The Hierarchy of Controls is a system used by industry and safety professionals worldwide for one reason; it is effective. It has proven to be one of the best ways to manage safety risk and works for any organization, large or small, regardless of industry.
The National Safety Council first began speaking about a system of controls as a way of protecting workers in the 1950s. They realized that elimination and engineering controls were more effective in reducing injuries than lower-level controls like administrative warnings and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The hierarchy originates from an initiative by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and is a foundational element of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Best Practices for Hazard Prevention and Control.
The Hierarchy of Controls addresses workplace hazards with a step-by-step approach. First, it ranks various risk control measures, which users then apply from the most effective to the least until they have eliminated the hazard or reduced it to a reasonable level.
While some hazard reduction methods try to change employee behavior, the Hierarchy of Controls is effective because of its simplicity and focus on the hazards themselves. Both can reduce workplace injuries, but one is simple to apply, and the other requires a deeper understanding of psychology and social dynamics. For this reason, when employers choose how to address safety concerns in the workplace, the Hierarchy of Controls is the best place to start.
Not all methods used to control risk are created equal; some are more effective than others. The Hierarchy of Controls recognizes that fact and organizes the five hazard controls from the most effective to the least. The five types of controls in descending order of effectiveness are:
Elimination comes in at the top of the list because it is by far the most effective way to address a hazard. It’s simple, if you eliminate the hazard, you also eliminate the risk. For example, instead of an employee getting on a ladder to change a lightbulb, they use a specially made tool designed to change light bulbs from the ground. Another example is an employee who needs to access the roof. Instead of climbing a fixed ladder on the side of the building, they eliminate the risk of falling by taking the elevator instead.
Substitution is the second most effective means to address a hazard. Changing or replacing a process or tool can be challenging, but it is also a great way to eliminate or reduce risk. For example, scaffolding or a mobile elevated work platform, like a scissor lift, could be used instead of an employee working from a ladder. Risk still exists in this scenario, but substitution has dramatically reduced it. Another example is the selection of chemicals. Today, many chemicals on the market produce similar results, but some are less hazardous than others. If you replace your current choice with a less dangerous option, you have just applied the substitution control.
Engineering controls create a physical barrier to isolate people from the hazard, and they are the third most effective measure on the list. An example we are all familiar with are guardrails used to prevent falls. Another example is air conditioning, which isolates us from the adverse effects of heat in our homes and cars.
Administrative controls come in fourth place and are one of the least effective measures for addressing hazards. Administrative controls are the policies and procedures created by management, as well as training programs developed and provided to employees, intended to change the way that workers interact with the known risks in their workplace. For example, a company could create a restricted access zone to prevent unauthorized workers from entering a dangerous work area. Unfortunately, it is easy to miss a sign on the wall saying to keep out or duck under a controlled access line to grab something quickly. Administrative controls do not offer much protection because they require worker compliance and are easily missed, forgotten, and in some cases, disregarded.
Finally, personal protective equipment is the least effective form of control but one of the first that pops into people's minds when discussing workplace safety. While the primary goal of any safety program is to prevent accidents, for PPE to do its job, there must be an accident. An example is a personal fall arrest system consisting of a harness, lanyard, and anchor point. Unfortunately, for this type of fall protection to prove its value, the user must fall, and while it may prevent a fatality, it can still result in an injury. PPE also requires worker compliance and can be easily forgotten or misused. Because of these factors, it is vital to start thinking of PPE as a last line of defense, not as a first choice.
Any company can apply the Hierarchy of Controls during the design phase or when reviewing existing operations. The step-by-step approach is a straightforward method of reducing workplace risk, but you must identify and prioritize the hazards first for it to work. That's where EHS software comes in.
A systematic audit process that is both practical and effective can help to identify hazards, but implementing an audit program is no easy task. For that reason, leaning on EHS software to help identify hazards, determine corrective actions, and track progress is a wise choice.
Additionally, capturing safety issues and concerns from the “shop floor” can help organizations identify hazards before serious injuries or accidents occur. Software can enable this data capture and empower safety leaders to track and trend issues in real time and across locations. The ability to identify subtle correlations in your safety data can be difficult if relying on rigid tools like spreadsheets or “homegrown” systems and nearly impossible if using manual processes. As with audit findings, EHS software also supports collaboration and tracking of corrective actions, closing the loop on safety issues and establishing a cycle of continuous improvement.
When Elimination, Substitution, and Engineering controls aren’t possible, a well-executed safety and compliance training program can help to ensure that workers understand the Administrative controls and expectations for PPE usage. A Learning Management System (LMS) is a critically important tool for delivering and tracking this type of training. When coupled with professionally created training content, an LMS can help to establish consistent and repeatable learning patterns, reduce training time, and increase overall knowledge retention.
Proactively identifying hazards, mitigating risks, and protecting employees is central to Dakota Software’s mission. Our award-winning software products, integrated regulatory database, and hands-on consulting services can help you create safer workplaces and measure the effectiveness of your processes and controls. Check out our library of product demos to learn more.