Safe engineering design goes beyond avoiding catastrophic disasters

Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse

Systematic safety in design controls need to be in place at the earliest design phase of your projects, according to a leading expert in the field. 

When people think about safe engineering designs, often the first thing that often comes to mind is avoiding a catastrophic structural failure. 

A well-known example of what can go wrong is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in the US state of Washington, which was nicknamed “Galloping Girtie” because of how it twisted in the wind. It collapsed just months after its opening in 1940.  

There’s also NASA’s Challenger space shuttle, which exploded shortly after its launch in 1986; and the suspended walkway that collapsed in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel in 1981, killing over 100 people. 

Avoiding spectacular structural failures, as happened in these examples, is usually a top priority in engineering design projects.  

But, as one of Australia’s foremost experts on safety in design warns, what often gets overlooked is the everyday risks that are caused by bad design. 

For example, trips and falls feature highly in accident statistics in Australia, so engineers need to think about and address the risk of people slipping over when designing. 

“No-one reads in the media about how someone has fallen over again and had to take time off work. It doesn't catch the media's attention. But it happens all the time, and we've got to address it through good design,” says Engineering. Systems. Management. Founder and Engineering Education Australia facilitator Mike Hurd FIEAust CPEng. 

Why you need a systematic approach 

Making sure the assets, products, plant, and structures you design are safe throughout their lifecycle is a core part of your work as an engineer. 

To do that effectively, you need to systematically embed safety checks and controls into every stage of your design work, beginning with the earliest planning stages of your projects. 

That’s where safety in design comes into play. 

At its simplest, safety in design is a method for systematically analysing and identifying potential hazards at every stage of your projects.  

The tools, practices and techniques for hazard identification allow you to eliminate (or at least reduce the impact of) risks to people, other assets, and the environment. 

“Safety in design begins by thinking about the things that have gone wrong in the past, and the lessons that have been learnt from those mistakes,” Hurd says. 

“It's then about flipping that around to look at what might go wrong in your design, and how those lessons from the past can be applied.” 

Three key reasons why safety in design matters 

There are three main reasons why safety in design is critical, according to Hurd. 

First, the outcome of not having strong safety controls as part your design process can be that people get hurt, the environment is harmed, and assets are damaged. 

 “Many incident investigations demonstrate that incidents, injuries, and fatalities could have been avoided by getting the design better and safer in the first place,” Hurd says. 

Second, as an engineer, you are legally required to ensure your designs are as safe so far as it is reasonably practicable. Strong safety in design gives you confidence that you are meeting this obligation. 

The third (and perhaps most important) reason is that it is simply good engineering and design practise. “Great engineering designs are safe by design. It's what the public expects from you, as an engineer,” Hurd says. 

Beyond these main reasons, there are also a host of indirect benefits that flow from making safety a systematic focus of your design work. 

For example, Hurd says that safer designs can often deliver overall cost benefits to your business or clients. Having a strong safety record also helps to protect your company’s reputation. 

Closing the knowledge gap 

Despite the clear benefits of having safety in design in place, and the serious risks that stem from not doing so, there are some roadblocks that can often stand in the way. 

Hurd says many undergraduate engineers are not trained in safety and design as part of their degrees. That means that when they enter the workforce, it’s a new concept they need to find out about.  

Another issue is that many organisations haven’t traditionally had a strong focus on implementing robust safety in design controls, outside high-risk sectors such as defence, oil and gas, nuclear radiation, aerospace, or chemical processing. 

Getting the right safety in design training for you and your team is a vital step towards closing these skills and knowledge gaps. 

Start at the planning stage 

Hurd’s top tip for engineers and firms looking to implement safety in design is to make sure it’s in place at the earliest planning stages of a project. 

“Good safety in design planning breeds a lot of confidence in how you are going to make a design safe. From that point on, you've got the confidence that you're on the right track,” he says. 

To improve your team's safety in design practices, join Mike Hurd's Implementing Safety in Design online short course.