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Safeguard Magazine

Beyond construction

Think safety in design only applies in the construction sector? Think again, says JOE BAIN.

Despite Safety in Design being most commonly heard of in relation to construction, it applies far more broadly than that.

The Health and Safety at Work Act imposes explicit duties on the designers of plant, substances and structures to ensure that their design is as safe as is reasonably practicable for anyone who will interact with that design throughout its lifecycle. This includes use, maintenance, disposal and decommissioning.

These duties apply to the design of all plant and structures. An SiD process can be used by designers, inside or outside the construction sector, as a tool for complying with these duties.


Broken down to the most fundamental concept, an SiD process is a framework for identifying safety (and health) hazards and assessing risk at various stages throughout the design process, and then using this information as a driver to control risk by making changes to the design.

The core of a safety in design process is a team-based workshop approach to identifying and controlling hazards. The process should involve all the project stakeholders and relevant technical experts. Design, and especially safe design, is a team sport – a robust SiD process is likely to involve a group of people with a range of skills, including engineers, human factors specialists, occupational hygienists, H&S generalists, and manufacturers or users of the equipment being designed. Having a broadly-skilled SiD team ensures that all the necessary skills are available – an SiD process is unlikely to be robust if all the people working on the project have the same background, viewpoint and skills.

Full consideration of safety during the design of plant or structures helps protect the health and safety of people who interact with the final product, in the most cost-effective way. Implementing safety improvements on a physical piece of equipment – if it is even possible – costs far more than making safety improvements at the design stage. The standard hierarchy of controls starts with “eliminate” but this is often impractical once equipment physically exists. Short of replacing the machine, elimination is off the table. Usually the people with the opportunity to eliminate hazards from equipment are the people who design it in the first place. In many cases, hazards can be “designed out” entirely, or the risk posed by the hazards controlled more robustly.


Applying SiD principles offers a wider scope of benefits than just improving health and safety. For example, during the design of a processing factory the design could be changed to remove manual handling operations. This would eliminate ergonomic hazards, and can also improve process productivity, thus increasing revenues. An integrated, holistic approach to safety, including SiD, can improve safety, ensure legal compliance, and boost profitability.

Safety in Design should not be thought of as an arcane, specialist field that requires wholesale changes in the way design projects proceed. A design process already considers a whole range of factors like performance, manufacturability or constructability, and cost; SiD is just a framework for incorporating safety at the design stage. Safety in design should not be treated as something to do separately from design. An SiD process is just a good design process. It’s worth noting that design professionals like engineers have had ethical obligations to design for safety for a long time – these are not new obligations resulting from the HSW reform.


The designer’s duties in the new HSW Act are not the only upstream duties stated explicitly in the new law. Functionally similar duties also apply to PCBUs that import or manufacture plant, substances and structures.

Even firms that do not carry out design work themselves should be aware of the basic principles of SiD. For example, a manufacturing business procuring machinery from overseas should consider the health and safety implications of the different options before making a final decision.

Health and safety is often overlooked during procurement, and the cheapest machine is purchased. Such machines often then need expensive custom-designed safety upgrades once they arrive on the factory floor, which can easily negate or outweigh the upfront cost savings. Since SiD is based on assessing the risks posed by a design, the same principles can be applied to assess the safety of a piece of plant before purchase.

In general, PCBUs should ensure that their procurement processes fully consider the potential costs associated with any equipment being purchased, and ensure that a robust assessment of the safety of equipment is made. Procurement staff should ensure that they access all the necessary expertise to fully assess the safety of the equipment

Despite being mostly heard of in a construction sector context, Safety in Design tools and processes can be applied by any firm that carries out design or procurement, regardless of the industry sector.

Dr Joseph Bain is chair of the New Zealand Society for Safety Engineering and represents the Maintenance Engineering Society of New Zealand on HASANZ.

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