Construction Safety by Design

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By T. Michael Toole

For the first time, the United States has a President-Elect who has not only pledged to invest substantially in infrastructure, but also has a professional background that includes overseeing the financing, design and construction of large building projects. Also noteworthy is the fact that Mr. Trump was elected in part by working class people who feel their needs have not been fully considered in recent years.  

There is now a unique opportunity for our new Developer-in-Chief to ensure that the greatly needed renovation and enhancement of our nation’s infrastructure does not occur at the expense of the safety and health of our nation’s six million construction workers. To do this, the President-Elect can promote Design for Construction Safety.


The concept of designing for construction safety – also called Prevention through Design – is simple: architects and design engineers actively consider the safety of construction and maintenance workers during the design stage. Examples include increasing the height of parapet walls to provide permanent fall protection, making structural steel easier to erect safely through better connection design, and making sure light bulbs, valves and filters can easily be accessed by maintenance workers.  

Research in the United States, Europe and around the globe have shown that reducing hazards by designing them out is a much more cost-effective way of making construction sites safer than merely relying on workers to use personal protective equipment.  DfCS has been required in the United Kingdom for over 20 years and is required or strongly encouraged in other countries around the globe. Eliminating hazards through design is a direct application of social sustainability principles – what could be more socially just than eliminating unnecessary hazards that kill or disable workers?

Designers on chemical, power and other industrial construction projects regularly pursue this lifecycle safety approach to the design of projects, but designers on building and infrastructure projects have both passively and actively resisted performing Design for Construction Safety (DfCS).  

Why? As is true for many innovations in design and construction, there are many factors involved, but the No. 1 reason is that designers and their insurers fear DfCS will lead to increased lawsuits against them by injured workers. Although this is a legitimate concern, it is a tragedy that business factors are keeping designers from doing their part to reduce the nearly 1000 fatalities and 200,000 serious injuries that occur annually on U.S. construction sites. Will resistance to DfCS be framed as another example of elites ignoring worker needs?

Research done at Bucknell University in collaboration with Oregon State University has shown that owners (i.e., developers and project owners such as the Federal Highway Administration, the Army Corp of Engineers, and the General Services Administration) are the only party who can insist that designers perform DfCS on their projects. 

The new administration and governors across the US have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and active concern for our nation’s construction workers by encouraging DfCS on both government projects and private projects. However, DfCS should not be required by OSHA or state laws that open the floodgates to inappropriate lawsuits, but enabled by policies and programs that encourage DfCS on a voluntary basis.  

As such, Design for Construction Safety provides the new administration with a viable path to demonstrate they are willing to take concrete actions to improve the quality of life for construction workers without needing to implement new federal regulations.

T. Michael Toole is a Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Bucknell University and a professional engineer registered in Pennsylvania.

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