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Understanding the Hierarchy of Controls

Posted by Clarion Safety Systems on 14th Nov 2019

Hierarchy of Safety Controls

A Deep Dive into the Hierarchy of Controls

Nearly every workplace and every piece of equipment has some level of risk or safety issue associated with it. The hierarchy of controls, also commonly referred to as the hierarchy of hazard control or hierarchy of safety controls, is a system used in both environmental health and safety and product safety to minimize or eliminate exposure to hazards. Take a deep dive with us into the hierarchy of controls, and learn how you can apply it to your facility or products in order to increase safety and reduce risk.

The Development of the Hierarchy of Controls
The hierarchy of controls has been incorporated into or referenced in many different standards and regulations over the last few decades including the likes of OSHA, the ISO 45001 standard for workplace safety, and risk assessment standards like ISO 12100, ANSI Z10 and ANSI B11. The idea is to have a common structure to provide guidance when controlling risk.

This widely accepted system is promoted by many different safety organizations. As one example when it comes to workplaces, the hierarchy of controls is part of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Prevention through Design initiative that aims to prevent or reduce occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities through the inclusion of prevention considerations. As another example from the product safety and liability realm, the premise of the product risk assessment process is that potential risks must be identified, and then a determination needs to be made as to whether they’re designed out, guarded or warned about; the hierarchy of controls is typically applied following an initial product risk assessment.

Hierarchy Overview
There are different ways to represent the hierarchy, but it’s most commonly presented as an inverted triangle with layers; the main idea is that each layer in the hierarchy has a level of effectiveness, and as you go down the hierarchy, the reliability and effectiveness decrease. The control methods at the top of the triangle are potentially more effective and protective than those at the bottom.

The Layers of the Hierarchy – From Elimination to PPE
There are five main levels to the hierarchy. From top to bottom, which are commonly referred to as elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment. Let’s take a closer look at each tier.

  • Eliminating the Hazard
    The initial tier of the hierarchy is eliminating as much unnecessary risk as possible. One of the best ways to do this is through designs built with safety in mind, also known as “prevention through design.” Examples include hazards involving user contact areas, electrical components, hydraulics, mechanics, stability and ergonomics. In workplaces, company leaders should make themselves aware of some of the most common hazards to their specific industries and work environments. That way, they have a better idea of which designs to focus on the most. Additionally, it’s not a bad idea for company leaders to educate themselves on old hazard substitution and elimination methods and their specific failure modes. Understanding why something failed helps to better prevent those same failings in present and future prevention methods.
  • Substitution with Less Hazardous Materials, Processes, Operations or Equipment
    As for substitution, materials and processes also help to protect workers and reduce risk. Some metals and other materials are known to be toxic. By switching to a different, safer material, there’s less risk of someone needlessly harming her/himself or contracting a disease, for example. One thing to bear in mind with substitution is that there’s a difference between reducing and completely eliminating a risk. Another consideration is that a substitution can create a new, unforeseen hazard. Closely monitoring the effectiveness and safety of new processes and materials helps identify failure modes.
  • Use Engineering Controls
    With engineering controls, the goal is to put safeguards in place such as guards, scanners or fences. When used properly, hazards are reduced and danger zones become less accessible, better preventing injuries.
  • Use Administrative Controls
    Administrative controls can consist of several types of measures. Training is an essential component, as the only way to reduce the level of risk is by knowing the proper way to use equipment and machines. Standard operating procedures is another type. With it, the aim is to have safety measures that make workers aware of potential risks and take action on them, such as thoroughly inspecting company vehicles and reporting any issues. Warnings and instructions (such as safety labels) and safety signs are another type.
  • Provide and Ensure Use of Adequate PPE
    Personal protective equipment (PPE) keeps employees protected through safety equipment. Examples include earplugs, safety goggles, hardhats, safety vests and fire-retardant clothing. What’s unique about PPE is that it’s widely used, but it also falls to the bottom of the overall hierarchy. This is because of the number of issues unique and inherent in PPE. For example, vests and other protective items of clothing may not fit an employee correctly, or the equipment may not be maintained the right way, which can make it all but useless. Going back to the importance of administrative controls, employees should be properly trained on how to use PPE to ensure overall effectiveness.

Applying the Hierarchy of Controls
Although eliminating the hazard – whether in your workplace or as part of your product – is the ultimate goal, it can be difficult and is not always possible. By making good use of the hierarchy and control measures, companies can take steps towards safety and risk reduction.

When applying the hierarchy, it’s important to understand how it’s connected – and how it can be viewed from a big picture to increase safety. For example, for hazards that can’t be eliminated, the last three risk reduction techniques (engineering controls, administrative controls and PPE) are often used in combination with each other. In this way, today’s best practice safety labels, signs and tags reinforce engineering controls, training and the use of PPE.

There’s no doubt that it can take some time to fully and properly implement the hierarchy, but there’s also no doubt that doing so is bound to pay off in the long run. After the initial implementation period, it’s essential to have continual follow-up to ensure controls remain effective.

Do you feel your products or work environment are lacking in safety prevention controls? Or maybe you need some help with implementing the hierarchy of controls. Either way, help is close at hand. Feel free to reach out to us here at Clarion Safety for any questions you may have. We’re your partner to maximize safety and minimize risk – and are ready to work together with you on your risk assessment or safety projects.

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