HSE's Research Paper on the Principal Designer Role within CDM 2015 – Essential Reading for the Construction Sector

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HSE's Research Paper on the Principal Designer Role within CDM 2015 – Essential Reading for the Construction Sector

Published 13 July 2023

Those working in the construction sector will be aware that the principal designer (PD) is a key role in the project structure set out in the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015). They must plan, manage, monitor and coordinate health and safety in the pre-construction (design) phase of a project. Decisions taken at this point can significantly influence whether a project is delivered in a way that achieves health and safety compliance and, potentially, reducing the likelihood of any incidents occurring. HSE guidance L153 ‘Managing Health and Safety in Construction’ sets out the requirements expected of those fulfilling the PD role under CDM 2015.

Whilst the broad legal duties are set out in CDM 2015, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) commissioned a 'rapid independent review' to broaden its understanding of how the PD role is working in practice, including activities that are central to the role and the extent to which they influence health and safety during the construction phase of CDM projects.

Scope of the Research

HSE cautiously make it clear that the opinions and conclusions expressed in its June 2023 research paper – 'Implementation of the principal designer role within CDM 2015' – are of the authors1 alone and do not necessarily reflect HSE Policy. The authors used information provided by 849 respondents to an industry-wide survey and 20 stakeholder organisations in the preparation of the paper. The raw information gathered during the rapid review process has been published separately as a Technical Annex.

HSE's objectives were framed in the following questions:

  1. What organisations and individuals make up the PD community?
  2. What activities are the PD community carrying out?
  3. How does the role of the PD influence health & safety management in key categories of construction projects?
  4. To what extent is the PD role operating in comparison to the functions set out in the CDM Regulations?
  5. What behaviours impact positively and negatively on the effectiveness of the PD role?

The Findings

The survey indicates that PDs are typically small or medium sized enterprises (SMEs) with self-employment or organisations employing less than 10 staff being the most common. PDs often act in other roles, most commonly health and safety consultants, client advisors and project managers. More PD organisations fulfil a health and safety role than a design one.

Survey respondents were presented with a range of 20 indicative activities. Results show that the PD typically undertakes anywhere between 1 and all 20 of them on a project. The average response was 13 activities with all 20 being undertaken in 14% of projects. Most indicated that the PD undertook activities such as collating the pre-construction information (PCI) (88%) and liaising with the principal contractor (89%). However, less than half indicated that the PD either obtained the details of temporary works designers (50%) or obtained further pre-construction information (PCI) required by temporary works designers (39%). Given the HSE's tendency to focus on the management of temporary works in enforcement action, this might raise concern.

Answers to the project specific survey questions indicates that:

  • 62% of PDs were appointed by the concept design stage with 27% appointed after this when many key design decisions have been taken;
  • Key individuals undertaking the PD role were most frequently members of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) (19%), the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) (18%) and the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) (17%);
  • Nearly three quarters agreed the PD understood the oversight role and ensured that health and safety was an integral consideration in design. 65% agreed the PD understood their role to be corresponding to a principal contractor;
  • 74% said PDs had detailed knowledge of the General Principles of Prevention;
  • 69% agreed the PD interacted with designers and client-appointed designers to mitigate risks. This drops to 38% for temporary works designers;
  • 66% agreed that the PD held design review meetings and 68% agreed they had a process to consider and resolve the issues raised;
  • 71% agreed the PD made sure that the client was aware of the importance of pre-construction information (PCI);
  • 68% agreed the PD had identified the need for the principal contractor to have the right information at the right time but only 40% agreed that the PD interacted with the temporary works designers; and
  • 78% agreed the PD had a process to identify Health and Safety File information.

Survey respondents considered a range of scenarios and associated behaviours. Key findings indicated:

  • A range of interconnected factors shape the PD appointment. There may be too many times where the role is misunderstood and appointments are inappropriate;
  • Good collaboration between the PD and the design team, coupled with active support from the client, help resolve design issues;
  • The PD role does not naturally emerge from the way the construction industry works or sit easily alongside the contractual frameworks used;
  • A particular challenge on design and build (D&B) projects is to ensure the PD does not find themselves at the periphery of the design process; and
  • Handovers from one PD to another should be avoided where possible as the process risks important information being lost.

Survey respondents considered the value the PD role could potentially bring to future projects as either high (51%) or moderate-high (21%). They indicated the following as successes of the PD role:

  • Early consideration of design/health and safety;
  • Better coordination and communication between different teams/duty holders;
  • Improved integration of safety and design;
  • More understanding/awareness of design risk; and
  • Improved project information.

DAC Beachcroft Analysis

It is useful to understand the background of this key CDM role. The CDM coordinator (CDMC) role in CDM 2007 (CDM 2015's predecessor) was to provide the CDM client with a key project advisor in respect of construction health and safety risk management matters. However, an independent evaluation in 2012 concluded that there were concerns with how the CDMC role was being implemented. In particular, appointments were often made too late, too little resource was made available, and those involved in fulfilling the role were often not well embedded into the pre-construction project team. This led to the introduction of CDM 2015, and the removing of the CDMC role and replacing it with the PD role. The fundamental difference between the roles was the additional element of control and influence over the designer-led risk management process as a requirement for pre-construction coordination. In essence, an integrated approach to risk management was desired rather than the coordination function being a separate or externalised add-on.

However, this independent research shows that the intended objectives of the CDM 2015 PD role are not being fully realised. In particular, and fundamental to the success of the key role, was concern that the role is often misunderstood and inappropriate appointments are made. A need for clarity was expressed to make it clear whether the PD is coordinating multiple designers in respect of health and safety in design or whether they are in control over the pre-construction phase. Questions were also raised as to whether the intent of the PD role should be to just manage the pre-construction phase, or whether there should also be clear leadership of the pre-construction phase.

These conclusions resonate with us at DAC Beachcroft, as we have dealt with numerous cases where PD's have been found to have inadequately performed their legal obligations, typically arising from a lack of technical competence or design experience and not understanding the full extent of those obligations. We have often seen PCI files that have been submitted to principal contractors, who are primarily responsible for health and safety during the construction phase of a project, that have been deemed to be insufficient in terms of 'designing-out' the project specific risks to health and safety – especially in relation to the necessary co-ordination and dialogue required with regard to temporary works design which is often overlooked. Given the strict interpretation of the planning, managing and monitoring duties in respect of temporary works, this may mean that clients are not getting the advice they need about this safety critical issue.

We echo the identified areas in the research paper where further focus is required to build on the current approach to implementing the PD role:

  • The need for more designer-led design risk management;
  • Appointing the right people at the right time with the right resources is necessary to ensure the PD role can be done properly;
  • Enhancing the current understanding of the PD role; and
  • Empowering PDs to undertake the role and control the pre-construction phase of the projects they are involved in.

In practice, this emphasises the need for clients to have robust selection and procurement processes that ensure their appointed PDs are competent. Principal contractors likewise need to be aware of the competency of the PDs they are working with so that they are not adopting PD duties themselves or, worse still, leaving safety critical issues unattended because they fall between the respective dutyholders. For PDs themselves, the key conclusion of this research is that they must understand the extent of their duties during a CDM project.

Our National Regulatory Team at DAC Beachcroft advises organisations across a diverse range of sectors on compliance with their statutory health and safety obligations, including the construction industry on its CDM duties. We also offer a wide range of training sessions and workshops, including PD duties and responsibilities. For more information or advice, please contact one of our specialist lawyers.

1Mike Webster (MPW R&R Ltd), Richard Roles (RJ Roles Ltd), and Natasha Perry (Catchfly Ltd)


Colin Moore

Colin Moore

London - Walbrook

+44 (0)207 894 6031

Stefan Desbordes

Stefan Desbordes


+44 (0)1633 657668

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