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The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls

By Kurina Baksh
Published: June 21, 2017 | Last updated: September 19, 2021
Presented by Nektar Data Systems
Key Takeaways

The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls seeks to protect workers by ranking the ways in which hazards can be controlled, providing employers with a framework for reducing the risk to employees.

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Many workplace accidents are entirely preventable. Yet, companies in the United States spend a significant amount of money every year on compensation claims filed by workers. That is a major cost that could be saved with better hazard prevention and control methods.

The hierarchy of hazard controls is a concent that is fundamental to safety management systems. To put it simply, it is a simple ranking for the methods used to control hazards - from the most effective to those that are measures of last resort.

Every effective safety program will abide by this hierarchy and make use of its various components. With that in mind, let's look at the different levels of hazard management and how they can make workplaces safer for everyone who steps foot on them.

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What Is the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls?

The hierarchy of hazard controls is a framework that allows employers and safety professionals to prioritize the most effective hazard control measures.

According to the NIOSH, the hierarchy has five levels in the hierarchy for effective hazard control:

  • Elimination
  • Substitution
  • Engineering controls, including
    • Process control
    • Isolation
    • Ventilation
  • Administrative controls, including:
    • Work practices
    • Education and training
    • Good housekeeping
    • Emergency preparedness
    • Personal hygiene practices and facilities
  • Personal protective equipment

The higher each item is on the list, the more effective it is at controlling workplace hazards.

Let's go over each of them in more detail.

Level 1: Eliminating the Hazard

The best and most effective way to control a hazard is to eliminate it.

This can be achieved by changing the work process so the hazardous task, material, or equipment is no longer required or by physically removing the hazard.

While this is the most effective control method, it is the most difficult one to implement. It is, moreover, impossible for hazards that are inherent to the job itself. No matter how much safer it would be, a carpenter can't avoid using a circular saw, a large warehouse operation can't get rid of its forklifts, and a metal smelting plant can't keep the equipment at a cool temperature.

Hazard elimination is best carried out during the planning a development stage. This requires collaborative thinking. Ideally, this would involve bringing together all the people involved in the job process - from engineers and supervisors to the workers and operators - and discussing the possibility of eliminating hazards with them.

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Level 2: Substitute for a Lesser Risk

Substitution is the second-most-effective method for controlling hazards. Like the name implies, it involves replacing a risky process or piece of equipment with one that poses a lower risk.

In most cases, substitution is more feasible than elimination. It does, however, often involve an additional expense since the safer equipment or materials can be more expensive than their higher-hazard counterparts.

One example of substitution is purchasing chemicals in pellet or crystal form rather than using the same chemical in powder form. While not eliminated entirely, this substitution significantly reduces the risk of exposure through inhalation.

Level 3: Engineering Controls

If a hazard cannot be eliminated or substituted, the next step is to implement engineering controls. Engineering controls are those that involve changes to the design of an equipment or process.

Engineering controls can be further broken down into three basic types:

  • Process controls: Changing the way a job or process is performed, such as using electric motors rather than diesel engines or using vacuum systems instead of brooms.
  • Isolation: Placing a barrier between the employee and the risk, whether it's an enclosure, a machine guard, or a sound-reducing enclosure around noisy machinery
  • Ventilation: Strategically adding and removing air in the work environment to improve air quality and reduce airborne hazards

Level 4: Administrative Controls

If engineering controls cannot be implemented or are insufficient on their own, administrative controls are in order.

Here are some of the various administrative measures that can be used to reduce risks:

  • Safer work practices: Developing and implementing safe work procedures
  • Education and training: Training employees in safe work practices, how to identify and minimize risk, and how to protect themselves and their coworkers
  • Good housekeeping: Routines and practices aimed at keeping the work area clean and preventing hazardous or toxic material from building up
  • Emergency preparedness: Ensuring that all workers know how to respond during an unexpected event, minimizing the severity of the emergency
  • Maintenance programs: Reducing the risks associated with worn or malfunctioning equipment by performing regular inspections and maintenance
  • Personal hygiene practices: Mandating hygienic habits such as hand washing to reduce the risk or spread of contamination

Level 5: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

PPE is considered the last line of defense when it comes to hazards. It is the least effective method of hazard control since it does not actually reduce the risk of an adverse event. Rather, it protects the worker from injury or reduces the severity of the injury in the event of an incident.

While least effective, PPE is nevertheless often required. Unless a hazard has been eliminated, the risks remain and protective equipment can provide workers with an important degree of protection.

Moreover, the effectiveness of the PPE will be increased if it fits properly, provides the right level of protection for the hazards involved in the work task, and is regularly inspected and maintained.

Management Is Responsible for Following the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls

It is the responsibility of management to design jobs safely or redesign them when a hazard is detected.

Management should, therefore, gain a comprehensive understanding of the hierarchy of hazard control to ensure that the most appropriate risk reduction measures are being selected.

Selecting an appropriate control measure involves conducting a risk assessment to evaluate and prioritize the hazards and their risks.

Follow the Hierarchy

Having a safety program in place is a necessity, but it pays to have one that is also strategic. Prioritizing control methods makes the workplace safer, reduces costs, and eliminates waste. The hierarchy of hazard controls gives employers and safety professionals a smarter way to tackle workplace hazards.

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Written by Kurina Baksh

Kurina Baksh is a Health, Safety and Environment Professional from Trinidad and Tobago. As a recent graduate in the field, she is trained to analyze and advise on a wide range of issues related to her area of expertise. Currently, she is an independent consultant who develops public outreach and education programmes for an international clientele. She strongly believes that increasing public outreach and education can promote hazard awareness and ultimately save lives.

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