How normal employees can easily stray into playing formal CDM (2015) duty holder roles

By Ian Pemberton | Published: 21/09/2017

Don’t let ignorance cause accidents and claims.

Anyone involved in construction projects will know the Construction Design Management Regulations (CDM 2015) set out a number of formal duty holder roles.   What is often less well understood is that many different people can perform the same role during a project, and, may do so without realising the CDM duties of care that they are accepting.   In this short article we’ll take a brief look at CDM duty holder roles and some common areas of confusion.

 The CDM (2015) defines the following duty holder roles:

  • Client – the person or organisation for whom the construction work is undertaken
  • Principal Designer – has overall responsibility for design work
  • Designer – undertake design work
  • Principal contractor – has overall responsibility for the construction work – employs contactors and workers
  • Contractor – responsible for construction work and employs worker
  • Worker – undertakes construction work

An important point to make is that these duty holder positions are roles, or corporate functions, not specific people.   In other words, many people may perform these roles at different stages of a project.  Just to add to the potential for confusion, these people may well be from different organisations and work on the project at different periods in its life cycle.

Because of this fluid nature of duty holder roles, it is easy for people to unwittingly step from one role to another without realising their responsibilities.  It’s easy to see how this might become confusing – let’s take a look at some common examples. 

Design changes

CDM (2015) is obviously very focused on the design of structures and buildings – it’s in the title of the regulations after all.    It places very clear duties of care on Principal Designers and Designers to ensure structures and buildings are safe to construct and use once they are commissioned.  If there are accidents due to design faults the organisations and individuals performing these duty holder roles can be held accountable.

Now, as far as CDM is concerned it does not matter whether a design is recorded or not, for example, on paper or a computer.  If a design change is made, and perhaps only communicated orally, then the person making the change steps into the Designer duty holder role as far as CDM is concerned! 

So, if you are an architect or structural engineer working on building design plans it’s likely that you will have been formally  appointed into either the principal designer or designer roles.  So far so clear.

But, let’s say you are a worker – perhaps an electrician – who turns up on site to put into practice the designs drawn up by the designers at the planning stage.  As we all know, the reality on the ground may be somewhat different to what a designer planned for.  So, if our electrician then starts to make changes to  the plans then they step into the CDM designer role, and,  whether they realise it or not accept all of the attendant legal duties of care. 

Contractor supply chains

Another common area of confusion in duty holder roles is during the construction phase where there are numerous contractor organisations.   Under CDM a contractor can be both a company as well as an individual including a sole trader.    Many of these smaller companies including sole traders may not fully understand the legal duties of care that come with the contractor role – which are significant.    As we have explored in a previous article some of these contractors may not even realise that they are operating as part of a CDM project – particularly if their area of expertise is not obviously a construction activity but which can still fall under the CDM.   These individuals have heightened duties of care beyond normal workers.  This type of ignorance in supply chains can have very significant health and safety implications.



The CDM regulations require that all duty holders must have the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to discharge their responsibilities competently.    Anyone who is likely to play a formal CDM duty holder role should have received specific training in how a CDM project operates and their legal duties of care.   This must include not only individuals directly employed by your organisation but also those within your supply chain.  For example, if you operate as a Principal Contractor it is your duty of care to check the contractors you employ are competent.

But as we have seen it’s also important that all workers understand when they might be straying into areas beyond their expertise.   So it is also a good idea that all workers receive CDM awareness training.  This has the added advantage that it fulfills another central principle of CDM - which is worker involvement and consultation in the safety management process.

 Human Focus have two RoSPA approved CDM training courses.   These e-Learning programmes are aimed at duty holders as well as CDM awareness training for all employees.

As the courses are online the training is low cost and can be completed easily at your convenience.

For full course details click here