Health and safety in interior design

Article written by Lizzy

As an interior designer one can not understate the importance of health and safety. The difficulty however lies in the fact that the safety issues he or she should be concerned about stretch over various fields ranging from, safety in the home/space/office/environment where people need to work or live, building safe constructions, to providing a safe working environment for the people who are carrying out the building work.

Many of those safety issues are bound by extensive laws and regulations and it is obvious that covering the whole spectrum of health and safety which an interior designer should be concerned about is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless would it be useful to write down a summary, a checklist if you like, of the various health and safety aspects governing our business and provide some leads where to start looking for help, answers and regulations.

A key mistake of an interior designer is to design what clients ask for and forget to design what clients need. It is imperative to good design to be knowledgeable, able to ask the right questions and also listen to the client on a secondary level, a level where one separates a client’s requests from his emotions. A failure to do so results in a design with lost opportunities. Apart from the fact that it is hard to surprise and excite your clients with a design they expect, valuable issues which would add to the comfort, safety and enrichment of their living or work space has not been addressed. There are abundant studies concerning office design which proof that sound design does not only affect the wellbeing of the employees but also the effectiveness of the business and consequently its productivity. Although studies for similar issues at the home have not been so thoroughly and are much harder to find, many of the issues applicable in office design are valid at home as well: Air quality, lighting, decoration, furniture and ergonomics, personal space and privacy. Apart from the ones mentioned, at home some additional hazards will need to be addressed. According to the American Home Safety Council five events are good for 90% of home injuries: falls, poisonings, fires and burns, choking and suffocation, and drowning.

Ergonomics and usability influences

It is difficult to measure the effects of ergonomics and usability factors on the health and safety of the people concerned. Legislation often only represents the bare essentials concerning health and safety, and thus complying with regulations doesn’t automatically warrant a safe environment. A designer must go well beyond legislation and nowadays should be concerned about the wellbeing of anyone involved. It is impossible for legislation to cover every issue and keep up with the latest research findings, especially since many of these issues are case and user specific. This however puts the interior designer in a prime position, since he is capable to address these concerns on a case or person specific bases and fulfil the requirements towards long term sound interior design.

Putting a laser printer in an ergonomic place somewhere on the office desk comfortable within arms reach may seem a logical thing to do, but is it always the healthiest solution? If it is part of a temporary workspace where people come in a couple of hours a day to mark-up their site report and print it out before leaving to the next project, then in terms of ergonomics, efficiency and consequently productivity it probably is the best solution. If however the office desk belongs to a collar worker mainly restrained to his computer screen, putting the printer at the other end of the office or in a closed of section away from his desk may be a healthier and more productive solution. This will force the worker of his chair at periodic intervals, stimulating his blood circulation, stimulating joint movement, relieving static pressure points and taking him away from the computer screen changing his visual perspective and eye strain. It will equally reduce the concentration of VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) emitted by the laser printer and its paper around his desk. A combination of small decisions like these may at the end result in a healthier environment of the employee and avoid sick leave due to back problems, migraines or vascular problems and thus result in higher productivity or profit for the company. An abundance of studies and researches are available on this subject and even jobs have been created to specifically investigate and facilitate an optimum working environment. The issues concerned can reach from simple ergonomics such as chair heights, mouse usages, screens distances to surface finishes and glares, lighting conditions and eye fatigue, air conditions and ventilations, to office flow and walkways to induce informal contacts and information exchange, privacy matters and social integration and to so much more.Please consult the health and safety page to find links to more information on many of these subjects.

Air quality

Bad air quality of a room or building can generate various symptoms to its occupants. This can be the result of various factors ranging from poor fresh air circulation, high concentration of VOC’s, air conditioning, humidifiers, dehumidifiers to poor cleaning, dust, overcrowding and much more. In the office environment many studies have been conducted and poor air quality has been identified as a contributing factor to the sick building syndrome. Due to contradicting research reports and the power of large industrials, legislation has been slow to enforce better air quality. At the beginning of 2007 however, the first phase of regulating VOC’s in paints, varnishes and related products have come into force and will conclude with a second phase in 2010, this as a direct result to health and safety considerations. For more info on this subject see the health and safety section in the useful resource menu or Google “volatile organic compound in indoor air” which will bring up an abundance of articles on the subject.

Considerations could go much further than this. Knowing your client well you may decide to avoid carpet as it is a hideaway for dust mite, advise not to put plants on carpets since watering spills may result in mould or avoid to use open fabrics as it is a trap for contaminates which can be released back into the air. Air-conditioning and heating are other factors which need to be well considered as they can have a drastic impact on air quality. Designers need to be well informed before they are able to make such decisions.


In construction special attention needs to be giving to the hazards of asbestos. The inhalation of asbestos fibres are known to cause lethal diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis (pneumoconiosis). Although asbestos is prohibited in most western countries including the UK it can still be found in many existing homes, buildings and constructions and therefore when renovation work is undertaken it is best to be aware of the risks and safety measures concerning asbestos. Asbestos is a material that became popular in the late 19th century. Its properties to resist heat, electricity, chemicals, its tensile strength and its sound absorption made it an ideal material to be used in the building and construction industry. It has been mixed with many other materials to form insulation boards, lagging, tiles, roof panels and many, many more. When manipulating these materials asbestos fibres, invisible to the eye may get air born and be inhaled. Frequent exposure to these fibres may cause severe lung diseases which are often fatal.

For more in-depth information about the characteristics of asbestos, the health and safety issues, risk prevention and removal of asbestos see the asbestos section on the health and safety page under useful resources.

Regulations and code of practise

In the last couple of decades many regulations concerning health and safety have come about or have changed drastically. To keep up to date on current regulations one can start with the guidance booklets of approved documents Part A through Part P and The Construction Design and Management (CDM) Regulations 2007. Guidance to these documents can be found online. The Buildings regulation explanatory booklet provides an introduction to the Building Regulations in England and Wales and will give a better understanding of how to use the approved documents.
Guidance to the CDM regulations can be found on the Constructions skills website and the Safety in Design website and are a great source towards the understanding and implementation of the CDM. The Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) on the CDM can also be consulted and is available from HSE Books (£ not for free.) Although the ACoP is not a legal document it provides information on how to comply with CDM regulations and may be accepted as evidence in a law suite in case of non-compliance. Apart from the information above you can also consult the links in the health and safety section or if you prefer paper literature you can consult Construction Managers Health and Safety Bundle
Introduction to Health and Safety in Construction + CDM 2007
(£ not for free)

Where to go from here?

A key asset as mentioned before is to learn to listen to your clients and respond to their physical needs and equally their emotional needs. Every individual or situation is different and what is necessary on one project isn’t always needed on another. The list of issues to consider in order to address the quality of life and improve the wellbeing of clients can be endless. For some clients you might be strongly focused on inclusive design, for others you may make an emphasis on colour or chromo-therapy, or may take special measures on sound insulation and noise reduction.

Of course one will need to find the balance between the budget available and the lengths towards accomplishing the perfect interior but a good start is to be well informed about what you can do for your clients.

© Copyrighted by Lizzy Design

In reference to this article an interview was conducted by Perspective magazine the trade journal of the International Interior Design Association IIDA for their summer issue article on Health and Safety “The power to Protect”.

Below you can find the details of the interview.

© Copyrighted by Lizzy Design


Interview conducted by Laura Schlereth

You said in your article that the importance of health and safety cannot be understated for an interior designer. How would you describe your responsibilities in this area as different from an architect?

It is very difficult to draw a fine line between the differences of an interior designer and that of an architect in the area of health, safety and well-being. There are many aspects of interior design that are often performed by different identities such as interior architects, interior designers or interior decorators. Some of these overlap more with the duties and responsibilities of an architect than others. What I have written below is a generalization at best but will nevertheless give an indication.

The main difference lies in the fact that the interior for an architect is often just a small piece of the overall project. The architect’s responsibility concerning the compliance with regulations is of a totally different magnitude than that of an interior designer. Many architects will agree that a large part of their profession is translating and merging current regulations with the project for their clients. The time and often the budget that is left to invest in interior investigations are often reduced.
A second difference I believe can be found in the fact that interior design projects are often transformations or renovations. In the case of domestic dwellings the designer has the opportunity to meet and see the clients in their proper living environment. There is a substantial amount of information to be gathered from such meetings creating the opportunity to design an interior of well being tailored to the living habits of the client. This sort of information is absent however in new built projects.

This article is about increasing the legislation for interior design. However, you say that there is no way for legislation to cover everything because every issue is case-specific, and it would be difficult to keep up with all the latest research findings. You mention that this puts the designer in a prime position for long-term requirements. Can you think of an example when you had to go beyond what the legislation minimally required?

The examples here are endless. Legislation is enforced on an average use but can not by definition account for personalization. This is where an interior designer finds its strength. There is no law for example forbidding the use of pull-up blinds in baby or toddler rooms. Nevertheless is it a hazard. Humans are not flawless and sometimes forget to properly windup the cord when the blind is up, or the toddler’s crib is set to close to the window creating the opportunity for the toddler to fiddle with the windup which may unravel resulting in a potential suffocation hazard. In interior design there are constantly decisions being made which affects the health, safety and well-being of the people using the space. This can range from tailored cabinet and worktop heights, to improved left handed use, inclusive design, to the use of sound absorbing materials, the pitch of a staircase and so much more.

Groups oppose interior design legislation (i.e., regulating the interior design profession through title and practice acts) because they claim interior designers do not affect public health and safety. In your own words, why do you think health and safety regulations are so important in the interior design profession?

This is a very difficult subject. Interior design /decoration (interior architecture excluded) is in essence something that every homeowner is allowed to do since the compliance with regulation happens at the level of the trades people employed (plumber, electrician, etc.) It is therefore argued that it is very difficult to enforce a regulation through title and practice acts on the interior design profession. This is however a very short-sided conclusion. Every mother can raise children, nevertheless is childcare in many countries a regulated profession. The interior design profession should be a lot more then a keen eye, some organization skills and a sense of space, it should be a consultancy towards better living.

The reason why it is not and why interior design is still struggling with its identity does not need to be sought with the regulating bodies but within the interior design community itself. For years design education and design organizations have promoted themselves through visual means and stressing the creative output of their work. Consequently potential clients associate interior design almost exclusively with interior space organization and visual transformation.
The fact that interior design facilitates an improved living experience in which health safety and well being become a fundamental part is often unknown. We can see that when an interior health and safety issue arises people often turn first towards medically oriented facilities.

The opportunity to embrace today’s resources and available knowledge on health, safety and well -being are still poorly exploited. A shift in education and regulating the profession may strengthen the interior design’s position.

Can you think of specific projects/cases where you really had to focus on each of the following areas? Can you describe each one in some detail?

– ergonomics
– air quality (i.e., VOCs, sustainable design)
– accessibility
– building/fire codes

Again the examples here are endless and very similar to the questions asked above.
In every office design, aspects like ergonomics, air quality, accessibility and fire safety are crucial towards successful interior design. For this you could consult the office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller (in Zeeland not far from Chicago) which has an abundant amount of case studies on this subject. Their design of the Aeron chair is a beautiful example. Equally you could contact Bosti Associates ( near Buffalo which specializes in workplace optimization. Large insurance companies will equally carry many case studies on these issues.

You mentioned that the examples are endless, and you did touch up on this in your answers above. But instead of speaking in hypothetical terms, can you think of a specific project you worked on and describe it in detail how you had to focus on one of the areas?

There was an issue in an advertising agency in Brussels which required special attention to health and safety after complaints in certain cubicles of the office. Due to symptoms of migraines, anxiety and elevated stress office workers had gone to medical facilities to be checked although no cause could be pinpointed. On an interior investigation of the space it was found that, the materials used and the bare concrete internal structure (for contemporary esthetical purpose) served as a catalyst for the wireless DECT devices used in the office. Although all the devices were within regulations the combination of an unlucky positioning of the devices and the concrete structure which served as an amplifying bouncing box made sensitive people feel unwell when residing in the space for too long. Special wall fabrics and curtains to absorb DECT waves and a repositioning of the devices were necessary to solve this particular problem.

In office layout and interior design it is especially important to go beyond the approved health and safety regulations. Health and safety regulations are often focused on immediate dangers but are less focussed on consequences of prolonged or repetitive use.
It has taken ages for asbestos regulations to come into place and thousands of people in the UK are still dying of this each year. By now we know many other products (maybe not as bad as asbestos) to carry carcinogenic substances (e.g. formaldehydes.) Still they are being used in several materials being sold. There are positive signs however, like the regulations in paints restricting the VOC emitting levels, but we still have a long way to go.
But besides regulations that should come into place there are many decisions to be taken to which regulations can not be applied. There are many cases in which a certain implementation may be perfectly sound in one situation but less favourable in another. In a hotelling concept (a shared work space for people who usually work 60% or more out of the office) for example, we see that ergonomics for chairs and office desks can be less stringent than for those in a dedicated work setup to be used by the same person 8 or more hours a day. Similarly, the use of open fabrics which are known to be a trap for dust may be a fair use in well ventilated places for temporary use but closed fabrics may be more suitable in other spaces.
These are just a few examples of the many decisions (materials selection, light intensity, colour use, surface reflection, etc.) to be taken on a case by case and on a situation by situation basis which influences the long term health and safety of its users. Many of these decisions go well beyond regulation.

An abundant amount of studies have proven the consequences and impact of these decisions on the well being of office workers. It reflects in their amount of sick leaves, productivity and positive attitude level, and we can see that since the 1980’s an increasing number of companies have put greater emphasis on health and safety oriented design.

One must mention however that these measures translate into company turnover and thus it would be fair to question whether this increased interest is taken because of health and safety consideration if not for profit reasons. Nevertheless, an interior designer’s job is to sell both sides as the final result is a win, win situation.

At the end of the day, we as interior designers are creating living spaces which have an immediate effect on our living experience. Our focus should be to make this an enjoyable experience in all the aspects of interior design. Health and safety is a fundamental part of this which is all too often neglected. I believe education and regulating the profession could contribute to a better understanding of these issues.

When reading through my article, my editor wanted more specifics on the table you designed to improve privacy stress issues in an office cubicle environment. I think she’s looking for more layman’s terms. In your words, how would you describe a buffer zone and how does it help the worker? What about the active work zone?

When you said you wanted to improve “privacy stress issues,” did you mean the table means to lessen the stress of the worker by giving her more privacy with the buffer zones — having an area of space between her and her desk makes her feel less overwhelmed and more in control?
Please elaborate in your own words if you can, especially if I’m understanding incorrectly.

Also, in your own words, why do you think this desk is beneficial to ergonomics?

The office table concept has been the result of an extensive study and is based on research conducted in anthropology, proxemics to be more specific and Gestalt psychology. I’ll do my best to explain in layman’s terms but to grasp the idea fully I am afraid some technical terms are needed.

In proxemics, a terms first introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, social distances between people can be divided into 4 groups: intimate space, personal space, social space and public space. (See image) These spaces correspond to the personal distance a person takes (often unconsciously) to other people, events and its surrounding. Intimate space for example is reserved for actions like embracing, kissing, touching or whispering, where personal space is for interaction with good friends. The intrusion of people into a space not appropriate to their social distance may feel uncomfortable and invasive. In environmental psychology this is termed as “crowding”. It is the psychological phenomenon when one is no longer comfortable with the number of people present and the extend by which they are invading ones space.

Among the investigations of Gestalt psychology are the investigations on the perception of spaces and the perception of contours. Forms can be perceived by the suggestions of other forms or interrupted contours will be virtually completed by the eye and mind.

The office table’s form and contours suggest spaces which are physically not there but are nevertheless mentally perceived (amodal contours, Illusory contours, Gestalt psychology.) It creates a buffer zone to expand the zone of privacy comfort (the circles of proximics) and add to guard one’s back (a residue of instinctive predatory protection of the area we can not see.)

Ergonomically it answers to the circles of reach and the different ways an office table is used for (contact with colleagues, formal meetings) but at the same time incorporates a zone of comfort obtained through the fusion of behavioural research and the perception of space.

For more information see the Office table documentation.