Is Environmental Design the New Superhero of Workplace Safety?

In the past seven days, two clients of ours (from two completely different environments) brought up the topic of security at their workplaces—one was a municipal client and the other was a retail establishment.
Each client’s motivation for the conversation was fueled by the same important desire — to enhance staff safety, and the issue that had prompted the concern was a need to talk about their workplace’s Risk Assessment process. It was all part of their Workplace Violence Prevention planning process
Knowing that I had been a police officer for over 35 years, they thought that I might perhaps have some insight into the design of a workplace as it relates to staff safety.
And fortunately enough (for them and now you), both inquiries were opportunities to share my knowledge and training in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).
<cue triumphant fanfare>

CPTED has long been viewed as the international standard in how the actual design of a ‘space’ can enhance safety.

Ignore certain aspects in the building and development stage, and you might actually end up with a location that attracts the very activity that you are hoping to avoid. Scary thought, huh?
I am not actually going to attempt to delve into the science CPTED does (and that’s what it most certainly is – a science), but what I do want to do is spark an interest into the amazing insights that a CPTED-centered analysis of your workplace might reveal.
In actuality, CPTED is often associated with neighbourhoods and communities (and sometimes complete towns!). But, those of you who read my weekly posts will know that I always relate ‘workplaces’ to ‘communities,’ since the places where we work contain all of the same characteristics as the paces where we live.
Therefore, CPTED applies equally well to the municipal hall and retail store, as well as the city park.
So without further ado, let’s get into a short overview of what it is and how it works.

CPTED is based upon the theory that:

The proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead to a reduction in the incidence and fear of crime, and an improvement in the quality of life.”
CPTED’S underlying objective, which is based upon the belief that crime is a by-product of human functions that aren’t working, is to help the various disciplines of design do a better job of achieving their primary objectives, with the added benefit of improved security.
CPTED differs from traditional crime fighting techniques because its emphasis is based on design and use, whereas traditional crime prevention is geared towards aspects of ‘target hardening.’
The ‘target-hardening’ approach traditionally focuses on denying access to a crime target through physical or artificial barriers (such as locks, alarms, fences, and gates). This approach often overlooks the opportunities for natural access control and surveillance, while placing a constraint on the use, access, and enjoyment of the hardened environment.

CPTED emphasizes and exploits these lost opportunities through the development of three overlapping strategies:

  1. Natural Surveillance
  2. Natural Access Control
  3. Territorial Reinforcement

Natural Surveillance, as the name suggests, is a design strategy directed primarily at keeping intruders under observation.
Natural Access Control is directed at decreasing crime opportunity.
Territorial Reinforcement is a design strategy realizing that physical design can create or extend a sphere of influence, causing users to develop a sense of proprietorship or territoriality.
Just to clarify, the term ‘natural’ refers to deriving surveillance and access control as a by-product of the normal and routine use of the environment.
Now let’s use the three D’s of Designation, Definition, and Design as a guide to the evaluation of any space, by asking the following types of questions:

  • What is the designated purpose of this space?
  • What was it originally intended to be used for?
  • How well does the space support its current use? Its intended use?
  • Is there conflict?


  • How is the space defined?
  • Is it clear who owns it?
  • Where are its borders?
  • Are there social or cultural definitions that affect how that space is used?
  • Are the legal or administrative rules clearly set out and reinforced in policy?
  • Are there signs?
  • Is there conflict or confusion between the designated purpose and definition?


  • How well does the physical design support the intended function?
  • How well does the physical design support the definition of the desired or accepted behaviours?
  • Does the physical design conflict with or impede the productive use of the space or the proper functioning of the intended human activity?
  • Is there confusion or conflict in the manner in which the physical design is intended to control behaviour?

As an employer, examine to see if they are incorporated into your workplace design.
But remember, we are not trying to recreate Fort Knox in your workplace.
What you’re trying to do is examine the use and flow of the workplace to make certain that we maximize the opportunity for your employees to feel safe when they are there.

Since we’re on a roll with design, let’s examine the nine common CPTED design strategies:

  1. Provide clear border definition of controlled space.
  2. Provide clearly marked transitional zones that indicate movement from semi-public to private space.
  3. Relocate gathering areas to locations with natural surveillance and access control, or to locations away from the view of would-be offenders.
  4. Place safe activities in unsafe locations to increase the natural surveillance of these locations. This will increase the perception of safety within these areas while increasing the perception of risk in offenders.
  5. Place unsafe activities in safe spots to overcome the vulnerability of these activities with the natural surveillance and access control of the safe area.
  6. Re-designate the use of space to provide natural barriers to conflicting activities.
  7. Improve scheduling of space to allow for effective use and appropriate critical intensity.
  8. Redesign space to increase the perception or reality of natural surveillance.
  9. Overcome distance and isolation through improved communications and design efficiencies.

I know this may be a lot to take in at once, but it all makes perfect sense when you think about it, doesn’t it?
If you’re interested in learning more, there are trained professionals who can assist you, and you can contact your local police department.
However, I’m hoping that the information I’ve shared with you will encourage you to examine your workplace with a different lens and a fresh perspective.
After all, superheroes don’t have to wear capes; they can just be everyday employees wanting to create a safe environment…


About the Author:

Phil Eastwood is a former London Bobby who brings a thirty-five year career in policing to his role as Senior Partner of Fiore Group Training, a recognized leader in training top North American organizations. Phil is lead author of workplace training courses in respectful workplace training, workplace violence employee training, and leadership training seminars.

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