Are You Meeting Your Obligations for Safe Workplace Design?

By Michael Selinger on May 14th, 2015
  1. Risk Management
  2. Workplace Safety

Which of these systems sounds the most cost-effective to you: a fence at the top of the cliff, or an ambulance at the bottom?

If you said the former, you’ve probably got a better eye for workplace design than you’ve given yourself credit for. It’s usually more practical and more cost-effective to eliminate hazards in the workplace during the design and planning phases.

On the other hand, it’s usually a lot harder and more expensive to make changes once you’re already stuck with particular plant, equipment or layout.

It’s a major contributor to workplace injuries and illnesses, too. Some poor design will cause progressive impairments. Examples include work design that continuously exposes a worker to unsafe volumes and leads to industrial deafness, or that leads workers to develop repetitive strain injury through awkward movements or postures.

But some poor design will cause critical incidents, with devastating results.

Health & Safety Handbook Editor-in-Chief Michael Selinger has been speaking to health & safety officers and duty-holders about workplace design recently, and he pointed me towards a Safe Work Australia report that evaluated the nationwide fatalities caused by unsafely designed plant, machinery and powered tools over a five-year period.

The report’s very informative, but it makes for some seriously upsetting reading.

All in all, it concludes that 188 deaths in Australian workplaces between 2006 and 2011 were assessed to be definitely or possibly design-related.

Below, Michael talks about some of the existing challenges in ensuring safe work design, as well as the nature of the obligations and duties different parties have to provide that safe design.

This month, he’s also co-authored a revised and expanded chapter of the Health & Safety Handbook which covers the same topic (Chapter W4, to be precises). If you’re about to modify an existing workplace, or looking to purchase new plant or equipment, it’s a good place to begin.

Take care,
Joseph Nunweek
Editor, Health & Safety Handbook

Are you meeting your obligations for safe workplace design?

By Michael Selinger
Editor-in-Chief, Health & Safety Handbook

Dear Reader,

I recently presented at a seminar on the topic of workplace design, and it struck me that most workplaces fail to adequately consider how design can impact on the safety of their workforce.

On the one hand, you have designers who feel that even if their design was safe, they have no way of controlling how the end user might operate their design.

On the other, you have end users who feel that some designers haven’t provided sufficient assistance in the commissioning of the design, or failed to consider all aspects of the likely daily use of the design.

This raises a big question to anyone with health and safety duties: to what extent does your business place enough emphasis on safe design?

Poor design: dangerous and deadly

The risks posed to workers from poorly designed plant and equipment have been known for many years. A report released by Safe Work Australia last year which examined the cause of over 500 fatalities found that nearly 36% of the fatalities were either definitely or possibly design-related.

The report relied on findings by police, prosecutors and coroners that poor design was the cause of the fatality – or that there were design solutions that may have prevented the fatality if applied earlier.

In a lot of cases these were simple design modifications that could have been used to save the workers’ life. These included proper guarding, seat belts, residual current devices, use of interlocks or better driver vision.

What do you need to do as a person in charge?

So what can your organisation do to better improve the safety of its workers through design?

Firstly, it’s important to understand that design and safety are an ongoing process. If you introduce new equipment to your organisation, you’ve got to understand how its design is meant to protect the safety of your workers.

You have an obligation to make sure that you have received adequate information from the designer so that the equipment can be installed and operated safely by your workers. In some cases this may mean ongoing dialogue with the designer or supplier to make sure that the equipment will be safe for use. An effective procurement policy will assist you in this regard.

On the other hand, if you are currently involved in rearranging the way in which work is undertaken in your organisation, then you are effectively modifying the design of your workplace. In that case, it is important to consider how the redesign of your organisations might introduce new hazards or risks of injury to your workers.

Finally, if you’re the designer responsible for designing plant or structures that will be used in a workplace, then you must take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure that your design is safe for use.

This doesn’t just mean ensuring that the machine is safe while it’s operational. You need to plan for the whole life cycle of the design, including any repair or maintenance, as well as the eventual decommissioning of the plant or structure.

This requires you to really think carefully about the kinds of use your design might be subject to in a workplace.

If you need more information on safe design in the workplace, the Health and Safety Handbook was recently updated with a brand-new chapter on Workplace Design, Modification and Purchasing. It’s a great primer to a sometimes challenging process, with the basics you need to ensure you’re legally compliant.

Michael Sellinger
Health & Safety Handbook

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