Safe design: Safety basics

One of the best ways to prevent injuries and fatalities in the workplace is to eliminate or control the risk at the design or planning stage.


What is safe design

Safe design identifies hazards and ways to control associated risks, and then incorporates this knowledge into the design of end products to eliminate or reduce harm to people exposed to the products. Safe design can be considered in the design of:

  • buildings and structures
  • facilities
  • hardware
  • work systems
  • equipment
  • workplace layout and configuration

Safe design can apply to the design of the initial concept, use and serviceability, through to decommisioning or disposal of the end product. For designers, this will mean making choices about how the end product:

  • is built, including what materials are used in its construction
  • will be used
  • will be maintained
  • should be disposed of

While safe design has many benefits, there are also specific occupational health and safety (OHS) legal duties relating to safe design of buildings and structures, and plant (eg machinery and equipment).

A safe design approach should include the following processes

Safe design is most effective when all stakeholders are consulted and contribute to the end product, facility or environment.

Benefits of safe design

Identifying the hazard and eliminating the risk early in the design process is not only the most effective way to reduce the risk of harm, but is often easier and cheaper than making changes later when the hazards become risks in the workplace. Safe design can save money, improve workflow, and reduce time lost from injury and illness, in turn improving:

  • profitability
  • employee wellbeing
  • usability of the facility or product
  • workforce productivity

Safe design can also encourage innovative ways to deal with hazards.

Responsibility for safe design

Responsibility for safe design rests with groups or individuals who control or oversee design functions, including:

  • architects, designers or draftspersons
  • persons who may make design decisions during any of the lifecycle phases, such as engineers, manufacturers, suppliers, installers, builders, developers and project managers
  • anyone who may alter the design
  • designers of building services
  • designers of fixed plant, such as electrical systems
  • purchasers of the end product

Safe design and OHS law

A safe design approach can help employers fulfil their general legal duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) to provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable.

The OHS Act and Occupationational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) also include specific duties in relation to design of things such as buildings or structures, and plant.

Under section 28 of the OHS Act, designers of buildings or structures (or parts of buildings or structures) to be used as a workplace and plant to be used at a workplace must ensure that they are designed to be safe and without risks to the health of people using it when using it for the purposes for which it was designed. Designers of plant also have other obligations under section 27 of the OHS Act and Part 3.5 of the OHS Regulations. These are outlined in the Plant Compliance Code.

OHS professionals can provide advice and direction regarding safe design and legal requirements.

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