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Understanding the Hierarchy of Controls

David F. Rampone
LHSFNA Management
Co-Chairman
David F. Rampone

The ultimate goal of every safety and health professional is to ensure a safe and healthy work environment by identifying potential hazards, mitigating them and implementing preventive measures to protect workers. This involves continuous monitoring, risk assessments, training and adhering to safety regulations and standards.

There are a variety of tools at our disposal to achieve this goal, and today we’re covering one of the most important: the hierarchy of controls. In this series, we’re doing a deep dive into each control to provide a better understanding of how to best use this system to protect workers. In this introductory article, we’re covering:

  • An overview of the hierarchy of controls
  • The two most effective controls: elimination and substitution

“Creating a culture of safety is key to ensuring that every worker is aware of and committed to maintaining a safe workplace,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chair David F. Rampone. “The hierarchy of controls helps employers and employees make safety a priority in every project.”

What Is the Hierarchy of Controls?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) created the hierarchy of controls to aid employers in choosing the best strategies for hazard prevention. The hierarchy, illustrated as an inverted pyramid, offers a top-down framework that ranks safety measures in order of effectiveness. The hierarchy flows as follows:

  • Elimination: physically removing the hazard
  • Substitution: replacing the hazard
  • Engineering controls: isolating people from the hazard
  • Administrative controls: changing the way people work to avoid the hazard
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE): protecting the worker with proper equipment

The hierarchy is used to identify the most effective way(s) to control hazards and minimize opportunity for injury. Often, a combination of controls will be necessary to properly protect workers, which is known as a layered approach.

Elimination and Substitution

Elimination is the most effective way to protect workers, as it removes the hazard completely. Examples of elimination include:

  • Purchasing equipment that operates more quietly when looking to eliminate exposure to hazardous noise.
  • Ceasing operation of large construction vehicles during extreme winter weather conditions to avoid accidents.
  • Moving elevated work to ground level when possible to avoid opportunities for falls.

Next we have substitution, which involves taking a hazard – whether it be a hazardous situation, chemical, material or piece of equipment – and switching it out with something that doesn’t pose the same risk. When considering a substitute, it’s important to compare its potential risks to the risks of the original hazard; the goal is to reduce risk, not create new ones. Examples of substitution include:

  • Replacing a hazardous chemical with something less toxic.
  • Using lower voltage energy when working with electricity.
  • Simplifying a work process when possible to avoid unnecessary confusion and room for error.

While elimination and substitution are the most effective and protective options, they can be more difficult to implement into existing work processes. It’s easiest to adopt these controls early in a jobsite’s design and can be more difficult once work has begun, as they may involve replacing equipment or disrupting operations. An elimination or substitution may have an immediate cost impact, but if you can eliminate or reduce injuries, you will always save overall.

In the next article, we’ll take a deeper dive into engineering controls. In the meantime, check out these resources for more on keeping your jobsite safe:

  • Request a site visit with our Occupational Safety and Health Division.
  • Check out our publications catalog for a variety of toolbox talks, pamphlets and more that address different occupational hazards.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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