Improvements to safety in design could achieve a dramatic reduction in accidents and fatalities on built assets around Australia.

Poor implementation of safety in design continues to be a major source of accidents, injuries and even fatalities in relation to built assets across Australia.

Mike Hurd, consulting engineering manager at Engineering. Systems. Management, notes that recent studies continue to point to inadequate safety in design as a key culprit when it comes to accidents involving work sites or built assets.

“Going on statistics and reports I’ve read, Australia could be doing a lot better,” said Hurd, chair of the Engineered Safety Group of Engineering Australia’s South Australia division. “I’ve looked at quite a number of reports from the UK and Australia, and it’s very common for them to conclude that anywhere between 20 and 60 per cent of incidents, injuries and fatalities could have been averted at the design stage.

“The National Occupational Health Safety Council did a survey in Australia which found that 37 per cent of incidents investigated could have been averted at the design stage. A repeat survey in 2012 also found that 36 per cent of incidents could have been averted at the design stage, so over the past 10 years, things haven’t gotten much better.”

Improvements to the safety in design of an asset can significantly reduce the economic burden on industry of the huge number of minor accidents or hazardous incidents that comprise the vast majority of insurance claims.

“Whilst people in safety and design get concerned about the big news item – the explosions where many people die or the aircraft that crashes, these are a small percentage in terms of insurance claims,” said Hurd. “The big percentage, and what is really costing Australian industry money, are the little things like body stresses, falls, trips and slips, or being hit by moving objects.

“I would argue that all of these things are completely avoidable at the design stage.”

Hurd notes that while many safety in design concerns focus upon the reduction of hazards during the construction phase, improvements in this area can also make a significant difference to the performance of an asset or facility across the full course of its life cycle.

“There is rightly a great deal of focus on construction, because it is an acute exposure to hazards when people can get hurt and killed,” he said. “But it’s fairly short in the grand scheme of things, typically lasting between six to 24 months.

“Once that construction process is finished, an asset or system is handed over for operation and maintenance for potentially a very long period of time – up to a hundred years if it’s a bridge or a building. It then becomes a chronic exposure to hazards.

“That aspect of the project life cycle, from handover through the to the end of life of the asset, remains quite overlooked. Construction needs a focus because it’s an acute problem, however the rest of the life of an asset needs an equal focus.”

According to Hurd, the scrutiny of safety considerations during the design phase is a far easier and more economical means of avoiding hazards during the construction and operating stages of a project.

“The most effective thing is to think about it early,” he said. “At the outset of the design stage, when you just have a plan on a page, you should begin to think about what you can do to make it safer.

“It’s easy to do at this point, since it’s all just lines on paper. If there’s a trip hazard, you can just get rid of it – if people are going to be walking into each other, you can give them different paths.”

Achieving safer designs means addressing potential issues at the very outset from both engineering and planning perspectives.

“The most important thing is to have a clear requirement specifications upfront that cover the safety needs of a design – and that’s not just safety in design or engineering safety, it’s just doing engineering properly in the first place,” Hurd said. “Another key thing is having a safety management plan – typically there is a project management plan, as well as an engineering and design management plan.

“We should also have safety management plans, however, so that as soon as you’ve got a concept in mind of what you’re going to design, you start thinking about how it will impact people and the environment and assets in terms of safety, and start planning for how you’re going to control that.

“By doing this you’re setting things up for the success of the rest of the project.”