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What is design risk management and how does it affect me?

27 April 2020

Amid the current COVID-19 health crisis, ICE Health & Safety Expert Panel Chair, Ciaran McAleenan, argues that design risk management is more important than ever. He looks at ICE’s latest guidance on DRM, and how we must consider individuals and society impacted by engineering design.

What is design risk management and how does it affect me?
Design risk management considers health, safety and well-being throughout the asset lifecycle

What is design risk management and how does it affect me? Interesting question and one that has been around for decades. But let me begin by laying my cards on the table. I do not like the term risk management, but there was a time when I openly promoted it, taught it and wrote about it.

I started to analyse the language and for me ‘risk’ is ‘chance’, ‘a gamble’, an uncontrollable outcome and therefore the idea of managing chance or any uncontrollable outcome became anathema for a while. But I began to recognise that the intent behind the term was sufficiently clear, standing in its own common use. So, without being pedantic we know what we mean when we use the term.

When it came to the ICE producing ‘Guidance for Design Risk Management’ (ICE 2020) I set aside those earlier concerns and embraced the intent behind the publication, running with the following definition:

“Design risk management (DRM) is a means by which designers can demonstrate that their designs can be built, used, maintained and eventually demolished without negatively affecting the safety, health and wellbeing of those involved in the construction process or those who may be impacted by the structure.”

My one caveat to that, now that I re-read it, is to say designers can demonstrate that their designs can positively impact safety and health, while enhancing wellbeing. That is the nature of this business. The goalposts keep shifting and we need to move with them. For instance the COVID-19 crisis has massively shifted our outlook on life and severely impacted our working lives.

Looking forward

A conversation that is emerging and that will have greater voice in the times ahead is the value of work in enhancing our wellbeing. The issue of maintaining good mental health, during such an unprecedented lockdown has come to the fore with ICE and many employers exploring how this may be maintained or enhanced as the crisis evolves.

Tell me this is nothing to do with safety, health and wellbeing, or design risk management for that matter. As civil engineers we acknowledge that, "many important public and private works and services, which contribute to the wellbeing of mankind are dependent on [us] … in making the best use of scarce resources in care for the environment and in the interests of public health and safety.” (ICE Royal Charter). When we do emerge from this crisis, or even as we create the circumstances to allow us to emerge from it, be in no doubt of the role to be played by civil engineers.

This calls for competent and capable designers, fully conversant with design risk management principles and practices. We will have to adjust to what the new ‘normal’ will be and I can only hope that the good aspects, the upsurge in humanitarian and caring actions and the recognition of the true value of key and essential workers in society, survives the crisis.

We have it within our gift to design and build infrastructure for a more caring society in a way that recognises and values the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These goals include responsible consumption, supporting good health and wellbeing, and decent work and economic growth through innovation in our infrastructure development.

ICE’s revised guidance for design risk management

So why does all of that matter and why another safety guide? Surely enough has been written on the subject! After all the CDM regulations have been around for decades! Valid questions/ observations, however the need to focus on risk management from a designer's perspective stems from a concern that there isn’t something published that speaks directly to design engineers and those who manage or direct design teams.

We do not exist in a bubble and consequently DRM has to mean that we consider the individuals impacted and the society impacted by our design as we seek creative solutions to meet the economic, political and social needs of our clients and wider society (McAleenan and Oloke 2015).

If the present CoVID-19 crisis teaches us anything, it's that these things are inextricably linked and ICE’s timely publication of DRM guidance is a critical aspect of the design process that just adds to the designers’ library of well-conceived assistance.


  • Dr. Ciaran McAleenan, NI Committee Member & Chair of NI Region Expert H&S Panel