Safe By Design

Designing for safety should not be a secondary design process

As Engineers, we have a legal, financial and moral obligation to ensure that our designs are safe. By safe, I mean that there is a low risk of them causing injury or harm to health. For brevity, I will use the terms safe and safety to include all aspects of injury and health risk.

For me, the very idea that something I have designed might harm someone is truly abhorrent. I know that is the same for all my professional colleagues. So why is it that 'design safety' is often considered to be a secondary process that is bolted on to the primary design process?

In the 1970s, the godfather of process safety, Trevor Kletz, promoted the concept of 'inherently safe designs'. The simple idea being that designers should understand hazards sufficiently that they do not introduce them in the first place, rather than use elaborate means to control and mitigate them afterwards.

Trevor Kletz and his contemporaries also developed a suite of methodical tools and processes to support the engineer in the identification of hazards and analysis of risk. The most famous of these is the Hazard and Operability Study (HAZOP).

These techniques are invaluable and have undoubtedly saved thousands of lives over the years, but has their success and popularity reinforced the idea that designs need to be made safe by secondary processes? Have we forgotten that the priority is to create inherently safe designs from the outset?

These are rhetorical questions of course. I firmly believe that engineers want to create safe designs, and most are capable of it. However, they are sometimes overwhelmed by the vast array of tools and processes that are available to them.

I also believe that they are often confused by organisations that seem unable to provide clear, simple direction and guidance. Worst of all, time and budgetary pressures can cause designers to simply forget about hazards that later seem obvious, with the benefit of hindsight.

If we can successfully blend skills, knowledge and experience with methodical processes and realistic simulations in a positive cultural environment then we will have confidence that we are building things that are safe by design.

My formula for the creation of safe designs is:

Develop engineers and a culture that naturally produce inherently safe designs:

(a) Invest effectively in training so that engineers understand the concepts of hazards and risk and the importance of producing inherently safe designs

(b) Share experience of things going wrong and share safe designs

(c) Simulate designs in virtual and augmented reality

(d) Reinforce the right behaviours: supervisors, leaders, reviewers and mentors consistently acknowledging and praising deliberate design decisions that improve safety

(e) Provide constant challenge: those same people asking simple questions; is the design safe? How could you make the design safer?

(f) Engage the constructors, manufacturers and end users in the design process

Implement clear and consistent processes to check for hazards and assess risk

(a) Select tools and processes that are appropriate to the type of design

(b) Provide and communicate clear direction, guidance and support on those processes

(c) Implement the processes consistently, with regular audit to provide assurance

Manage Residual Risk

The primary objective should be to produce inherently safe designs, but this will not always be possible. In those instances, it is essential that any residual risk that cannot be designed out is managed effectively.

(a) Communicate the risk and control measures effectively to those affected e.g. the manufacturer, constructor or end user

(b) Check that the communication has been received, understood and acted upon

An environment and system that follows this formula will be successful.

We do tend to continually create 'new things' that we can do in pursuit of our aims, rather than examine whether we are currently and consistently addressing the fundamentals. The result can be counter-productive, leaving the engineer swamped with initiatives and unnecessary tools.

I'd like to see a return to basics, where trained and experienced professionals do things right first time, but are supported by effective processes, technology and simulations.