The Hierarchy of Safety Controls

Workplace hazards are defined as circumstances that present the possibility of inflicting an injury to a worker. These hazards can be severe or minor, and the odds of producing an injury can range from very likely to remote.

Nevertheless, it is up to each worker, with the assistance and support of supervisors, managers, and safety professionals to determine what those hazards are and how to control them. It is clear that the elimination of all hazards is not possible, so the key to workplace safety success is learning how to control the hazards. 

All too often workers are given an article of personal protective equipment (PPE) and sent on their way.  In this case there are obviously hazards present, but the only control method used is the reliance on PPE. Using a proper hierarchy of controls is a far more effective method of injury prevention. Consider the following steps, in this order:

  • Hazard Elimination: Always the first choice. We know we can’t always eliminate, but if we don’t conduct a job hazard analysis, we might miss opportunities to eliminate hazards.  A common hazard in construction is working at height. If work can be done on the ground level, such as bracing a group of trusses together, then we have eliminated a lot of work that would have taken place at height. The trusses will still have to be set in place, but at least a good portion of the work was done on the ground, thereby eliminating some of the fall hazard.
  • Engineering Controls: As said above, it is often impossible to eliminate all hazards. However, it may be possible to control specific hazards related to each job. For example, if a worker is cutting concrete or brick there will be a lot of dust created. This is a respiratory hazard that must be controlled. Using wet saw methods will eliminate the airborne particulate. The hazard has been controlled with an engineering control. Another example would be the creation of guard rail systems for working at height. The workers are still working above the ground, but are protected by an engineering control.
  • Administrative Controls: Occasionally there is no engineering control that will be effective in completely eliminating a hazard. The next step is to use an administrative control.  These would be written policies, procedures, and proper training.  Often used in conjunction with engineering controls these methods are complimentary, but not as effective as engineered controls. For example, in order to operate a forklift a worker must have proper training and there are best practices that must be followed. This leaves open the possibility of injury due to violation of the rules or training standards.
  • PPE:  Unfortunately, the last choice is often used as the first choice. If the hierarchy is followed as it should, PPE becomes a last effort to protect people. Remember, if the PPE fails, doesn’t fit right, or isn’t worn correctly, the worker will be injured if there are no other controls in place.  

For more information check out the OSHA website, including this link to a handy diagram depicting the proper control hierarchy. The next time you hand an employee a piece of PPE, first ensure you have done everything else possible to prevent an injury.