Designing Buildings to Make Construction Safer: New Data on Prevention Through Design

By Donna Laquidara-Carr, Ph.D., LEED AP, Industry Insights Research Director

BEDFORD, MA – February 22, 2018 – Prevention through Design (PtD) proposes to make building construction and operations safer through consideration of safety in the early design stages of new projects. The recently released Safety Management in the Construction Industry 2017 SmartMarket Report, published by Dodge Data & Analytics in partnership with CPWR and United Rentals, features new data that suggests that the U.S. construction industry is just beginning to take advantage of the benefits of practicing PtD, and reveals what is needed to get more industry engagement with this critical issue.

What Is PtD and Why Is It Important?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health formally defines PtD as involving “all of the efforts to anticipate and design out hazards to workers in facilities, work methods and operations, processes, equipment, tools, products, materials, new technologies and the organization of work.” While a common practice in countries like Singapore and the U.K., PtD is still an emerging practice here in the U.S., despite the fact that multiple studies that have been conducted globally link between 22% and 63% of workplace fatalities to design-related factors. PtD can therefore play an important role in improving construction safety.

The findings reported in the SmartMarket Report demonstrate that, especially among the design community, PtD as a formal practice is not well known. Before survey-takers were shown a specific definition of PtD, only 19% of architects responded that they were aware of it (trade contactors were marginally better at 34%). However, once shown the activities that comprise PtD, many more architects and trade contractors responded that they believe are practicing this effort. That said, the study reveals that there is the potential for even wider practice of PtD activites.

Use of PtD Practices

Architects who participated in the study were asked about their use of four specific PtD practices, and the results are indicated in the chart below. Consideration of possibilities for prefabrication is the most common practice. Prefabrication can have a significant impact on project safety; in a case study of a hospital project in Denver, CO, featured in the study, Mortenson Construction estimated that they were able to avoid a total of eight potential safety incidents due to prefabrication of bathroom pods, exterior wall panels, multi-trade racks and patient room headwalls.  However, currently, the opportunities for prefabrication are still limited, and other studies conducted by Dodge demonstrate that, while many companies use prefabrication, most do so to a very limited degree, and design that do not lend itself to prefabrication is a top obstacle. Therefore, while prefabrication is an important strategy to improve safety, other approaches are also necessary to make a significant difference.

The data on the three remaining practices demonstrate that, while about two thirds of architects in the early design stages consider how to improve safety during building operation and maintenance, only about half consider how to optimize safety and efficiency during construction.

How to Increase PtD Adoption

Why don’t more architects perform safety constructability reviews before completion of schematic design? Over three quarters of architects (79%) report that concern about taking on construction liability is a major barrier preventing them from practicing PtD. Another issue reported by many (63%) is the lack of client interest.

It is notable, though, that fewer than one third (31%) believe that their lack of knowledge about how to improve safety in buildings is a major barrier to this practice, and even fewer (19%) doubt the impact that PtD can have on safety. This suggests that, if clients could be more actively engaged and the liability issues minimized, there may be little resistance to wider use of these practices.

The top drivers suggest that owner engagement in this issue may be, in fact, the most critical factor to encourage wider PtD adoption, with 81% of architects reporting that owner/client request would be highly influential in encouraging them to practice PtD.

These findings demonstrate that there is great potential for more architects to engage in PtD, and that to encourage that higher engagement, the biggest effort in education and encouragement needs to be among owners. Informed owners who believe that they can have safer construction projects by requesting that their design teams consider construction safety during early schematics can help encourage architects to engage in this behavior. In addition, consideration of how to handle liability for architects, so that they are not inadvertently punished for practicing PtD, is also a key factor in increasing adoption of PtD in the U.S. design and construction industry.



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