For other uses, see Fail-safe (disambiguation).

A fail-safe or fail-secure device is one that, in the event of failure, responds in a way that will cause no harm, or at least a minimum of harm, to other devices or danger to personnel.

Fail-safe and fail-secure are similar but distinct concepts. Fail-safe means that a device will not endanger lives or properties when it fails. Fail-secure means that access or data will not fall into the wrong hands in a failure. Sometimes the approaches suggest opposite solutions. For example, if a building catches fire, fail-safe systems would unlock doors to ensure quick escape and allow firefighters inside, while fail-secure would lock doors to prevent unauthorized access to the building.

Significantly, despite popular belief to the contrary,[1] a system's being "fail-safe" means not that failure is impossible/improbable, but rather that the system's design prevents or mitigates unsafe consequences of the system's failure; that is, if and when a "fail-safe" system "fails", it is "safe" or at least no less safe than when it is operating correctly.[2]


Mechanical or physical

  • Aircraft landing on an aircraft carrier increases the throttle to full power at touchdown. If the arresting wires fail to capture the plane, it is able to take off again.[3]
  • Coiling/rolling fire doors that are activated by building alarm systems or local smoke detectors must close automatically when signaled regardless of power. In case of power outage the coiling fire door does not need to close, but must be capable of automatic closing when given a signal from the building alarm systems or smoke detectors. A temperature sensitive fusible link may be employed to hold the fire doors open against gravity or a closing spring. In case of fire, the link melts and releases the doors, and they close.
  • Operation of some airport luggage carts requires that one hold down a given cart's handbrake switch at all times; if the handbrake switch is released, the brake will activate, and assuming that all other portions of the braking system are working properly, the cart will stop. The handbrake-holding requirement thus both operates according to the principles of "fail-safety" and contributes to (but does not necessarily ensure) the fail-security of the system. This is an example of a dead man's switch.
  • Lawnmowers and snow blowers have a hand-closed lever that must be held down at all times. If it is released, it stops the blades or rotors rotation. This is also a dead man's switch.
  • Air brakes on railway trains and air brakes on trucks. The brakes are held in the "off" position by air pressure created in the brake system. Should a brake line split, or a carriage become de-coupled, the air pressure will be lost and the brakes applied. It is impossible to drive a train or truck with a serious leak in the air brake system.
  • Motorized gates — In case of power outage the gate can be pushed open by hand with no crank or key required. However, as this would allow virtually anyone to go through the gate, a fail-secure design is used: In a power outage, the gate can only be opened by a hand crank that is usually kept in a safe area. When such a gate provides vehicle access to homes, a fail-safe design is used, where the door opens to allow fire department access.
  • During early Apollo program missions to the Moon, the spacecraft was put on a free return trajectory — if the engines had failed at lunar orbit insertion, the craft would have safely coasted back to Earth.
  • Elevator cabins have a safety mechanism that wedges securely onto the guide rails to arrest a fall if the hoist cables were to fail.
  • Various devices that operate with fluids use fuses or valves as a fail-safe mechanism.
  • A railway semaphore signal is designed so that should the cable controlling the signal break, the arm returns to the "danger" position, preventing any trains passing the inoperative signal.
  • On diving watches, the rotating bezel used to measure dive time has a ratchet and can only be turned counter-clockwise. If the bezel is inadvertently rotated during the dive, it will give a false reading of increased time spent below.[4] This protects the diver from underestimating their decompression obligation, which could cause decompression sickness.

Electrical or electronic

  • Many devices are protected from short circuit with fuses. The destruction of the fuse will prevent destruction of the device.
  • Avionics using redundant systems to perform the same computation using three different systems. Different results indicate a fault in the system.
  • Traffic light controllers use a Conflict Monitor Unit to detect faults or conflicting signals and switch an intersection to all flashing red, rather than displaying potentially dangerous conflicting signals, e.g. showing green in all directions.[5]
  • The automatic protection of programs and/or processing systems when a computer hardware or software failure is detected in a computer system. A classic example is a watchdog timer. See fail-safe (computer).
  • A control operation or function that prevents improper system functioning or catastrophic degradation in the event of circuit malfunction or operator error; for example, the failsafe track circuit used to control railway block signals.
  • The iron pellet ballast on the Bathyscaphe is dropped to allow the submarine to ascend. The ballast is held in place by electromagnets. If electrical power fails, the ballast is released, and the submarine then ascends to safety.
  • Inside a modern CPU are features to prevent damage through overheating. In the event of cooling failure, the CPU will throttle then shut down beyond a critical temperature threshold to avoid damage.
  • In industrial automation, alarm signals are usually "normally closed" (or active at 0). This insures that in case of a wire break the alarm will be triggered. If the signal were normally open, no wire failure would be detected.
  • In control systems, critically important signals can be carried by a complementary pair of wires ( and ). Only states where the two signals are opposite (one is high, the other low) are valid. If both are high or both are low the control system knows that something is wrong with the sensor or connecting wiring. Simple failure modes (dead sensor, cut/unplugged wires) are thereby detected. An example would be a control system reading both the NO and NC poles of a SPDT selector switch against common, and checking them for coherency before reacting to the input.
  • In HVAC control systems, actuators that control dampers and valves may be fail-safe, for example, to prevent coils from freezing or rooms from overheating. Older pneumatic actuators were inherently fail-safe since if the air pressure against the internal diaphragm failed, the built-in spring would push the actuator to its home position. Newer electrical/electronic actuators need additional components (springs or capacitors) to automatically drive the actuator to home position upon loss of electrical power.[6]


As well as physical devices and systems fail-safe procedures can be created so that if a procedure is not carried out or carried out incorrectly no dangerous action results. For example:

  • In railway signalling signals which are not in active use for a train are required to be kept in the 'danger' position. The default position of every signal is therefore "danger", and therefore a positive action — setting signals to "clear" — is required before a train may pass. This practice also ensures that, in case of a fault in the signalling system, an incapacitated signalman, or the unexpected entry of a train, that a train will never be shown an erroneous "clear" signal.
  • Train drivers are instructed that a railway signal showing a confusing, contradictory or unfamiliar aspect (for example a colour light signal that has suffered an electrical failure and is showing no light at all) must be treated as showing "danger". In this way, the driver contributes to the fail-safety of the system.

Other terminology

Fail-safe (foolproof) devices are also known as poka-yoke devices. Poka-yoke, a Japanese term, was coined by Shigeo Shingo, a quality expert.[7][8] "Safe to fail" refers to civil engineering designs such as the Room for the River project in Netherlands and the Thames Estuary 2100 Plan[9][10] which incorporate flexible adaptation strategies or climate change adaption which provide for, and limit damage, should extreme events such as 500 year floods occur.[11]

See also