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The Evolution of Prevention Through Design and Risk Assessment: A Personal Perspective

Jan 29, 2019

The evolution of Prevention Through Design (PTD) and risk assessment has involved manyRobot arms of working on an automobile production line efforts by various individuals to bring greater awareness to the fact that steps can be taken to design out workplace hazards before they manifest themselves. 

In a peer-reviewed article titled “PTD Before Risk Assessment: A Historical Perspective,” Michael Taubitz provides his insights into the history of PTD and risk assessment in the automotive industry and elsewhere, and lessons these practices taught him throughout his career. 

Taubitz offers examples of how PTD concepts came about through collaboration between safety and engineering personnel, and how designing and products, machinery and processes with safety in mind can help prevent injuries and save lives. 

The Early Years

In the 1970s, on the heels of OSHA safety regulations and an increased emphasis on noise reduction in automotive manufacturing, engineers at the Chevrolet V8 engine plant in Flint, MI, became responsible for noise control and implementation of machine guarding for OSHA compliance. 

As a result, the engineers created a standardized system in which suppliers were required to include proposed noise controls during the bid process for a project. As a result of participating, one supplier found that offsetting the mill cutter teeth on a perishable carbide tooling reduced the harmonics and vibration with an attendant decrease in sound level and improvement in surface finish. 

This practice, referred to at the time as “designed-in safety,” is one of the first documented cases of engineering controls being put in place prior to the manufacture of a product. The lesson that Taubitz and other engineers took from the experience is that pushing the issue of noise control with suppliers during concept and design resulted in properly engineered controls. 

Furthermore, while engineering controls that are considered after the design and build are often not feasible, those same controls may be feasible if they are integrated into the initial concept and design. 

The 1980s 

Along with finding ways to effectively address safety challenges in the design phase for products and machinery, a challenge that has and continues to face workers and safety professionals alike is how to achieve a lockout/tagout (LOTO) zero-energy state for equipment during service and maintenance tasks. 

A well-held belief in the 1980s was that if all work was to be done with no power, a single disconnect for large, complex machines would serve that purpose. As time went on, however, people began to realize that many maintenance tasks required power, along with the fact that zero power didn’t not eliminate the hazardous energy risks associated with machinery. 

“Blind insistence on zero energy and not understanding the control of hazardous energy forced skilled workers into what the company’s safety team termed malicious compliance,” says Taubitz. “Following supervisory instruction resulted in significant downtime and increased hazards to get the plant running again.” 

As the decade wore on, it became clear to Taubitz that something needed to change in order to better protect workers and reduce injuries and fatalities. 

“By the late 1980s, the number of serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs), coupled with the growing awareness about the deficiencies of LOTO, it became painfully apparent that many machines were simply not designed from the perspective of skilled trades and others performing maintenance work,” he says. “Without this perspective included in the design process, workers would continue to face unnecessarily high risks in performing maintenance work.” 

The 1990s

As the 20th century moved into the 1990s, tangible steps were taken to address the discrepancies discovered in the 1980s with regard to LOTO and controlling hazardous energy. United Auto Workers-GM negotiations in 1993 resulted in formal recognition that the control of hazardous energy would include energy control that went beyond zero-energy lockout. 

This agreement helped the concept of task-based risk assessment (TaBRA) take shape and brought greater attention to risk assessment and how safety professionals could use the practice in real-world scenarios to help prevent injuries and fatalities. 

Taubitz notes that when used to complement traditional risk reduction measures TaBRA can be a valuable tool for safety professionals. 

“The TaBRA process typically produces more information than observation or a traditional job safety analysis because certain steps are captured to ensure that the worker gets into the real-world cadence performance of the specific task being analyzed,” he says. “This natural cadence of performing every step is useful to identify variables when something goes wrong during the task.” 

Looking Ahead

As we move into the future, Tabuitz emphasizes the continued importance of PTD and risk assessment in reducing injuries and fatalities, and that safety professionals can and should take the lead in promoting the inclusion of operational risk management systems. 

“Risk assessment is the key tool for identifying hazards and preventing harm before it occurs in a wide variety of machinery, equipment, products and processes,” he says. “Facilitating this process with engineers, workers and union representatives not only produces better results, but also provides greater confidence in the findings of the risk assessment and risk reduction.”

It’s important to keep in mind that while it may take some time for PTD concepts to move into mainstream thinking, PTD should be a goal for all organizations that want to mitigate risks before they create exposure on the factory floor. 

“PTD is a journey,” says Taubitz. “But it is a journey akin to a long-term group relay race. Risk assessment is the baton. As safety professionals, let’s make sure we don’t drop it.” 


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Roger Brauer
Safety Through Design is a very old concept that is more than a century old. I wrote an article in the July 2018 issue of The Archives of Safety and Health, the journal of the Safety and Health Historical Society (SHHS) that covered some old records of safety through design or prevention through design. Heinrich addressed it in his textbook on safety. The 1955 edition of the NSC book, Accident Prevention Manual, contained the concept. The oldest record I found was from September 1915. The past President of ASME gave a paper (No. 129) at the International Engineering Congress in San Francisco with several examples. Early on the term used was "engineering revision." My paper is available from that issue of The Archives found in the SHHS Store at


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