How the practice of Design for Safety via Process Design and Technology Application improves Workplace Safety

Chee Kit Ho • 19/02/2020

The outbreak of the Coronavirus has sharpened the focus on safety and health at the workplace. The value of technology, in particular sensors, cannot be underestimated in being able to assess the safety and health of people working in offices, including construction sites where a large pool of people is working on at any point in time. It will be a matter of time before we will be able to enhance wearable devices or other such technology to predict the chances of a worker falling ill.

Monitoring worker health aside, a lot of effort is still being taken to improve workplace safety. Two important trends have emerged for improving workplace safety on job sites. These are:

  • Technologies used in buildings
  • The practice of Design of Safety

Some of the technology that are used to improve safety on sites include:

  • The use of BIM to identify potential site hazards before construction begins, to conduct clash detection and to detect hazards during maintenance period.
  • Smartphone and tablets are commonplace devices.This allows for use of mobile tools like cameras for construction and maintenance activities. The documentation of site condition and work progress is fundamental to many safety efforts.
  • The use of drones to promote safety onsite for functions such as roof top inspection, façade inspection that allow for digital analysis of existing conditions, and we believe that these have a positive impact on safety.
  • Wearable devices like badges with coded electronic information and smart helmets have resulted in a positive impact on safety. This suggests that as these technologies become more widely known and more affordable, their potential for improving jobsite safety increases.
  • Safety inspection checklist apps and the use of mobile tools for safety training and to access safety and health websites has been effective in enhancing and promoting safety awareness and competency for field workers.

It is well established that implementing new technologies – from BIM to drones and wearable devices – have helped maintenance and construction companies to improve productivity and save costs.

How the practice of Design for Safety via process design and technology application improves workplace safety

The case for Design of Safety

What is also gaining traction is for these firms to bring to the initial stages of design from the schematic stage onwards, a process to consider safety issues from the onset. This is a key focus for the Workplace Health & Safety Council for the future. Design for Safety (DfS) is the first step of an effective program for safer maintenance, linking maintenance goals and desired WSH outcomes to the design process. DfS emphasizes the importance of addressing safety risks and the timely integration of design and construction knowledge with operations and maintenance (O&M) experiences into project designs at an early stage.

In order for DfS to be successful, we need to bring more awareness to the various stakeholders and have a life cycle safety perspective in the built environment.

How the practice of Design for Safety via process design and technology application improves workplace safety

Service and maintenance regimes are traditionally decoupled from the design and construction of a building. These regimes are usually put in place by facilities management professionals and safety engineers when an asset has been fully constructed. The Workplace Health and Safety Council wants to shift mindsets. A building’s maintainability must be anchored on its design even before it is constructed. A building to be constructed must meet satisfactory building-specific safety provisions for maintenance to be performed safely.

Design for Safety (DfS) is the first step in a structured programme to enhance safety levels in the maintenance of buildings. The programme links maintenance goals to desired workplace health and safety outcomes in the design process. The programme pointedly addresses safety risks, training facilities management professionals to integrate the design and construction knowledge with operations and maintenance experiences into project designs at an early stage of the construction phase. That way, maintenance tasks can be carried out with ease, accurately, safely and efficiently.

Radical shift in mindset needed

A programme like Design for Safety requires a shift in mindset. All the stakeholders have to be educated on safety running through from design to construction, right through to operations and maintenance, that is, the entire life cycle of every asset in built environment. Operation and Maintenance is an after-thought for many developers and contractors. Facility Managers or operators are usually not part of the design team. Between the contractor and the FM team, it is typical for a gap in communication during the take-over phase of between one and three months, depending on the complexity of the development.

Excluding facility managers and operators from the design and construction of a building runs the risk of an asset being built in a vacuum, with no consideration for maintaining electrical, lighting, air quality, chiller plant, air conditioning systems in a safe manner. Taken to the extreme, building owners might be forced to incur additional costs to modify existing O&M systems to enhance safety and improve efficiency.

For instance, it is common practice for asset owners to spend on scaffolding, boom lifts or rope access technicians to carry out maintenance tasks, typically in a dark, confined corner that is hard to reach because it is built too high. If Design for Safety principles are applied pre-construction, facilities management and operators would have advised the construction of a proper maintenance platform with an access staircase and an alternative access via a catladder for emergency use.  The cost comparisons between the yearly expenditures on boom lifts, scaffolding and engaging rope access technicians and building a maintenance platform and access points is staggering, much more if you consider the cost of the life of a technician who might fall from having to navigate through pipes and ducting.  

Design for safety is a very powerful concept but it requires the commitment and support of all the stakeholders. Accident prevention cannot fall on the individual worker. Rather, it has to be prioritised from the design phase. Operators and maintenance teams must be part of the design process to pre-determine their maintenance procedures and processes to help designers understand their needs and challenges. If buildings are designed with safety considerations, property owners will be able to spend less on selecting and training facilities management personnel. These savings could then be channelled to higher value services.

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