Design for Safety in Construction


Design for Safety (DfS) in construction: The way forward for collaborative safety and health practices in Malaysia



Professor Dr Che Khairil Izam Che Ibrahim, School of Civil Engineering, Universiti Teknologi MARA

Assoc. Prof. Dr Sheila Belayutham, School of Civil Engineering, Universiti Teknologi MARA

Professor Dr Patrick Manu, Department of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of the West of England, United Kingdom


Over the past years, there has been an increasing focus on Design for Safety (DfS) in the construction industry across the world. Based on data from the United States, Europe, Australia, and Singapore, 27 per cent to 60 per cent of construction fatalities are linked to design-related factors (Cook and Lingard, 2011; Haslam et al., 2005; Behm, 2005).

Figure 1. Construction Fatalities linked to Design-related factors

As a result, many governments have regulated new initiatives and/or encouraged designers to participate in collective responsibilities for worker and end-user safety. DfS has been implemented in various ways, including through legal requirements such as Safe Design in Australia and New Zealand, Prevention through Design (PtD) in the United States, and Construction Design and Management (CDM) in the United Kingdom. DfS has also been adopted to serve as a non-mandatory or voluntary guideline and renamed such as Occupational Safety and Health in Construction Industry (Management) (OSHCIM) in Malaysia and Guidelines for addressing occupational hazards and risks in design and redesign processes in the United States (See Figure 1). Despite the variations in terminology, DfS has been widely accepted as a practice that enhances the safety and health outcomes of a project lifecycle (Karakhan and Gambatese, 2017), especially by allowing designers and organisations to optimise occupational safety and health (OSH) practices during the design process (Hardison and Hallowell, 2019; Che Ibrahim et al., 2020). 

The review of relevant literature indicates that there is a growing body of DfS research in developed countries, particularly in the United States, the United Kingdom, and several European Union countries (Manu et al., 2021). However, DfS concepts remain underdeveloped in many developing countries, including Malaysia. The fact that the local construction industry has a large percentage of fatality rate (e.g., 392 workers were killed at construction sites between 2018 and 2022, according to the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) in 2023), represents a significant threat to the industry’s sustainability and the business value of construction organisations. Therefore, the industry needs new safety initiatives to enhance safety standards.

DfS practices have led to changes in safety practices and regulatory frameworks in Malaysia’s construction safety. For example, the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) established efforts to introduce DfS practices in the construction industry in early 2017 through the establishment of the OSHCIM guideline. The guideline adds value to the existing Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) Act 1994 by securing and reducing the discrepancy in responsibility and accountability for compliance with safety guidelines between construction stakeholders. The guideline also serves as a guide for individuals with legal duties, as Section 15 (General duties of employers and self-employed persons to their employees) and Section 17 (General duties of employers and self-employed persons to persons other than their employees) further define the collective responsibility of all stakeholders in compliance with the safety law.

Even though DfS practice is still relatively new to the Malaysian construction industry and is currently based on a voluntary approach, efforts towards recognising the factors influencing and mechanism for ensuring its effective implementation are significant. A significant body of literature on DfS has indicated that in order to make DfS be more acceptable to practitioners, decision-makers, and educators in various dimensions (e.g., practical and educational), the factors and barriers that hinder its effective implementation need to be fully explored (Umeokafor et al., 2022). The literature suggests that certain factors, such as external factors (e.g., legal, economic, and education), industry dynamism (e.g., contract, and project delivery approach), organisational factors (e.g., interest, training and development, and collaboration), and individual factors (e.g., knowledge, and awareness) may influence and inhibit the uptake of DfS. However, it is often unclear whether the proposed factors and barriers are valid in different contexts. For example, a recent study by Umeokafor et al. (2022) investigated DfS barriers in Nigeria and found that the domestic context has a significant impact on the sustainable growth of DfS practice. Another study by Che Ibrahim et al. (2022) suggested that due to recent DfS guidelines (i.e., OSHCIM) in Malaysia, continuous engagement in DfS activities could improve DfS learning.

Figure 2: Examples of DfS regulatory & guideline framework (Source: Che Ibrahim et al., 2022)

Factors influencing DfS implementation in construction.

Literature on DfS has revealed a set of key factors that can affect the adoption of DfS across three main domains: external factors, industry dynamics, and operational organisation factors. These factors include the availability of digital applications, early DfS education of stakeholders, institutional pressure, practical guidelines or code practices, recognition of DfS benefits from clients, a coordinating role in DfS management, incentives and funding from governments, and innovative contractual and procurement approaches (Poghosyan et al., 2018). Figure 2 illustrates these factors.

The use of digital tools like Building Information Modelling (BIM) has been positively associated with DfS, particularly in identifying and visualising safety hazards during the design and construction process (Zhang et al., 2015). In addition, the early education of stakeholders is considered a crucial factor in promoting DfS diffusion due to the significant knowledge and skills gap among designers, highlighting the importance of formal education at an early stage to establish fundamental safety knowledge (Toole, 2017; Che Ibrahim et al., 2021).

Legislative pressure from regulatory institutions is another influential factor for DfS adoption. Practical guidelines and specific guidance or codes of practice that focus on design activities and interactions can help improve the lack of safety experience and competence among existing industry designers (Morrow et al., 2016). Furthermore, client recognition of the benefits of DfS has been identified as an important factor influencing DfS adoption. Also, proactive leadership from owners is crucial in initiating and monitoring DfS expectations during the design review process (Tymvios and Gambatese, 2016).

Innovative contractual and procurement approaches are considered to enhance DfS implementation (Gambatese 2019). One of the driving factors to ensure effective DfS implementation is to promote DfS. Wider communication efforts can influence owners and duty holders to be aware of DfS to enhance the technical skills and collaboration required for successful DfS implementation (Karakhan and Gambatese, 2017). Additionally, incorporating DfS education into curricula at an early stage and establishing one-stop centres for DfS education materials can facilitate wider communication of DfS.

Previous studies have emphasised the importance of utilising diverse tools and resources during the safety design process. By incorporating a range of qualitative and quantitative tools, alongside educational and design materials, designers can effectively educate themselves about DfS solutions (Gambatese et al., 2017). Additionally, digital resources like design guidelines, checklists, and best practices can provide a novel and valuable means for designers to apply DfS principles consistently (Tymvios, 2017).

Figure 3: DfS factors identified from previous construction literature

Way forward for DfS Implementation in Malaysia

In general, there are five major drivers that can be instrumental in advancing the DfS for improved implementation in accordance with OSHCIM.

1. Institutional Pressure

·        Regulatory bodies play an important role in strengthening the legislative and compliance framework for DfS implementation.

2. Continuous Engagement beyond compliance

·        Empowering collaboration between academics and industry by co-designing and co-delivering education and training for future and existing design/construction professionals. The activities allow for the incorporation of lessons learned from professionals involved in collaborative project delivery can capture a collaborative experience and add value to DfS training by incorporating.

·        Focusing on wider community engagement through seminars, workshops, or focus group discussions. A growing dialogue is critical for nurturing and stimulating duty holders’ safety culture.

3. Industry responsiveness

·        Developing innovative design standards or contracts to improve the aspect of DfS practices (e.g., the early involvement of contractors in the design phase) and the cost of safety (e.g., remuneration and professional fees of designers)

·        Introducing more collaborative procurement approaches (e.g., partnering, alliance, and early contractor involvement) to embrace collaboration and enhance safety roles and responsibilities towards positive DfS attitude and practice.

·        Introducing tools (e.g., checklist, risk assessment tool) for DfS to assist designers in conducting the monitoring and assessment over time.

·        Establishing clear, accessible, and simple guidance for DfS (e.g., industry safety standards, code of practice, and guidelines)

·        Producing substantive gains in the assessment needed to inform DfS competence-related policy and practice by enhancing the existing designer DfS competence framework that can further taxonomise the DfS measurement. The need for such practice has been highlighted in several DfS legislative frameworks (e.g., Directive 92/57/EEC of the European Union, Regulation 8 in CDM Regulations 2015 in the United Kingdom, Regulation 9 in DfS 2015 in Singapore, and Section 3 in OSHCIM).


4. Building a culture of DfS

·        Promoting early and continuing DfS learning by including more construction courses, including site safety and DfS concept to enhance related engineering and built environment curricula at all levels in tertiary education (i.e., certification, diploma, undergraduate degree and postgraduate degree). OSH-related subjects via massive open online courses (MOOC) could also be introduced.

·        Improving pedagogical teaching and learning (T&L) approaches to include more interactive teaching and learning on OSH.

·        Increasing the competency of academics related to OSH.

5. Technological Advancement

·        Prioritising knowledge of current technological advancement among designers to facilitate DfS practice, particularly in terms of the visualisation and simulations of potential risks and hazards.

·        Embracing disruptive technologies (e.g., BIM) to enhance the flow of information between project actors, resulting in more efficient big data management (e.g., integrating occupational risk prevention measures and hazard simulation) to improve better safety practices.


This article is an output of a collaborative DfS project between Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia and The University of Manchester (UoM). The Research Environment Links grant (Ref No. MIGHT/CEO/NUOF/1-2022(1)) supported the project from the British Council and Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology, as part of the British Council Malaysia’s Going Global Partnerships programme.




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