In September 2015, the world’s deadliest crane collapse in history occurred at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing 111 people and injuring a further 394.

The crane collapsed through the roof of the mosque following a period of intense winds and heavy rain during a storm. Whilst the investigation into the causes of the collapse and the full circumstances that contributed to the disaster are ongoing, it does highlight the importance of prioritising good work design.

In Australia, we are fortunate to live and work in a country where safety in the workplace is not just regulated, but prioritised. The injury or death of a single worker or bystander – let alone over 100 – is taken very seriously, with full investigations conducted into incidents, actionable reports produced and often substantial fines, or even jail terms, prescribed as penalty.

There is a strong preventative focus when it comes to workplace safety, and this continues to be emphasised through the release of the Principles of Good Work Design handbook by Safe Work Australia. The handbook outlines the why, what and how of good work design, so that hazards and risks can be eliminated or minimised as much as reasonably practicable.

Moving beyond the obvious workplace risks and hazards, good work design is all about taking a holistic view of the workplace. Good work design assesses what you can see, as well as what you can’t see. It considers physical, cognitive, psychological and biomechanical aspects of work, and what can be done in each of those areas to improve the quality of work, the performance and productivity of employees, and of course, workplace health and safety.

In the case of the Mecca crane collapse, good work design would have taken into consideration the potential impact of severe weather conditions and what could be done to increase safety in such circumstances. It also would have addressed the safety risks of a crane being so close to a highly public and heavily trafficked site.

Good work design considers the work itself and how it is performed, the physical work environment and the equipment necessary, and the workers themselves. Furthermore, designing good work practices becomes an ongoing part of business processes, not just a one-off task to tick off a list. Workplaces must adjust and adapt to changes in the workplace, and constantly seek to learn from experts, evidence and experience. Any near misses, injuries and illnesses should be treated as important sources of information about any elements of poor design, and be used as the impetus to identify and action areas for improvement.

Of course, sometimes it can be difficult to identify potential issues when you are too close to the situation. This is why good work design encourages engaging with relevant experts. Depending on the workplace, these could include engineers, architects, ergonomists, information and computer technology professionals, occupational hygienists, organisational psychologists, human resource professionals, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. Good work design should also actively involve the people who do the work, including those in the supply chain and networks.

Most workplaces do a great job of ticking off boxes on safety checklists, but fail to consider workplace safety and work design holistically. By looking at work design in a more encompassing way, you can better identify potential issues and think about the wider ramifications of scenarios. This allows your business to better minimise risks and to be better prepared to manage any adverse events, should they occur.

Good work design might not have prevented the Mecca crane collapse. It’s impossible to say at this point while investigations are ongoing. But good work design does help you see potential issues and to develop plans to help prevent incidents, or to respond more effectively should an unexpected negative event happen. Taking the time to prevent and plan for these kind of events is always time well spent and should be prioritised as a standard ongoing business process.