Design and Construction, Emergency Preparedness, Safety

How to Rethink Facility Layout Design in Order to Improve Safety Conditions

It’s a logical assumption that having an intelligent layout for your facility can only be beneficial for the employees’ safety. The design and thinking behind a layout contribute much to how safe a workplace will be. WorkSafe Victoria in Australia states, “One of the best ways to prevent injuries and fatalities in the workplace is to eliminate or control the risk at the design or planning stage.”

A safe layout must be considered in the design of buildings and structures, all floor plans, workplace configurations, work systems, the placement of equipment, how product flows through a process, and any other allied considerations.

Sometimes facility management may be saddled with a layout that is inherently unsafe or has become unsafe due to changes in processes or machinery. A layout rethink may be warranted. This article will look at how to rethink facility layout design in order to improve safety conditions.

Think About Your Hazards

To understand your facility layout, you need to know the hazards in the given workspace. The U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) contends that a facility’s layout could be compromised due to several factors, including:

  • Distances in the transfer of materials between different areas of the facility may be too large or logistically problematic;
  • The geographical limitations of the facility;
  • Unacceptable working conditions for certain workers;
  • Issues with existing roadways, drainage, and utilities-related routes;
  • The location of hazardous materials being in too-close proximity to work areas or the surrounding neighborhood; or
  • Flammable substances are in areas that are too confined.

Do you know all the hazards and potential risks in an area with layout issues? Safety hazards can be highly instructive about what changes are needed in the layout. That is why a bird’s-eye view of a facility can be so helpful in assessing the flow of work, materials, and workers, as in the diagram below:

Source: Visual Components

It should be stressed that not only physical hazards—such as machinery, uneven floors, or obstacles— should be considered. Chemical, biological, air-quality-related, and other non-physical hazards must also be duly considered if a comprehensive risk assessment of the area is to be achieved.

Think About Safety Management

It may seem obvious, but your revised layout design must be based on sound safety management principles. A layout safety review should be at the center of any revisions made to your facility’s layout. There are key factors that should be considered as part of your safety review, including:

  • Inherent/known safety issues with the current layout;
  • Accidents or near misses that may have occurred due to, or in part as a result of, the layout of the facility.
  • Domino effects that may occur due to safety failings, including the possibility of:
    • Fire;
    • Explosion;
    • Gas leaks;
    • Chemical leaks;
    • Build-up of flammable vapors;
    • Flooding; or
    • Safety consequences beyond plant boundary—i.e., to surrounding businesses or communities due to a major fire, explosion, or leak.

Emergency response is an equally important part of safety management and emergency-related features must be prominent in any layout redesign. It must also adhere to your facility’s emergency action plan (EAP) and must consider all emergency-related factors, including:

  • Different types of potential emergencies;
  • Alarm systems;
  • Means of egress for evacuation, including emergency routes and doors;
  • Emergency signage;
  • Evacuation plans; and
  • Machinery or process shutdown procedures.

Think About the Workflow

The golden rule is that the facility has optimal workflow when hazards criss-cross as seldom as possible. So, for example, an electronics warehouse should be designed in a way that hazards such as forklifts, storage stacks, heavy merchandise, warehouse workers on the floor or working at heights, and other relevant hazards are kept as safely distanced from each other as practically possible. It is when hazards criss-cross repeatedly or unnecessarily that safety incidents occur.

Workflow-related safety may be impacted by your chosen layout design, the four main types being:

  • process layout = workers or departments that perform similar tasks are grouped. Production (i.e., workflow) moves from one workstation to the next. The issue is that hazards may criss-cross due to cramped space or poor layout design between stations.
  • product layout = high-volume goods are produced in an assembly line by a series of workstations at which already-made parts are assembled and moved on. The issue here is repetitive work which, especially in a line, can lead to distractions and unsafe tedium.
  • cellular layout = small teams of workers handle all aspects of building a component or even a finished product by working in a dedicated area or cell. Machinery may be configured in a U-shape, with work done inside the U. What’s the issue here? Hazards tend to criss-cross frequently in the rush of work in a cell.
  • fixed layout = the product stays stationary in one place while workers and equipment work in and around it. The issue with this layout is unfamiliarity with the workspace, which may lead to unsure movements and work around the product.

Your layout design needs to assess which layout works best for your production while ensuring that safety measures are tightened to make up for the layout’s weaknesses.

Think About Your Maintenance Regime

A revised facility layout must take maintenance issues into consideration, which in turn must be safety-focused. It is for that reason that having a reactive maintenance regime that only responds to breakdowns or other malfunctions is not advisable. Why? Because unplanned stoppages will occur at inconvenient times, which can be very costly to your facility. Furthermore, operators are more likely to suffer incidents with machinery and equipment that have not been proactively maintained.

A comprehensive maintenance plan based on preventive and predictive maintenance principles will include layout-related workflow realities. The plan should encompass the facility’s assets (equipment and machinery) and its structural aspects (the built environment).  

The Technical Design Requirements for Infrastructure Facilities, as issued by the Province of Alberta, Canada, states, “Good design is a process that delivers long-term value, function, innovation, and inspiration.” A safety-focused layout design can indeed deliver a more valuable, innovative, and inspired workplace.

Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO of Limble CMMS. Limble is a modern, easy-to-use mobile CMMS software that takes the stress and chaos out of maintenance by helping managers organize, automate, and streamline their maintenance operations.