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A Primer on Administrative Controls

By Daniel Clark
Published: October 19, 2022
Key Takeaways

When implemented well, administrative controls will influence worker behavior in ways that limit their exposure to hazards.

Caption: Safety sign in warehouse Source: Thaspol / iStock

Once you've identified a hazard in your workplace, you'll need to implement controls to protect workers from it.

If you can't eliminate it entirely or substitute it for something less hazardous, your next step is to place a barrier between the hazard and the workers who might come in contact with it.

Some of those barriers are physical, and are known as engineering controls. They're the ones you picture when you hear the word "barrier" - machine guards, guardrails, enclosures.

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Others rely on knowledge and worker behavior. Those are administrative controls. And while they're not the types of barriers that immediately come to mind when you hear the words, they do create a separation between workers and the hazards around them.

In this article, we'll give you a rundown of administrative controls, what they are, and which types you might need to make your workplace safer.

How Do We Define Administrative Controls?

If you look for a definition of administrative controls, you're likely to run into a problem. Instead of a clear breakdown of the concept, you'll be presented with a list of examples.

That might give you a rough and ready idea of what type of controls we're talking about, but it puts the onus on you to figure out what they all have in common.

Not exactly helpful.

I've heard administrative controls defined as "controls related to documents." That's a bit better, but it's only part of the definition.

A better working definition would be: "the implementation of rules that govern behaviors as a means of limiting exposure to hazards."

A bit of a mouthful, perhaps. But it covers things like alarms and signage, which count as administrative controls despite not being "documents."

The Place of Administrative Controls in the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls

The hierarchy of hazard controls is an ordered list of hazard control methods, ranked from most effective to least:

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  1. Elimination
  2. Substitution
  3. Engineering controls
  4. Administrative controls
  5. Personal protective equipment (PPE)

As you can see, administrative controls are low on the list - just below engineering controls but still preferable to PPE alone.

That's because they rely on conscious decisions, understanding, and consistent behavior in workers, which makes them fallible. Some effort is needed to continually reinforce the knowledge and enforce its application.

That makes them less reliable than engineering controls, which are somewhat foolproof. If a worker forgets about the guardrail behind them, it can still prevent them from falling off the edge. If a worker isn't paying attention to a safety sign, however, it won't be able to protect them.

Despite this, they are still superior to using relying only on PPE. That's because administrative controls can prevent incidents altogether, while PPE generally only lessens their impact.

(Learn about the 6 Personal Protective Equipment Guidelines Every Employee Should Know)

Categories of Administrative Controls

Below are a few of the general categories of administrative controls, and an explanation of how they work.

Policies and Procedures

Rules, policies, and procedures bring the behavior of workers in line with practices that are known to be safe and reduce risk.

All workers must abide by the policies and procedures for them to be effective, and they must be knowledgeably developed in the first place. Each should be updated and reviewed on a consistent basis to make sure they continue to be suitable and adequately control known hazards.

Example: Safe work practices for the proper use of equipment.

Alarms and Warnings

While alarms and warnings might feel like engineering solutions, they are usually counted as administrative controls because they indicate a behavior to a worker.

Instead of removing the hazard, alarms and warnings get the attention of workers and indicate the presence of a hazard using flashing lights or alarm sounds. In most cases, the alarm has some defined response (e.g. "get out of the way").

Example: The backup alarm on a truck, indicating to workers that the vehicle is reverse and that they should move away from the area.

Training

Requiring job-specific qualifications for each role is a form of administrative control because, again, it relies on changing worker behavior to reduce their exposure to hazards.

In theory, workers with a clear understanding of the hazards they might encounter on the job are better equipped to protect themselves. They are also armed with an understanding of practices that reduce the likelihood of an incident.

Example: Standard training courses for machine operators, or WHMIS/GHS training for chemical hazards.

Scheduling

Scheduling is often used to mitigate the hazards posed by excessively long work hours, fatigue, repetitive motion, and inattention.

When work is done in environments that may have hazardous conditions like excessively hot or cold weather, it is important to create schedules that permit appropriate breaks and downtime to avoid injury and illness, or just basic burnout.

Example: Scheduling outdoor work early in the day, before temperatures climb and increase the risk of heat stress.

(Find out How to Handle Heat Stress on the Construction Site)

Spotters and Signalers

Powered mobile equipment is usually guided through worksites by spotters. The spotter is a separate employee who is trained in performing the task, positions themselves so they can see obstacles the operator might miss, and uses signals to help them safely navigate past them.

The signals and signs used by spotters are pre-determined so both parties readily understand their meaning. Since these signs are useless unless they have a clear and shared meaning, this type of control requires training for both parties.

Example: A spotter signalling to a forklift operator if they are getting too close to the edge of a ramp.

(Learn The Basics of Forklift and Heavy Equipment Training)

Signage

Safety signs remind workers of an established rule or draws their attention to a hazard.

Signs can provide reminders of information workers have learned in training or attempt to combat complacency by providing basic warnings. In many cases, no additional training is required since the sign itself provides the relevant information. We see this in signage used by road work or construction that takes place in public areas, where members of the public can observe the statements on the sign without any additional instruction.

Example: A "Restricted Area" sing indicating that access to an area requires permission or the satisfaction of some condition (like wearing adequate PPE).

Conclusion

On their own, administrative controls are rarely adequate, since they rely too heavily on attention and consistent behavior on the part of workers. Even signs and alarms have their limits. There is a known condition called "sing blindness," and it sets in quickly. It doesn't take long for a worker to stop registering the signs around them.

This doesn't mean administrative controls are ineffective. They are a useful and important component of workplace safety. It simply means that they have to be implemented properly, with sustained, continuous efforts and with reinforcement from other control methods.

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Written by Daniel Clark

Profile Picture of Daniel Clark

Daniel Clark is the founder and President of Clark Health and Safety Ltd., providing safety and quality consultation across various industries in Calgary, Alberta. Daniel has a Bachelor of Science degree, certification in health and safety, certificates in both CAD design and CNC, auditing certifications and the designation of Canadian Registered Safety Professional. Being raised and practicing in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s energy industry, most of Daniel’s career has been energy related. He has performed safety and quality roles from field supervision to office-based administration and management. Daniel’s consulting business has worked with organizations offering engineering services, restoration, pipeline, environmental, manufacturing and food service.

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