Workplace Hazards and the Hierarchy of Controls

hierarchy of controls

The hierarchy of controls is a risk management tool used around the world to manage workplace hazards. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, (NIOSH) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) use the following flow:

  • Elimination – Physically remove the hazard
  • Substitution – Replace the hazard
  • Engineering controls – Isolate people from the hazard
  • Administrative controls – Change the way people work
  • Personal protective equipment– Protect the worker with PPE

In Australia, Safe Work Australia includes an additional high-level action of:

  • Isolation – whereby we isolate the hazard from people

The Isolation control follows after Elimination and Substitution control measures have been exhausted or ruled out as impractical.

And Engineering Controls are defined as a physical control measure, including a mechanical device or process.

The control methods at the top of the pyramid are potentially more effective and protective than those at the bottom. For this article, we examine the hierarchy of controls to discuss how you can use it to control workplace hazards and prevent injury in your business. 

How Do You Identify Workplace Hazards?

Unfortunately, identifying hazards doesn’t come naturally to all employees, and you can’t hide behind the notion that it’s just “common sense”. Failure to identify and assess your workplace hazards forces you to be reactive, waiting until accidents happen.

You should involve your employees, who often have the best understanding of the conditions that create hazards and insights into how to control them. Train in what constitutes a workplace hazard and determine the most practical and highest level of control you can use, referring to the hierarchy of controls.

The Tap into Safety Platform offers interactive and engaging hazard perception training online and on smart devices. We focus on critical risk and the common workplace hazards that can lead to a fatality or serious injury within industry-specific scenarios. The Platform has substantial out of the box training modules across a range of industry settings. If we don’t have what you need, we also build custom training content. If you’d like to know more, please contact us or click through to try a free online demo.

See our article, Can Employees Recognise, Recall and Report Workplace Hazards?

Hazard Identification Actions You Can Take

Here are some hazard identification and assessment actions you and your employees should do every day:

  • Identify known hazards in the tools and equipment in your workplace.
  • Conduct routine workplace inspections to identify any new hazards that specific work practices create.
  • Investigate any injuries, incidents, illnesses, or near-miss events to identify the underlying hazard, dangerous work practice, or failure in your current safety program.
  • Look for trends in types of injuries and illnesses to identify underlying hazards.
  • Follow up to ensure the controls measures you are using are effective.
  • Encourage hazard reporting and empower employees to immediately fix any hazard when it is safe to do so.

It’s vital to assess the risk associated with each hazard you identify. Using a risk assessment matrix helps to separate hazards into high-risk and lower-risk tasks. From here, you can determine where to focus your efforts. Work through the hierarchy of controls to assign the highest level of control for each hazard that you identify.

See our article, 8 Workplace Hazards That Can Kill.

Unpicking the Hierarchy of Controls

The hierarchy of controls pyramid has six levels. You must always aim to eliminate the risk, which is the most effective control. If this is not reasonably practicable, you must minimise the risk by working through the other alternatives in the hierarchy. Administrative controls and PPE are the least effective at reducing risk because they do not control the hazard at the source and rely on human behaviour and supervision.

  1. Elimination: Is it possible to physically eliminate the hazard? Using this control, the hazard becomes void and therefore, does not expose employees to a risk of injury.
  2. Substitution: Is it possible to replace the hazard, for example, changing the equipment or tools used to perform a hazardous task?
  3. Isolation: Can we isolate or separate the hazard or hazardous work practises from people not involved in the work or the general work areas? For example, by marking off hazardous
    areas, installing screens or barriers.
  4. Engineering Controls: Can we use machinery and devices to remove the hazard? For instance, use mechanical devices such as trolleys or hoists to move heavy loads; place guards around moving parts of machinery; install residual current devices (electrical safety switches); set work rates on a production line to reduce fatigue; install sound dampening measures to reduce exposure to unpleasant or hazardous noise.
  5. Administrative Controls: Is it possible to change the process or the way that employees perform a hazardous task? This type of control is highly dependent on workers following the preventative process, and they remain at risk of a workplace injury.
  6. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Is it possible to provide PPE that will protect employees from the hazard? Relying on PPE to protect your employees is the last line of defence against a workplace injury. Too often, PPE is forgotten, ill-fitting or doesn’t provide the appropriate level of protection.

How to Review Your Control Measures

The Safe Work Australia Model Code of Practice on How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks provides guidelines on how to review your control measures to ensure that they are relevant and keeping your employees safe. Consider the following questions:

  • Are the control measures working effectively in both their design and operation?
  • Are the control measures creating new problems?
  • Are you missing any hazards?
  • Are the new work methods, new equipment or chemicals making the job safer?
  • Are all employees following the safety procedures?
  • Do your employees need more instruction and training on how to work safely?
  • Are your employees actively identifying hazards and possible control measures?
  • Are your employees openly raising health and safety concerns and reporting problems promptly?
  • Are the frequency and severity of health and safety incidents reducing?

When new legislation or new information becomes available, you must audit the control measures to ensure that they remain the most effective.  When you introduce new machinery and equipment, you should check that your processes and control measures remain relevant.

To Conclude

The safety hierarchy of controls pyramid is a systematic workflow to provide the most effective control measure to workplace hazards. The tool is used widely around the world and prescribes a method to always begin with eliminating any hazards that you identify in your workplace.

Where elimination is not practical, you should substitute tools and methods for less hazardous ones, or isolate the task from employees through barriers or screens. Alternatively, you can use engineering controls such as mechanical devices or shut off switches to protect employees from injury.

The top four controls of the hierarchy are the most effective in preventing workplace injury. The two lower-level controls, Administrative controls and PPE are the least effective at minimising risk because they do not control the hazard at the source and rely on human behaviour and supervision.

This article is also available on the Tap into Safety Podcast.

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