In the third of our series in the run-up to John Prescott's safety summit, Building asks if safety is a matter of design, and if designers are doing enough to combat site deaths.
About five years ago, an architect showed a junior site engineer a set of construction drawings. "How the heck am I going to build that?" asked the site engineer. "That's your problem," the designer replied.

Suzannah Thursfield was that site engineer and has never forgotten the conversation.

Now director of health and safety at the Construction Confederation, she believes that the architect's attitude reveals a wider problem: designers are letting the industry down when it comes to safety.

Designers have a legal obligation … I don’t think they are doing enough

Suzannah Thursfield

"Designers have a legal obligation to consider health and safety when they're designing," she says. "I don't think they are doing enough." Again recalling her site days, Thursfield fires off an example of the type of risk designers could eliminate: "They could design windows to be put in from the inside rather than the outside." The government clearly agrees with her. "If you ask an architect if he has considered safety in a design, the answer is no," construction minister Nick Raynsford told last year's Labour Party conference. "We can minimise danger by designing it out of schemes." Syd Bell, former safety adviser to the RIBA, backs Raynsford's view. "There's no doubt that a lot of things designers do create hazards," he says. "For example, they specify adhesives that might explode if someone strikes a match in a confined space. The problem is, they don't think about it much of the time." Bell gives further examples of how accidents could be designed out: "You can reduce the amount of work that has to be done at height, using prefabrication or pre-assembly. You could design floors and staircases to go in earlier, so people can do work without having to use scaffolding. If you're designing a Z-member for a staircase, you could design in lifting points so they are much easier to handle. These are things architects could do." Bell believes the whole culture of design needs to become more safety-conscious, starting with the education system. Many schools provide minimal health and safety training – or none at all, he said. "Architecture schools don't seem very interested." But with John Prescott's safety summit only two weeks away, moves are afoot to force the subject onto the curriculum. The Construction Industry Council, which brings together professional institutions such as the RIBA, the RICS and the Association of Consulting Engineers, is drawing up plans to make sure every design professional is given thorough safety training during their education and regular top-ups during their career (see box, page 22).

"We're going to look at how we can influence education," says council chairman Michael Dickson. "It seems to us almost inevitable that designers and design firms are going to have to upgrade their competence in health and safety." The proposals seem likely to anger many designers, who believe safety is the contractors' problem and that the crisis over safety is being used as an excuse to shift blame onto their professions. "Why can't they just leave us alone to design?" asks one young structural engineer. "They're just trying to transfer all the responsibility onto us," says another.

Designers are going to have to upgrade their competence in health and safety

Michael Dickson, CIC chairman

"Accidents that happen on site generally aren't anything to do with designers; they're to do with contractors," claims Michael Foster, secretary of SCHOSA, an organisation that represents the heads of architecture schools. Foster rejects the idea that schools are not interested in safety but adds: "Health and safety in putting buildings together is something you learn more about after education than during." Paul Hyett, RIBA's education vice-president, agrees, saying teaching safety issues to design students would have a "very, very limited impact". Training site workers is the priority, he says.

He adds that putting safety on the curriculum would be useless unless architecture schools also taught students about the construction process – something many do not do. "How do you sit students down and say here's an interesting subject, safety in construction, when they haven't been taught about construction in the first place?" According to Hyett, architects would fight increased safety responsibilities unless they were paid to take them on. "I don't think anyone wants to take additional duties for no extra money," he says. On the other hand, David Cowles, associate at engineer Buro Happold, disagrees. "I think that's a cop-out. That's just designers trying to rubbish the whole concept." Designers are already legally obliged to consider health and safety implications under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations, which came into force in 1995. However since the introduction of CDM, site deaths have increased, leading many to claim the regulations are ineffective. "I would agree with the groundswell of opinion that, as far as initial construction is concerned, CDM hasn't made a lot of difference," says Cowles. "Architects and engineers are still primarily designing to meet their technical and aesthetic objectives." Hanif Kara of structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor agrees. "Window cleaning is the best example," he said. "It's not what people want to think about when they're thinking about how beautiful the cladding will be. It's a question designers hate." Gillian Birkby, a construction solicitor who chairs the CIC's health and safety taskforce, goes even further, arguing that designers have themselves to blame if CDM is not working. "The CDM Regulations themselves are good," she says. "The question is getting architects to think about it more. They still don't understand fully how to assess risk in relation to their design." The Health and Safety Executive admits that designers are struggling to understand their duties under CDM, and is rewriting its approved code of practice with explicit examples of what they are expected to do (see box below). "They didn't seem to be able to follow it properly," says an HSE spokesman. "[The new code of practice] spells it out more to designers." However the new code has been delayed and is not expected to be published until the end of the year. One insider claims that the HSE's lack of resources is behind the delay. The safety director of a major contractor – who did not want to be named – adds: "The HSE has failed to enforce CDM. It's difficult to catch designers at it." Not all designers are suspicious of moves to increase their awareness of safety. "There's definitely a movement among our members at the moment to take buildability into account during design," says Jeremy Croxson, business and technical director at the Association of Consulting Engineers.

Some contractors are also leading the way. "We're telling our designers to look at all aspects of health and safety in their decisions," says Allan St John Holt, group health and safety director at Bovis Lend Lease. The firm is investigating ways of keeping floor penetrations sealed until they are needed, and building access ladders into structural steel columns – an idea from Japan.

Lifelong safety training for designers imminent

Design professionals will be required to update their health and safety knowledge throughout their careers if plans being drawn up by the Construction Industry Council are put into practice. Health and safety will also be made an integral part of all higher education courses. Under the plans, to be presented at the safety summit on 27 February, qualified architects and engineers will also be expected to attend regular continuing professional development courses. “In order to prove to your client you’re competent in health and safety, you will need to have done CPD,” says CIC chairman Michael Dickson. “When you go for a job, one of the things you’ll be asked as a designer is, ‘Do you have adequate training in risk analysis?’” Designers will need to demonstrate specific understanding of risks associated with construction materials, processes and sequencing. They will have to show that they can think through the design process to identify and reduce hazards. In addition, students will be introduced to health and safety via a new risk management module that will be mandatory on all courses accredited by CIC members. The module will be common to all disciplines and co-run by organisations including the RIBA, the Association of Consulting Engineers, the British Institute of Architectural Technologists and others.

What should designers be doing?

The revised CDM code is expected to spell out ways of minimising hazards, including:
  • Move building footprints to allow safer access to sites, particularly close to busy roads
  • Sequence works to minimise hazards, for example by ensuring that hard standings are available to aid steel erection
  • Avoid specifying heavy or awkward components such as blocks. Where components such as steel beams have to be hoisted, provide lifting points or mark the centre of gravity
  • Design joints so that bolting can be done by someone standing on a permanent floor
  • Identify ways of making partially erected buildings stable
  • Remove the need for working at height wherever possible, through prefabrication or pre-assembly. Design heavy items to be erected at ground level and then lifted into place
  • Provide edge protection where working at height cannot be avoided. Provide anchorage points for safety nets or harnesses
  • Specify low-solvent or solvent-free adhesive and water-based paints