Get our free email newsletter

Functional Safety: Overview and Methods

A Guide to Understanding Functional Safety Basics

Functional safety (FS) is a complex, and oftentimes a confusing, subject even for those familiar with product safety and certification. With good reason, there are numerous functional safety standards that apply to various product types and applications, each with their own nuanced requirements. Some end-product standards specify one or more FS standards to use for embedded controls, while others leave it open to interpretation.

In short, FS evaluations are required whenever a control—regardless of whether it is electronic, pneumatic, hydraulic, or another type—is used to achieve safe operation of a product. Depending on the application specifics and the end-product standard, functional safety may only encompass hardware controls or include both hardware and software.

Some simple examples include thermal limiting controls on a heater, pressure limit controls on an air compressor, or interlock sensors that disconnect a machine when a door is opened. More complex examples include safety stops of machinery, collision detection systems for collaborative robots (“cobots”), sensing systems to prevent a robotic vacuum cleaner from falling down a flight of stairs, or the object detection/avoidance systems of autonomous vehicles.

- Partner Content -

A Dash of Maxwell’s: A Maxwell’s Equations Primer – Part One

Solving Maxwell’s Equations for real-life situations, like predicting the RF emissions from a cell tower, requires more mathematical horsepower than any individual mind can muster. These equations don’t give the scientist or engineer just insight, they are literally the answer to everything RF.

While these examples represent a wide range of complexity and refer to different FS standards for evaluation, the good news is that the core functional safety process is similar for almost all projects.

This article will examine the process flow for an FS evaluation and provide an overview of each major step. Although it would take multiple books to go through every step of FS in detail, the expectation is that the following details will provide an understanding of the basic process.

Commonly Used Functional Safety Standards


The FS evaluation process is shown in the flowchart in Figure 1. The approach will vary depending on the certification scheme and whether the product is being evaluated for a third-party certification mark or a manufacturer’s self‑declaration.

Figure 1: Functional safety process flowchart

Steps 1 through 6 may be conducted by the system designer, system integrator, safety engineer, or others appropriately qualified on the product development side. If seeking third-party certification, steps 7-9 may be conducted by a third-party safety evaluator or similar service providing independent product certification. Clients who are self-declaring may choose to do this as part of their own internal review.

- From Our Sponsors -

This FS process may be part of a larger product safety evaluation, or it may be a stand-alone FS evaluation, depending on the product and its specific application. In an ideal scenario, these steps would be conducted as part of the design concept phase before the first circuit is drawn or any lines of code are written. Often, these steps occur after a product has been developed or even after the product is already on the market. The benefits are significant when the FS process is considered sooner, meaning a proactive approach yields lower overall time to market and development costs versus taking more of a reactive approach to fixing issues at the end.

The first three steps are intended to compile all relevant information, construct a risk assessment with a ranking of hazards, and identify controls mitigating the hazards. In the subsequent steps, the control systems are identified and evaluated to show they meet the required level of protection necessary for the hazards involved. Any safety critical software (including firmware) aspects of the design need to be properly documented as well. A review of the complete documentation package, plus any required environmental testing (EMC immunity, thermal cycling, etc.), will be conducted to help ensure continuing safe operation per the specific FS standard.

Steps 1-2: Collect Documentation and Review Functionality

The first two steps compile all relevant documents. These include, but are not limited to, schematics, printed circuit board trace layouts, the concept of operations, key performance attributes, block diagrams, piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs), and installation/maintenance/operating instructions. If the product is in the design phase, identifying the major functions and any expected safety functions is considered the starting point. For example, for a robotic vacuum cleaner, one particular safety function might be an “edge detection sensor to prevent a fall down the stairs.”

Step 3: Conduct the Risk Assessment

The Risk assessment (RA) is the key step of any FS evaluation and is shared among any FS assessment. There are many different terms for RAs (a review of these could fill a paper on their own—a few of the common formats include hazard and risk analysis, layers of protection analysis, process hazard analysis, fault tree analysis, etc.), but no matter which format is used, the main attribute is that the RA should identify all hazards the product may present through its lifecycle. A product’s lifecycle may consist of installation, commissioning, normal use, maintenance, decommissioning, and any others as applicable to the product and its intended use.

Once the hazards are identified, they are ranked based on the severity of injury, the frequency of exposure, and the likelihood of occurrence. Some standards and products also include risks of property damage. These ratings will identify which hazards present an unacceptable level of risk and where mitigation means are required.

Any mitigation means should be identified and referenced, along with a notation of whether any of these mitigation means include functional safety aspects. For example, mechanical guarding of a hazard would not be considered an FS mitigation, while providing a light curtain to guard against the same hazard would be considered FS. This is because a stationary mechanical guard does not depend on an electronic, hydraulic, or pneumatic control to provide its safety function, whereas the light curtain depends on sensors and control logic to provide this safety function.

This activity in the RA will also identify if additional risk reduction measures are required to bring the total hazard down to an acceptable level. Hazard levels, acceptable risk, and other aspects of the RA will vary from product to product as influenced by the application. Some references on best practices for conducting an RA are the standards ISO 12100 – Safety of Machinery – General Principles for Design – Risk Assessment and Risk Reduction, or ANSI B11.0 – Safety of Machinery.

The rating of the hazards will directly correlate to the safety level requirements of the FS controls. This should make intuitive sense, as a hazard that will cause a scrape or cut is much different than one that will cause death or permanent injury. It is important to note that the acceptability of injury varies among different products and their intended use. FS controls that mitigate more severe hazards generally need to be designed with higher reliability, and the FS standards may impose other, more stringent requirements on such controls. This will be illustrated through an example in Step 4 below.

In summary, the output of the RA will include the identification of:

  • Hazards and risk rankings
  • Mitigation means
  • Functional safety controls
  • Required performance levels for the FS controls

In Figure 1, two decision trees follow the output of Step 3. The first decision will determine whether the reduction measures sufficiently reduce the hazards:

  • If no, redesign and re-evaluate
  • If yes, then the next decision tree is used to determine if electronic controls are used (i.e., FS controls)

If there are no electronic pneumatic or hydraulic controls, then the system does not contain any FS controls, and the product does not require an FS evaluation. If there are electronic pneumatic or hydraulic controls, then you would move forward with the hardware review in Step 4.

Step 4: Review Hardware Against Requirements

For systems where FS controls are identified as mitigating hazards, the hardware will need to be first evaluated to help ensure it meets the requirements of the standard for the hazard being mitigated. This will vary depending on the end-product safety standard. In essence, the standard will outline a set of requirements for the hardware (and software, discussed in later steps) based on the level of risk involved. Different standards identify these levels of risk with differing terminology, as shown in Table 1.

IEC 61508 Safety Integrity Level SIL 1, 2, 3, 4
IEC 62061 Safety Integrity Level SIL 1, 2, 3
ISO 13849 Performance Level PL a, b, c, d, e
ISO 26262 Automotive Safety Integrity Level ASIL A, B, C, D
UL/IEC 60730 Protective Class Class A, B, C
UL 1998 Software Class Class 1, 2

Table 1: Functional safety standards and their risk level terminology

Let’s consider an example: evaluating a product to ISO 13849 (Safety of Machinery).

From the chart in Table 1, we know this standard uses PLa through PLe ratings for the performance level of controls. A rating of PLa applies to controls mitigating low-risk hazards, up to a rating of PLe for controls mitigating the most severe hazard risks. If the system uses a control where the calculation made during the risk assessment results in a low level of hazard mitigation—say PLa—then it may be acceptable to use a single-channel circuit architecture with lower reliability components. But, if the hazard is more severe, such as shown in Figure 2, a PLd or PLe level of safety will be required. For these higher performance levels, this particular standard will require redundancy, diagnostic coverage, and reduction of common cause failure modes as defined in the standard.

Figure 2: Example of a line item from a risk assessment showing the required performance level of safety control

In this instance, the FS control used (as noted in the “Risk reduction measure taken” column) is an interlock that will mitigate the “medium” level hazard based on this particular RA ranking. The required PL for this hazard is calculated as “PLd,” as shown here. The standard ISO 13849 includes the methodology for this calculation based on S, F, and P (Severity [shown as DPH in Figure 2], Frequency of Exposure, and Possibility of Avoidance). The FS control used is an interlock that will mitigate the “medium” level hazard based on this particular RA ranking.

The rating of each hazard would typically be done as part of the risk assessment, so that during this step the primary task is to review the hardware design to verify it meets the requirements necessary for its performance. The evaluation of hardware may be done by referring to manufacturer reliability data for off‑the-shelf components, conducting failure mode and effect analysis (FMEA) of custom-built components, conducting a SISTEMA review (SISTEMA is a software tool for the application of ISO 13849), or by using other acceptable, industry-recognized methodologies.

The output from this step is documentation showing that the hardware effectively provides the required level of performance for each of the hazards identified.

Step 5: Review Software Against Requirements

The decision tree at the output of the hardware evaluation requires the identification of any software that is used as part of the control systems. If the control is purely hardware, then Step 5 can be skipped. If software is used, most standards include requirements for software documentation, validation, and verification.

In general, the requirements for FS software are based on effective practices in coding, error checking, process documentation, version control, and methods for validation and verification (V&V) at various stages of the development lifecycle. The product development lifecycle V-model is often referenced here to ensure that appropriate V&V for software is conducted at each stage of the design process. Some standards also include requirements for coding techniques, such as defensive coding practices.

The output of this step will be a set of documents showing compliance with the software development process.

Step 6: Compile All Documentation

At this point, all the documentation should be compiled and ready for submission to a third-party certifier, or if self-certifying, taking the next step to incorporate it into a technical data file. Typical documentation includes hardware design documents, schematics, bill of materials, PCB trace layouts, risk assessments, FMEAs, and reliability calculations. Also included in this compilation would be all of the required functional safety management documentation, which varies depending upon the FS standard being used but generally includes system-level specifications, architecture specifications, development plans, safety requirement specifications, design and coding standards, system and module test documentation, integration and validation test plans with test results, the software source code itself, and any other required documents required by the standard.

Steps 7-8: Third-Party Review and Assessment and Testing

If independent third-party certification is used, then the next step of the process is for the certification body to review the submitted documentation package. If all documents have been finished in a complete and consistent manner, the certifier should be able to follow the risk mitigation from start to finish. Certifiers may have questions or send documents back for revision or clarification if any issues are found.

One of the most important takeaways from this activity is to provide traceability: the documentation should provide supporting evidence and a clear rationale for the decisions made.

For example, if a machine presents a risk of injury due to high sound levels, the RA should cite the sound level measurement requirement (such as an OSHA requirement), the measurement made, and any other supporting information that provides a clear understanding of the assessment performed.

As mentioned earlier, functional safety also generally requires operational, thermal, and environmental testing—often specific testing for electromagnetic compatibility (EMC), including impulse and immunity testing. This testing would be conducted at this point in the evaluation.

Step 9: Identify Non-Compliances

Non-compliances discovered during testing or construction review may lead to design changes. These design changes should be further reviewed to determine if any changes are required from the previous risk assessment, hardware, or software requirements. Any changes should be documented and reviewed through the same process flowchart with all necessary updates, and by performing repeat testing and recertification where appropriate.

If no non-compliances are determined, barring further compliance issues, then the FS evaluation is considered complete.


This article provides a high-level overview of the functional safety process, giving readers general guidance help along the certification path, and aid in effective communication and supporting dialog guidance with third-party certification authorities.


  • Failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA)A methodology to identify possible failures in a design, typically applied to hardware to analyze safe or unsafe failures when faults are injected.
  • Hazard—Potential source of harm to persons, property, or the environment. A hazard can be qualified in order to define its origin (e.g., mechanical hazard, electrical hazard) or the nature of the potential harm (e.g., electric shock hazard, cutting hazard, toxic hazard, fire hazard). (ISO 13849-1:2015, 3.1.11)
  • Layers of protection analysis (LOPA)—A methodology for assessing adequacy of protection layers used to mitigate a risk. Includes evaluation of the frequency of potential incidents and the probability of failure of protection layers. Typically used in the process industry. (Handbook of Fire and Explosion Protection, Dennis P. Nolan, 2019).
  • Required performance level (PLr)—The performance level required in order to achieve the required risk reduction for a safety function. (ISO 13849-1:2015, 3.1.24)
  • Risk—Combination of the probability of occurrence of harm and the severity of that harm. (ISO 12100:2010, 3.12)
  • Risk assessment—Overall process comprising risk analysis and risk evaluation (ISO 12100:2010, 3.17). This is a methodology for identifying the risks and hazards of a product or process, the severity of the hazards, any mitigation methods, and may include scoring of functional safety control requirements.
  • Safety function—The function of the machine whose failure can result in an immediate increase of the risk(s). (ISO 12100:2010, 3.30)
  • Safety integrity level (SIL)—Discrete level (one out of a possible four) for specifying the safety requirements of functions in a safety-related system. SIL 4 has the highest level of safety integrity and SIL 1 has the lowest. (IEC 61508‑4:1998, 3.5.6)
  • Safety-related part of a control system (SRP/CS)—The combined safety-related parts of a control system start at the point where the safety-related input signals are initiated (including, for example, the actuating cam and the roller of the position switch) and end at the output of the power control elements (including, for example, the main contacts of a contactor). Also known as an SRCS. (ISO 13849-1:2015, 3.1.1)

Related Articles

Digital Sponsors

Become a Sponsor

Discover new products, review technical whitepapers, read the latest compliance news, trending engineering news, and weekly recall alerts.

Get our email updates

What's New

- From Our Sponsors -

Sign up for the In Compliance Email Newsletter

Discover new products, review technical whitepapers, read the latest compliance news, trending engineering news, and weekly recall alerts.