Workplace Safety Blog Post

The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls

Many employers turn to personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep workers safe around hazards. Safety glasses prevent flying debris from injuring workers’ eyes, safety gloves protect employees’ hands from chemicals and fire-resistant clothing protects those who work close to flames or hot objects.

hazard control, PPE
PPE should be the last line of defense between an employee and a hazard.

PPE should actually be the last line of defense against workplace hazards, though. Dangers in the workplace can be avoided with PPE, but usually PPE is the least effective way to prevent accidents. A hierarchy of controls exists explaining what steps an employer should take to deal with a hazard before turning to protective gear. In this post we will take a look at these measures and evaluate which are the most practical options.

The Levels of the Pyramid

Sometimes referred to as a pyramid, the hierarchy of hazard controls has four levels. The bottom levels tend to be the least effective, while the top levels are the most effective. Employers should begin at the top of the pyramid and work their way down when trying to reduce hazards.

hierarchy of hazard controls
The pyramid of hazard controls emphasizes eliminating hazards at the source. Image: OSHA

The top level of the hierarchy is elimination, which is when a hazard is completely taken out of the workplace. For example, if a workstation causes ergonomic problems for employees, removing that workstation entirely and developing a new process would eliminate the hazard. Substitution can often take the danger of a hazard out of the equation completely, too. A common example of substitution is using a less toxic chemical in place of the one currently in use, which is often easy to do with cleaning chemicals.

Engineering controls, which are the third level of the hierarchy, are a common way to reduce the risk of a hazard. Sometimes an engineering control like redesigning a workstation can remove a hazard, while other times these controls place a barrier between employees and the danger in question, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Machine guards that prevent a worker from reaching into a machine while it’s moving are an example of a frequently used engineering control.

The fourth level of the hierarchy is administrative controls, which deal specifically with the people working in hazardous areas. Administrative controls generally relate to workplace rules and safety procedures. For example, if a task involves a lot of heavy lifting or repetitive motion, a company might rotate employees after a certain period of time so everyone gets a break to stretch and allow the body to recover.

Finally, at the bottom of the hierarchy is PPE, which is often used in conjunction with other control measures listed above. In many cases, a hazard cannot be eliminated or adequately controlled with elimination, substitution, engineering controls and administrative controls, and in those cases it is appropriate to provide employees with PPE and instructions in how and when to use it. If we take the example above about switching from a hazardous cleaning chemical to a less dangerous one, it’s possible the new chemicals could still irritate the skin. In this case, employees can still wear gloves to protect themselves. Combined, these strategies would reduce the hazard enough for employees to work safely and avoid accidents.

These safety measures apply to any workplace hazard, not just obvious ones like dangerous machinery or chemicals. Hazard controls can be used to reduce the noise level in the workplace, prevent pedestrians from being struck by vehicles or equipment, eliminate exposure to gases that might cause lung damage and stop lifting injuries. If your workplace has hazards, start thinking about how controls can be implemented most effectively in your facility.

Ease of Implementation and Cost

Most employers want to find a solution that balances safety and the bottom line, since implementing new safety measures can be costly. It’s important to not jump to conclusions and assume the option that is the least expensive up front will be the best bet in the long term, though. Paying more for a safety program and safety measures initially can actually save the company money over time (not to mention prevent costly accidents!).

If you look at the top of the hierarchy, control measures may be more expensive up front. Significantly changing an existing process can be difficult to do, according to NIOSH. Adopting new machinery, for example, requires a lot of time and effort. It’s also not cheap. Extra time would need to be spent removing old equipment and installing new equipment, and if the facility runs all day and night, operations might have to be shut down while the changes happen. Consider, though, that these controls are the most effective way to prevent accidents—if your facility experiences many accidents, those costs do add up—and once they are installed they can be relatively inexpensive to maintain.

engineering control
Machine guards are an engineering control that prevent an employee from reaching inside a dangerous machine. Image: OSHA

In the middle of the hierarchy we have engineering controls, which many facilities consider a good option for accident prevention. While these controls still tend to cost a fair amount of money, they do prove very effective. If your company decides to implement machine guards on existing machines, hazards will be significantly reduced and machines won’t need to be completely replaced. This option tends to provide a good balance of cost and safety.

Administrative controls and PPE can be cheaper to implement than any of the other controls, but they are also the least reliable methods of preventing accidents and injuries. This is because the hazards still exist, and you have to depend on employees to follow instructions properly. If you require employees to wear hearing protection because of loud machinery, it’s possible employees may not always wear the PPE because they find it uncomfortable or they struggle to hear others when they wear it. If employees are supposed to stop and take stretch breaks every so often, managers may struggle to evaluate whether these breaks are actually happening as often as they should.

In both of these examples, making sure employees comply with rules can take time and effort. If accidents occur as a result of ineffective administrative controls and PPE, the overall cost of your program might not end up being as inexpensive as you would like.

A Focus on Hazard Controls

hazard controls
You and your employees can learn to assess hazards with proper training.

In 2007, NIOSH began the Prevention through Design (PtD) initiative to emphasize and educate about the importance of “designing out” hazards from processes in the workplace. The initiative encourages businesses to find ways to eliminate hazards at the source. As part of the initiative, NIOSH has also focused on making PtD a part of undergraduate engineering programs.

NIOSH’s efforts to design work processes that are less dangerous demonstrate the importance of focusing on eliminating and reducing as many workplace hazards as possible. Using methods like elimination and substitution instead of solely relying on PPE or administrative controls has proven most effective at reducing the number of accidents in the workplace.

When businesses are implementing new processes, elimination and substitution are much easier to use because safer choices can be made during the initial design process. Retrofitting old machinery and adjusting old processes can be more difficult, and employers should assess what the safest and most cost-effective methods (in the long run) will be for their operations.

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