Safe Design - What You Need To Know

Anna Piatkowska , 14 June 2013

Safe Design has always been an integral part of architectural design, but now architects must also meet legislative requirements that require clear documentation. Anna Piatkowksa provides an update on current safe design requirements and the ACA’s Safe Design Process.

Occupational (or Workplace) Health and Safety legislation has existed abroad and in Australia for decades. Australian legislation has varied from state to state since at least 1984, and the Commonwealth Model Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and Regulations (Model Act) were created with the intention of harmonising provisions Australia-wide. In order for this to occur, it must be passed into law by each state. To date all but Victoria and Western Australia have done so, with minor local variations.

Safe design is not a new concept to architects – it has always been an integral part of design – and this should not be forgotten in the current atmosphere of interest and activity. However, precisely because safe design considerations are deeply embedded in the design process, it is not necessarily easy for an architect to produce a clear paper trail that demonstrates all the matters considered, the points at which they been considered, what the result has been and who has the relevant information.

The Model Act and its state equivalents require these considerations to be undertaken, recorded and communicated in specific ways, not only by architects but by all parties involved in a project. 

The consequences of failing to do so are very serious, involving potentially significant fines and other criminal penalties.

Codes of Practice are published on state Work Health and Safety websites; while they are not law, adherence to them is a good way of demonstrating compliance with the legislation. Their recommendations may tend towards higher standards than those set by the existing Victorian and Western Australian acts. Clients and contractors who operate Australia-wide may adopt the higher standard for consistency, and require their consultants to do likewise.

Practices should integrate their Safe Design procedures into their project processes – nominate a ‘champion’ within the practice, create a section in the file index and an item on all meeting agendas – so that they are built into the design and documentation culture, and produce a clear, auditable trail.

The architect must understand certain concepts – PCBU (person conducting a business or undertaking), Workplace, Worker, Structure, Substance, Plant and Officer – in order to respond with minimum fuss and maximum effect. Safe Design should be a practical tool, not a paper chase.

The ACA Safe Design Proforma assists practices Australia-wide to respond to the provisions of the Model Act under its various state versions. It also provides definitions and an outline of the duties under the Act of a PCBU as a designer. It offers guidance for architects in identifying other duty holders and in discharging their record-keeping and communication obligations. Important (and some mandatory) documents that appear in an effective Safe Design process include those issued:

  • To the client at the outset, introducing the concept of shared duties, and asking all the relevant questions;
  • To other Duty Holders as they join the project, again introducing the concept of shared duties and asking relevant questions;
  • Indicating issue of mandatory reporting during the project; and
  • At the end, with the completed risk register and highlighting the importance of addressing residual risk.

ACA’s Safe Design Process is still only a guide; we encourage each practice to adapt the process to suit their own working models and provide feedback that will help improve our document. This is particularly important because Safe Design is not just for large projects – it is for every project. The process cannot be so cumbersome that it is unworkable for a one-person practice undertaking a small project. A good way of understanding how the documents can work for you is to review AS 4360 (Risk Management), which provides guidance on how to identify, evaluate and manage risk.

All of the above must be seen in terms of the architect as one member of a group of Duty Holders in a project. Safe Design is the responsibility of all PCBUs and each is responsible within its own area of control and expertise.

Practices must have a written WH&S policy that recognises their status as a PCBU and their duties as a Designer and as an Employer (although the latter is not covered in this note.) A policy should be a simple and straightforward statement, not a treatise.

The fact that the subject is now so widely canvassed will be of great assistance to architects, who will find that clients, contractors and other relevant parties are becoming more attuned and responsive to their shared duties under the new Acts.

Anna Piatkowska is a member of the ACA – Vic/Tas Committee and has led the development of the ACA's Safe Design Process. She is a director of Denton Corker Marshall. This article was first published in ACA Communique, June 2013.
Image: The small meeting room at Bird de la Couer. Photograph James Parker, courtesy Bird de la Couer.

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