Enhancing Safety Before Breaking Ground

“The safety of any operation is determined long before the people, procedures, and equipment come together at the work site.” —J. Stephenson, 1991

Although the concept of proactively creating safe construction sites is widely agreed upon, achieving this reality has been traditionally lacking in execution. By combining the knowledge of professionals in both the construction and design facets of a project, safety can be enhanced before crews ever break ground. Doing this will yield a positive impact on not only worker safety, but also quality and productivity. Costs are lowered, task performance is improved, and life-threatening work hazards are reduced.

Construction Safety In the construction sector, occupational fatalities have long been disproportionate relative to the employment. For example, in 2004, the construction industry employed 7 percent of the workforce yet accounted for 23 percent of all workrelated fatalities in the United States (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2004; NIOSH, 2004). One concept to reverse this trend is to involve architects, design engineers, and safety consultants in considering construction safety during the design process.

Internationally—most notably in Europe and Australia—designing for construction safety and health (DfCSH) has been recognized and implemented as a regulation and a feasible method to reduce construction worker risk. Unfortunately, however, its implementation in the United States is commonly limited to those situations where design and engineering are closely partnered to construction activities through procurement, contract, and firm type.

While most contractors are committed to safety on the job site, there is great potential in engaging the design community to participate in designing risk out of the project from the start, as suggested by the safety Hierarchy of Controls. The Hierarchy of Controls compares the effectiveness and “defeatability” of various hazard abatement solutions. Waiting until construction begins can limit your abatement choices to the lowest levels of the Hierarchy of Controls.


In addition to efforts put forth through the NIOSH PtD and the OSHA Design for Safety Workgroup, the following tools have been developed to help professionals incorporate safety into the design phase of a construction project.

Construction Industry Institute Toolbox
Gambatese et al (1997) engaged in a research effort that has identified and developed more than 400 design suggestions to enhance construction safety. The accumulated suggestions reflect all types of design disciplines, job site hazards, and construction components and systems. A computer program titled “Design for Construction Safety ToolBox,” developed in conjunction with the Construction Industry Institute, incorporates the design suggestions accumulated. The program alerts the user to project- specific construction safety hazards and provides suggestions to eliminate or reduce those hazards during the design phase. The program is user-friendly, applicable to any size or type of project, and not only focuses on facility planning and design aspects that affect construction phase safety, but also can be applied to the start-up, maintenance, and decommissioning phases.

Construction Hazard Assessment Implication Review (CHAIR) WorkCover, the occupational safety and health regulatory authority of the State of New South Wales, Australia, led the development of a safety in design tool called Construction Hazard Assessment Implication Review (CHAIR). CHAIR’s goal is to identify risks in a design as soon as possible in the life of a project. The system considers construction, operations, and maintenance activities. CHAIR provides a framework for a facilitated discussion that is stimulated by guidewords or prompts. These prompts assist the key stakeholders in collectively identifying and reducing construction, maintenance, repair, and demolition safety risks associated with a design. This process specifies that all stakeholders review the design in a prescribed and facilitated method to ensure the occupational safety and health issues of these stakeholders are considered in the design phase of the project. It includes a conceptual design review (CHAIR 1) and a detailed design review for construction (CHAIR 2) and maintenance activities (CHAIR 3).

Why Care about Design?
The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions reported an initial attempt at determining the extent to which the design and the design process are linked to construction accidents. By reviewing construction fatalities, the report concluded that about 60 percent of fatal accidents in construction arise from decisions made “upstream” from the construction site. The research asserts that these fatal accidents are due to shortcomings in design and organization of the work. In a more recent study, Behm (2005) sought to link the design for construction safety concept to construction fatalities through a review of fatality incidents in the United States. Of the 224 fatality cases reviewed, the design was linked to the incident in approximately 42 percent of the cases.

Designing for Construction Safety and Health DfCSH is defined as the deliberate consideration of construction site safety in the design phase of a construction project. The DfCSH concept is a form of project risk sharing in which the design professional and the owner become involved in facilitating construction site safety at the earliest stages of the project’s life cycle. Specifically, this encompasses the following:

• Modifications to the permanent features of the construction project in such a way that construction site safety is considered

• Preparation of plans and specifications for construction in such a way that construction site safety is considered

• Utilization of specific design for construction safety suggestions (see the “DfCSH Tools” sidebar on page 68)

• Communication of risks regarding the design in relation to the site and the work to be performed.

Although DfCSH is not regulated in the United States, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and OSHA have been very responsive to the concept. Hosted by NIOSH, the first Prevention through Design (PtD) workshop was held in July 2007 to launch a national initiative aimed at eliminating occupational hazards and controlling risks to workers as early as possible in the life cycle of items or workplaces. PtD includes the design of work premises, structures, tools, plants, equipment, machinery, substances, work methods, and systems of work.

OSHA is also taking a lead in getting DfCSH tools and methods out to the public. Its Alliance with the American Society of Civil Engineers benefits the construction industry and has focused an effort on enhancing safety through design. The Design for Safety workgroup is actively promoting the concept and has developed instructional presentations regarding DfCSH. The OSHA-ASCE Alliance also maintains a DfCSH Web site with links to examples and information, which can be found at www.designfor constructionsafety.org.

A study conducted by an international consumer-goods company showed that implementing safety measures during the programming and schematic design phases of a project resulted in substantially lower costs than implementing systems during or after construction.

Figure 2 details cost factors involved in the implementation of safety over the course of a project.

When safety is implemented during the programming/schematic design phase, safety is incorporated from the beginning. The Hierarchy of Controls (Fig. 1) can be optimized by evaluating a system’s “defeatability” and long-term cost comparisons. Avoidance of interferences, connection details, layout issues, and required clearances are incorporated into the original design. At this point, the designer does not even need to erase lines on the drawings—the safety aspects are simply programmed into the design. This represents a base cost to abate the hazard.

At the other end of the spectrum, if hazard abatement does not take place until after contractors have left the site, the following costs may be applied:

• Base cost

• Cost of design

• Cost of additional drawing set for hazard abatement

• Contractor mobilization

• Potentially significant field modifications

• Potentially significant rework of interferences

• Long-term cost of not using ideal abatement method

• Cost associated with using an abatement method with higher risk.

Considering safety during the design phase is an economical way of doing business. The point is not how much it costs if you wait until the end, but rather how little it will cost the earlier you implement it. It reduces injuries, illnesses, and damage to the environment. Additionally, using this approach ensures that business owners will avoid expensive retrofitting, reducing overall operating costs.

This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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