How to Use the Hierarchy of Controls (Plus Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 16 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The occupational health and safety of its employees is a priority for many organisations. Companies can implement different policies to protect the health and safety of their employees, with one such measure being a hierarchy of safety controls. Understanding what this hierarchy comprises and how to use it can help you establish better measures to protect employee health. In this article, we examine the hierarchy of controls, explain how to implement it, discuss its significance and provide examples of how the hierarchy functions in the workplace.

What is the hierarchy of controls?

The hierarchy of controls is a structural method for keeping employees safe from occupational hazards. Various worldwide safety organisations promote it as the best way to control occupational hazards. The hierarchy outlines five methods of varying effectiveness for controlling occupational hazards and emphasises elimination or substitution of the hazardous object first.

The hierarchy comprises five stages of safety controls. It ranks these five stages by efficacy, using an inverted triangle graph to list the stages from most to least effective. These stages function as defence mechanisms that prevent employees from interacting with or becoming injured by occupational hazards. Here's a list of the stages:

Elimination

Elimination, or physically removing a hazard from a workplace, is the most effective stage of the hierarchy. When a company eliminates or removes hazards from a work environment, those risks no longer have the potential to negatively impact employees. Though it's the most effective stage, elimination is typically the most challenging to implement. It can be costly and require major overhauls of pre-existing workplace processes.

Related: 8 Interview Questions about Safety with Sample Answers

Substitution

Substitution, or replacing a hazardous item or activity with something less hazardous, is the second-most effective stage of safety control. Substitution serves a similar purpose to elimination, as it removes a hazard from the workplace or decreases the potential for that risk to negatively affect employees. If a workplace process is still in its design or development phase, substitution can be an inexpensive and streamlined method for managing a hazard.

Related: 41 Safety Manager Interview Questions (Plus Sample Answers)

Engineering controls

Engineering controls, or designing purposeful solutions that physically separate employees from hazards, is the third-most effective stage of safety control. Many organisations favour engineering controls to remove hazards at the source rather than after employees come into contact with them. While engineering controls can sometimes be costly to implement, they typically result in lower overall operating costs due to the new safety features.

Related: How to Write a Safety Inspector Resume (With Template)

Administrative controls

Administrative controls, or changes to how employees work, is the fourth-most effective stage of safety control. Companies typically employ administrative controls alongside pre-existing processes to further control hazards. Organisations sometimes favour administrative controls due to their low cost, but such initiatives can be less effective and require significant effort on the employees' part.

Related: HAZOP: Definition, Importance and Steps for Implementation

Personal protective equipment

Personal protective equipment refers to the physical equipment that employees use or wear while they work. Such equipment is the fifth and least effective stage of the hierarchy. Like administrative controls, organisations typically use personal protective equipment alongside pre-existing processes that haven't completely controlled the occupational hazard. Using personal protective equipment as a safety control is typically very costly in the long term and can be less effective if employees wear or use it improperly.

Related: What Does a Safety Inspector Do? (With Tips and Skills)

How to implement the hierarchy of controls

Here are some steps that you can take to implement the different safety controls in the hierarchy:

1. Conduct a risk assessment

Start by conducting an assessment of the different workplace hazards and the risks to employees that these hazards can pose. When conducting this assessment, consider talking with employees who spend the most time in that workplace, as they're more familiar with it and can help identify less obvious risks. Rank the risks you identify to determine which are the most hazardous and focus on addressing them.

Related: What Is Risk Assessment and Why Is It Important?

2. Determine the safety controls for each hazard

Next, determine which safety controls you want to use for each hazard. Start with the first stage of the hierarchy and consider each one in sequence to determine whether it can resolve the hazard. Prioritise controls that are higher on the hierarchy, as these may be more effective. If applicable, you can also use multiple control measures to address a single hazard if a single control measure is insufficient.

Related: 5 Tips to Managing Electrical Hazards in the Workplace

3. Brief employees on the control measures

Once you've decided on the controls for each hazard, brief employees to ensure they're familiar with them. You can also gather feedback to determine whether these controls negatively affect the company's operational processes. If they do, consider updating or altering the controls you use. Review the controls regularly to ensure that they remain effective.

Related: What Is a Risk Register? (With 10 Components to Consider)

Significance of the hierarchy

The hierarchy is especially significant in occupations where employees regularly encounter hazards, such as toxic chemicals, air pollutants, diseases and illnesses, structure- or vehicle-related accidents and heavy machinery errors. The hierarchy is an integral part of occupational health and safety efforts that can help organisations reduce the risk of incidents occurring in their workplaces.

Examples of how the hierarchy works

Here are some examples of how organisations can use the hierarchy of controls to protect the occupational health and safety of their employees:

Examples of elimination

Here are a few examples of elimination to review:

  • A manufacturing company that uses a hazardous chemical in its production process can redesign the process to completely remove the usage of this chemical.

  • A cleaning company might redesign its operations to avoid the need for its employees to clean windows from high above the ground. They might do so by implementing the use of long extendable poles to help employees reach high windows from the ground level.

  • A warehousing company might avoid storing products at high levels so that employees can avoid climbing and injuring themselves if they fall.

Examples of substitution

Review these examples of substitution:

  • A window cleaning company might replace a caustic cleaning agent with a non-toxic alternative. This can prevent any injuries or health risks to employees, since they no longer interact with the caustic cleaning agent.

  • A home renovation contractor may replace solvent-based paint that might be toxic under certain circumstances with non-toxic water-based paints. By doing so, the company can eliminate the risk to its employees from the paint.

Examples of engineering controls

Here are some examples of engineering controls:

  • A company may place barriers around fans and other loud machinery. This helps employees limit the risk of experiencing long-term hearing loss.

  • Companies that have factories with high-voltage equipment or weight restrictions for certain equipment, such as lifts, can place barriers to warn employees about these hazards. These warnings can help to remind employees working in these areas to avoid getting too close to the electrical hazards or overloading the equipment with weight restrictions.

Examples of administrative controls

Review these examples of administrative controls:

  • A company could limit the time an employee spends in a hazardous working environment. For example, if a company has a worksite with loud machinery and equipment that can damage hearing, it can impose restrictions to prevent employees from working at the site for more than an hour each day.

  • A company can also limit the time employees get exposed to radiation. They may implement these controls by formalising their operational processes through a written document they can circulate to employees.

Examples of personal protective equipment

Review these examples regarding personal protective equipment:

  • There are many varieties of personal protective equipment that a company can use depending on the risks that different hazards pose. For example, if a workplace has loud machinery and equipment that could pose a risk to the hearing of its employees, a company can issue noise-cancelling earmuffs to employees.

  • Employees in a health care setting, such as a hospital or clinic, might benefit from personal protective equipment that prevents the spread of germs and diseases, such as face masks and gloves.


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