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Preventing MSDs during the design stage

Professor David Caple, La Trobe University

David Caple

David Caple talks about safety by design in the workplace to minimise MSDs.

Run time: 14 minutes 8 seconds.

Download a copy of this podcast (MP3, 7 MB)

Anthony (00:05):

Hello and welcome to this MSD podcast. My guest today is David Caple. David is the director of David Caple and Associates and adjunct professor at La Trobe University. David, welcome.

David Caple (00:19):

Thank you, Anthony.

Anthony (00:21):

The theme of the symposium is safety by design. What does that mean from your perspective?

David Caple (00:28):

Safety by design is the opportunity to actually incorporate the prevention aspects of safety from the start of the design process. And there are often two interpretations of what that means. From an engineering perspective for example, if you're incorporating safety in design of a bridge, then you design it so it doesn't fall down but from a human factors or ergonomics perspective, which is where I come from, we're looking at incorporating aspects of safety through the whole life cycle of a design from the perspective of the people who will be interfacing with that during its life cycle. And we're talking here about the design of a production line, of a shop, of an office area, anywhere where people go to work is the focus of what we do but you could think of that in a hospital, in your home. When you're designing something, what our focus is to think about the interaction with people and ensure that we think about where they may impact on their health or their safety.

Anthony (01:42):

What are some of the common issues though, that you see that can go wrong in the design process?

David Caple (01:50):

The most common one Anthony, is where people ... What I call go out and purchase a solution. They see your product or they see your machine and they think, "Oh, good. That'll be good for us. That will solve a particular issue that we might have."

David Caple (02:06):

... but when they actually install it and start operating it, they realize that it doesn't necessarily meet the big picture. It's got to be cleaned. It's got to be maintained, parts have to be replaced. And if it's put in a location that it's not conducive for all that to occur, it puts people's safety at risk. And so what we're looking at, is a much more holistic approach to evaluation of design, to think through everybody that's interfacing with that machine or that workplace. It's not just the operator, it's all the other people that in the large cycle need to interface with it as well. And that's often where things go wrong. People only think about the use of it on a day to day basis but not all the other people that have to interface with as well.

Anthony (03:00):

And just on that David, who then are the right people to include in a design process?

David Caple (03:08):

You need to have representatives of those user groups that I just referred to. And myself and my colleagues that work in ergonomics and work in the broader health and safety profession, tend to have that lens to bring to the debate. And we have been trained to reflect on what the needs of those different user groups are. They may be physical needs, so that they can reach things and they can carry things but it also is the cognitive needs. Can they understand the control panels, the information that they have to do, they can react appropriately with the right time? And also, the psychosocial aspects of how people work together as a team or maybe in a shift, going on to a different shift, that they all understand what safety looks like with that particular process.

Anthony (04:00):

You say that there are various steps involved and a number of people included in the design process. David, when should you include them? Is it at the very start when you're considering some level of design?

David Caple (04:15):

Exactly, Anthony. And normally, the design process starts with a concept or starts with an idea of, "What is it that we're doing? Why are we doing it and what do we want to achieve?"

David Caple (04:29):

If we take for example ... Currently, people are going back to work into offices after COVID and that's changing the way people work with each other, how they're interfacing with the workplace. And so there's a new concept of the way people are working. And so we need to talk to those workers to understand their expectations and they need to understand the infection control parameters. There's no point in redesigning the workplace and then allowing the staff to come back and not understanding what those expectations might be. That's the most important stage, is at the concept or the organizational development stage. Then you get into the detail design of what a corridor might look like, what a kitchen might work like, what workstations might look like. And there the next step, where the consultation takes place. It's an iterative process. It's not just a one-off, you have to keep that process going until it's evaluated to ensure you've met your goal.

Anthony (05:35):

And in your experience or observation, are we seeing any changes in safety by design post COVID?

David Caple (05:44):

It's early days, Anthony because I'm based in Victoria and we've only been in effect, able to go back to the workplaces over recent months. And I suppose my first observation is the hesitation of a lot of people to do that, for multiple reasons. I think what we're seeing is ... The major change is what I'd call the hybrid model, where people are combining the working from home with the working from their normal workplace. And that's changing the way teams are operating. It's changing how we're using technology. It's changing how we're viewing commuting on public transport. And I think we'll have to wait for a little while yet to reevaluate, is this a transition or is this a permanent change in how we're viewing work? I think we're on a journey here, Anthony and I haven't seen the end of it.

Anthony (06:40):

I think so as well. It certainly is interesting times. David, you explored some examples. Are there other examples that you can share with us where you have experienced good design?

David Caple (06:54):

Look, I'll give credit to the Victorian government department of justice and community services in a project they did some years ago now but it's still evolving and it's to do with how the government agencies interface with the public and what happened going back a while now but it's still quite contemporary, is occupational violence, where people come into a public office aggrieved about something. They get upset, they raise their voice, they threaten. And we have instances of violence and aggression. And what happened at the time when this became evident, is people started putting up glass barriers or perspex barriers. And we're seeing it again now with COVID. People are putting barriers up again without thinking through what the implications this has.

David Caple (07:46):

Just as an example Anthony, I had my first vaccine yesterday and I noticed that there was a sneeze barrier installed across a counter between myself and the staff member. We both had masks on and we couldn't hear each other. And so what I've observed, is that the members of the public were going around the side of the counter to talk to the staff member because of the acoustic problems. And that's a perfect example where you haven't thought through the implications of a safety measure but what happened in the government offices, the secretary decided that this was very counter-intuitive to welcome people, to put a big barrier up. She demanded they be all taken down. And what happened was that we then had to look quite holistically at how do we implement safety in design of these public offices? And so it started looking at zones and I see the same in the banking industry.

David Caple (08:50):

You've got a zone outside the front door, which you can lock. You've got a zone which is the foyer that you can bolt things to the floor, so they're not to be used as a weapon but then you've got the zone at the counter itself. And how do you design that where people feel they can hear, they can see, they can exchange documents but if they do have a threatening conversation, that there's a safe retreat where the staff can quickly shut a door and be in a safe space but you've also got a zone for interview rooms where privacy is respected and those difficult conversations can take place.

David Caple (09:29):

The approach to safety in design in that model was to look at zones where particular areas are allocated for functions and do away with these, where you can have all those difficult conversations at the counter, which puts everybody at risk. And I think this model's been rolled out now for the last 5 to 10 years in multiple locations across the state, with very minimal occupational violence events. Putting up the barriers to some extent exacerbates the problem. People bash it, they spit at it and it really doesn't achieve a lot if you don't think through the implications.

Anthony (10:10):

Yes. And talking about those barriers, because of COVID, we've seen a lot of that now in places like supermarkets haven't we? And I would have thought that would be one of the last places we'd see perspex but the world has changed.

David Caple (10:24):

Yes, exactly. My point is, we have to think through holistically, what does that mean to the day in the life of the cash register operator in terms of their reaching, in terms of there being ability to hear, exchanging credit cards and money? All that, that's all part of their job. What we do, is we try and walk in the shoes of the different parties to understand the day in their life and what this design is going to do to enhance that or hinder them to do it efficiently and safety.

David Caple (10:59):

My area is in ergonomics. And we look at both areas of efficiency and safety. For example, in the area of materials handling, I wouldn't mind a hundred dollars for every lifting device that I see collecting cobwebs because it's been put in with good intention but it actually prolongs the process. It hinders the operator in many instances because it was just tacked on as an additional measure. I think the good thing about what we're trying to discuss with you today Anthony, is to encourage designers to consult with people like health and safety professionals at the start of the process, to understand the interaction between the different aspects of safety. It's not just the physical side. I found now, that the cognitive side of how people interpret information, understand their training is very important. Is that the way they live their life? And secondly, the psychosocial factors of how people work with other people to ensure that the culture of the workplace reflects the safety standards that you would like.

Anthony (12:13):

David, are you able to give us perhaps another example about how it helps prevent MSD?

David Caple (12:21):

I mentioned about the banking industry.

Anthony (12:23):


David Caple (12:23):

We've been involved with all the major banks. And what we're finding is that people don't go into a bank very often to get money. They've got holes in the wall, if you like, machines that do that but handling of cash and coin is still part of our culture. And some years ago, we identified that the banking industry was having a lot of injuries handling bulk coin. And so we worked collectively with all the banks to identify how this coin is packaged, how it's transported, how coin is processed.

David Caple (13:03):

And as a collective health and safety objective, they worked with the Reserve Bank of Australia to have the design of packaging changed, to ensure that these manual handling risks were reduced. A similar example was with the paint industry, where particularly commercial paint operators were buying cans of paint that were weighing up to 30 kilograms when you look at the solids that are in paint. And so again, all of the major paint companies came together and we negotiated an agreement of a 15 kilogram target for the packaging of paint. These are design initiatives that have huge implications across Australia for consumers but also people who work in the retail side and the warehousing side of those industries.

Anthony (13:58):

David, it's been really insightful today. And I thank you so much for your time as part of the symposium this year.

David Caple (14:07):

Pleasure, Anthony. Nice to meet you.