Give appropriate instructions to employees.

In practice, this means that organisations must as a first priority avoid foreseeable risks at the design stage by eliminating hazards giving rise to the risk. Where this is not possible then the other levels in the hierarchy must be applied.

These principles also place great emphasis on design issues. The legal criteria for deciding which level of the hierarchy should be adopted (where avoiding the risk altogether is not possible) is that of “so far as is reasonably practicable”. This allows organisations to balance both the level of risk and the cost of tackling it.

Supporting regulations also place emphasis on the role of design. Notably the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, which have introduced the role of the Principal Designer to co-ordinate the design stage. Designers on construction projects must, as a first priority, “design out” site hazards, taking into account future construction work such as building maintenance. Where the project relates to the construction of a workplace, designers are bound to consider future workplace hazards. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 regulate the use of hazardous substances and the hierarchy of control must be applied in a similar manner here.

There is also a whole package of regulations relating to the design and supply of products for use in the workplace. These include regulations relating to the supply of machinery, pressure systems, gas appliances and personal protective equipment to name but a few. These requirements are in support of the fundamental requirement relating to design and supply contained at s.6 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) offers extensive guidance on workplace risk assessment, which has been the subject of renewed focus during the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, consideration has been given to things like ventilation, heating and cooling, as well as things which are not usually the subject of detailed scrutiny. Examples are activities which necessitate face-to-face contact or those within enclosed spaces where social distancing has been required. Cleaning, sanitising, entry and exit from buildings and circulation within them have also challenged some of the traditional design assumptions.

There has also been additional emphasis on fire safety, following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower in London, and the subsequent legislation which embeds the topic into planning procedures. Although this is primarily aimed at residential buildings, it is probable that it will be extended to all buildings at some point.

The role of design in practice

In practice, design considerations must be incorporated into the risk assessment process. This means that risk assessors must understand the role of design. They need to understand schedule 1 of the MHSWR, and how to apply the hierarchy. They should appreciate the role of human behaviour and how best to design workplaces, control rooms, plant and machinery, etc to minimise human error.

Purchasing departments and personnel must be as involved as risk assessors. They too need to understand the importance of design: they should be aware of the legal requirements relating to the design and supply of products. All those involved in the process need to be adequately trained.

Accident and incident investigation also has an important role. When such events are investigated the role and impact of design must be considered. Those involved in the investigation of such events must be able to make judgments about the impact of design as a contribution to the incident.

There are numerous and often simple ways and examples of how consideration of design issues can be effective in reducing risk. Indeed, the stated aim of CDM, when first published, was to get designers to think about how construction activities would be carried out and finished buildings would be safely operated and maintained. In many cases, that can be addressed simply by considering the use of certain construction products or materials, or the way they are used, as well as geometry and layout of a structure.

For example, a brick is not inherently dangerous, but it can become a potential hazard if someone has to lay it overhand, several stories up.

Similarly, it is well known that fragile roof lights in buildings present a serious risk of fatal falls through the lights, both during construction and maintenance. If roof lights are not used or they are designed as non-fragile, then the risk of falling through them is avoided. Alternatively, should natural light be essential to the operation of the building, then transparent panels can be positioned on the sides of the building rather than the roof.

When it comes to the use of hazardous substances similar design issues can come into play. Often, processes can be redesigned to make exposure to hazardous substances less likely, eg through enclosure or local exhaust ventilation. Changes to the form of the hazardous substances can also make a difference, eg by specifying a powder in pellet form to reduce dust exposure.

Slips and trips are a major cause of injury in many workplaces. Often, poor design is a major contributory factor. By careful consideration of the process, including thinking through pedestrian routes, and the design of flooring materials and footwear, incidents of slips and trips can be reduced.

Design is particularly important in preventing musculoskeletal disorders and injuries. For example, in one company involved in brewing, returned empty beer casks were prepared on a conveyor line before washing and reuse. The bung and top cap of each barrel was removed using a chisel. This work required repetitive forceful movements. Some of it was done at awkward heights as the bungs were on the sides of the barrels. Many of the staff doing the job had taken sick leave for back and shoulder injuries.

The task was substantially redesigned. The conveyor was altered to present the caps and bungs to the workers at a more suitable height. Providing better tools also reduced the manual force required for bung removal. The benefits were substantial: sickness absence was reduced, with no lost time due to musculoskeletal disorders or injuries occurring in the year after the intervention.

In another company, operatives making pre-prepared pasta dishes had to pick up rectangles of pasta from a delivery conveyor and place them into foil trays on a narrow conveyor. This job occurred in eight-hour shifts and was carried out standing in front of the conveyor. The job was highly repetitive and involved extreme reaching to pick up pasta layers from the row furthest away, although the weights involved were very low.

The design of the work was closely examined and changes made. This involved removing “dead space” and bringing components closer together. The position of the cutting machine was also altered. The changes reduced cases of ill health in the organisation substantially.

Conclusion

The role of design is often a neglected feature of workplace health and safety. In practice, it is an effective tool for removing or reducing risk. However, while it can be used in a reactive manner, ie after accidents and incidents have occurred, it should be used proactively as an important preventive measure. Design can save lives but organisations need to make sure that the necessary awareness, emphasis and expertise is present.