Safety by Design

Making Safety a Focus in the Design of Water Facilities Can Eliminate an Array of Issues

project site

By Elizabeth A. Rodgers, Michael Etheridge & Chase Hartz

Imagine that an engineer offers to design your water facility or facility upgrade in such a way that it is safe to build, operate and maintain. You might ask, “Why wouldn’t it be safe in the first place?”

To explain, an analogy might help. A car comes with safety features built into it. Although safety and other features vary according to make and model, as well as individual budget and preferences, you can assume any car you buy will basically be safe. In a similar way, water and wastewater facilities are also built to code and to meet regulatory requirements. A standard level of safety is engineered into them.

Of course, facilities are not built like cars. Each facility is uniquely developed to specifications relative to its time, place, function, stakeholder goals and budget. There is more opportunity to incorporate many types of safety features in the design and construction of each water treatment or water resource recovery facility. With that in mind, you might ask whether your facility is as safe as you want or need it to be.

Safety by Design

The practice is commonly recognized as Prevention through Design. It is the systematic assessment and mitigation of facility hazards that can arise during construction, operation and maintenance.

Prevention through design is widespread in the private sector, including the water industry in the United Kingdom. Some public utilities in the United States, along with companies that support them in the design of facilities and improvements, also see its value.

Safety by Design (SbD) is another, maybe more apt name for the practice. The objective is to incorporate safety solutions during initial planning and design, when choices can best be controlled, to maximize safety performance during construction, operations, and maintenance activities. There are two parts to SbD: reduce the risk of hazards before they happen and mitigate their impacts if they do happen.

Especially when modeling is used, SbD can eliminate injuries, illness, downtime, rework, and other potential problems. In the long-term, it can help utilities operate their facilities more cost-effectively.

RELATED: Triple Vision: Collaboration, Innovation, Communication 

Essential Practices

SbD can be implemented as part of the traditional design process. The design team conducts and documents ongoing design reviews as part of the normal deliverables review process. The use of checklists can help the team consider typical and project-specific SbD topics.

SbD provides the most value when implemented early enough to prevent corrective work at a later project stage. At the same time, sufficient design development must be in place for SbD activities to yield useful recommendations. For this reason, utilities should consider SbD strategies that span the lifecycle of a project (see Figure 1), with the appropriate emphasis on early design phases.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Safety by Design Lifecycle.

A comprehensive SbD process considers types of hazards for each engineering discipline and for the overall project, either as part of an ongoing review or a facilitated milestone review (see table).


Design teams that incorporate SbD typically employ building information modeling (BIM) to provide a 3D virtual-review platform. The BIM/3D model facilitates review of a project’s spatial aspects, including access, lifting, confined spaces, and other considerations. For example, the model in Figure 2  shows the crane size and placement for removal of vertical turbine pumps and general pump access for maintenance.

Additionally, piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) and other 2D deliverables along with designer-furnished review checklists are used to supplement the 3D model. The designer (or third-party facilitator) generates a SbD report that documents the findings, actions, and the ultimate resolution of all identified actions.

Figure 2

The Value of Workshops

Workshops are an excellent way to identify, understand, and prioritize risks from the owner’s operational perspective and experience, and then fully integrate specific safety and operability considerations.

A workshop is held typically after the preliminary design elements are defined. Comments then can be integrated into the detailed design, which allows impacts to the project schedule to be optimized. Sometimes spanning multiple days for large facilities, the workshops enable a systematic review of potential safety hazards. A later workshop can be held to perform similar checks on more-detailed design development. However, caution must be used to prevent significant changes and rework to the design.

Some examples:

  • During a review workshop for a large reverse-osmosis desalination facility, the owner communicated that its top operational health and safety risk was struck-by-vehicle incidents. The team had accounted for vehicular traffic at a basic level. But team members were not aware that struck-by- incidents were the owner’s top concern. The alignment of risk assessments in the workshop allowed the team to focus on this concern as the top risk item.
  • Working on a biosolids project, a design team used SbD to identify areas of the facility that were at a high risk for health, safety, and environmental impacts. Areas included buried pipe chaises, digester gas storage, the heat-recovery steam generator, the boiler and the flare. Review meetings helped the design team and safety managers identify risks and generate engineering controls that could be implemented in the design. The meeting participants also identified risks that could be best-controlled by owner/operator administrative and work practices.

At a minimum, workshops should include the design team (generally the lead designers representing all design disciplines); the owner’s team (project management, safety, operations, and maintenance); and, if possible, representatives from the contractor (for facilities not yet constructed).

Water utilities that use design-bid-build delivery would, of course, not be able to include the contractor in workshops. However, a suitable third-party construction or construction management representative may be available, through the designer or owner, to provide construction and constructability input with respect to safety.

Tools That Make Safety Issues Real

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools can make SbD workshops even more effective. These tools create a realistic walk-through of the facility, enhancing the SbD review by supplementing the more traditional 2D drawings and 3D model navigation review.

An AR/VR walk-through provides a more intuitive platform than even a traditional 3D model navigation software package, because relative distances are easier to experience. The AR/VR model enables reviewers to stand next to equipment, piping, doors, and similar features, and see exactly what an operator or maintenance worker would see. It promotes a better assessment of access points, interferences, removal restrictions, and similar potential safety problems.

Figure 3 exemplifies the use of VR/AR to help owners visualize potential safety problems.

Figure 3

Improved Safety and Reduced Costs

SbD provides multiple project benefits. First, and most importantly, it supports improved safety for everyone associated with the life of the facility, from the initial construction staff who build the facility to operations and maintenance staff who keep the facility functioning over its lifetime. Improved safety also has a direct impact on monetary and social costs for the utility. Facilities that are safer to construct, operate, and maintain result in less downtime, less lost work time, and less potential for corrective costs, including rework and legal costs. When properly implemented, the benefits extend to adjacent community stakeholders through reductions in environmental and physical safety issues. 

Elizabeth A. Rodgers, CSP
Global ESHS Manager | Black & Veatch

Elizabeth Rodgers, CSP, is the Global Safety & Health Manager for Black & Veatch’s water business. She has 15 years of experience in the field of safety with emphasis in the construction of wastewater and water treatment facilities.


Michael Etheridge, P.E., PMP
Global Chief Engineer | Black & Veatch

Michael Etheridge is the global chief engineer for the water business of Black & Veatch. He is responsible for engineering quality and oversees development and implementation of standards and tools to support design activities, design quality and integration with safety, procurement, construction and operations work. Etheridge wrote the Black & Veatch Safety by Design procedure.

Chase Hartz, P.E., CSP |
Safety & Health Manager, Black & Veatch

Chase Hartz, P.E., CSP, is a safety and health manager for Black & Veatch. He has 11 years of experience in the design, construction, start-up and commissioning of critical human infrastructure projects across the globe.

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