The Hierarchy of Hazard Control: A Five-Step Process

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A worker wearing a hard hat on a job site talks on a phone and looks at documents on a clipboard.
Every year American companies spend billions of dollars on workers compensation claims, many of which are related to preventable injuries such as falls, slips, trips and misuse of company equipment. Companies are also still battling on-the-job fatalities. According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 5,333 fatal workplace injuries in 2019 (up 2% from the previous year). That equates to 3.5 work fatalities for every 100,000 full-time workers.

Every year American companies spend billions of dollars on workers compensation claims, many of which are related to preventable injuries such as falls, slips, trips and misuse of company equipment. Companies are also still battling on-the-job fatalities. According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 5,333 fatal workplace injuries in 2019 (up 2% from the previous year). That equates to 3.5 work fatalities for every 100,000 full-time workers.

In an effort to address workplace safety, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) began studying workplace safety protocols. According to their findings, the most effective safety measures are those taken by the company that reduce the presence of hazards, while the least effective are those measures taken solely by employees. Because companies bear the highest burden of responsibility, NIOSH rolled out the Prevention through Design (PtD) program to show employers the benefits of a culture of safety and prevention in the workplace.

At the center of the NIOSH plan is a five-tiered approach to occupational hazards that balances responsibility for the company and the employees, which is called the hierarchy of controls.

Hazard Control Hierarchy

The five-tier hierarchy of safety controls from NIOSH reveals several key areas where companies can improve the safety conditions of their workplace and protect employees in the process. Companies must use all five tiers to develop a comprehensive safety plan. Relying too much on any one step can render the plan ineffective and result in devastating consequences.

Following the hazard control hierarchy (also called the hierarchy of controls) leads to safer systems and less exposure to dangerous substances and materials for employees. The hazard control hierarchy contains the five following levels, starting with the most effective and going to the least effective:

1. Elimination

Example: John and Morris run the risk of falling while repairing an overhead light. The company eliminates the safety issue by forcing employees to lower the light to the ground to work on it.

The elimination stage of the hierarchy of controls is by far the most effective, because it removes the risk of incident altogether. NIOSH recommends that employers examine any job or activity that puts employees at risk of injury. During the evaluation, the company seeks to eliminate any aspect of the tasks that put employees at an unacceptable level of risk.

Many companies still struggle with the elimination step, since they only look at the initial costs of making a fundamental change to the operation of the business. Once they discover the long-term savings, both in operational and workers compensation terms, elimination becomes a more viable directive.

2. Substitution

Example: Acme Farms sees many employees suffer health problems due to the use of pesticides with DDT. The farm substitutes an organic pesticide, and the health issues go away.

Much like elimination, substitution seeks to remove the causes of accidents before an incident occurs. The procedure for substitution follows the same guidelines as elimination, but this time the company examines products and chemicals instead of actions.

Substitution meets some resistance from companies for two reasons. First, safer alternatives are sometimes more expensive than their harmful alternatives. Second, they may substitute one product with another that causes the same or similar safety issues. Substitution is a process that requires an investment of time and energy to sample several different alternatives before making a switch.

3. Engineering

Example: Southwest Manufacturing’s employees complain of respiratory and allergy issues from airborne particles on the factory floor. The company installs a vent hood to circulate air and reduce air pollutants inside the factory.

Engineering controls are a compromise tactic between eliminating the problems and leaving them completely unaddressed. Companies use engineering controls to physically separate employees from harmful machines or dangerous working conditions. The company can do so through removing the hazard from the environment or creating a barrier.

Most engineering controls are expensive from the outset, and can lead to further problems in the future. Since the company never addressed the root cause of the hazard, if the control fails, employees may still get injured.

4. Administration

Example: The Riverside Inc. warehouse suffers a series of workplace injuries related to improper operation of forklifts. Company managers begin a thorough retraining and certification program for all operators.

Administrative controls seek to improve workplace safety by creating safer procedures in the workplace. Controls can range from the placement of warning signs throughout a facility to employee training programs and the use of safety tape.

Once companies reach the administrative level, they start to place the onus of workplace safety on staff instead of management, and the results are unpredictable. Warning signs are only effective if employees heed the warning, but many employees choose to ignore safety procedures in order to save time or effort.

5. Personal Protective Equipment

Example: Mike’s Machining uses a press loud enough to damage employee hearing. Mike offers the crew ear protection.

The least effective of all the safety controls is reliance on personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE is any piece of additional equipment such as helmets, gloves, or safety goggles that protect employees from workplace hazards.

Though PPE seems like the most obvious choice to improve safety, the high failure rate makes PPE ineffective for all but the most minor of hazards. A helmet is not going to protect an employee from a falling steel beam, and goggles can only withstand so much force before they break under pressure. PPE is a fine step when taken as part of a larger safety effort but should never be the primary focus of safety controls.

Learn More About Protecting the Workforce

The hierarchy of controls can be an effective system if it’s properly implemented by companies and their employees are willing to work with a safety-first mentality. The onus is on company leadership and safety managers to advocate for stricter safety protocols to be put into place, which is the only way workplace fatalities and injuries can be reduced. For those wanting to be a part of the solution and protect their fellow workers, an online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety (BSOS) from Eastern Kentucky University is a great first step to take.

You will learn to identify and analyze potential workplace hazards, infractions and risks through the BSOS program, allowing you to put the hierarchy of controls into practice. Discover how you can get a comprehensive education from industry-experienced educators and fire and safety professionals who are committed to teaching and preparing you for continued success.

 

Recommended Readings

8 Environmental Health and Safety Careers You Should Consider

How to Conduct a Job Hazard Analysis

Wildfire Smoke Safety

Sources:

CDC, Hierarchy of Controls

CDC, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

CDC, Prevention through Design

Foresight, “2020 Workers Comp Statistics That Reveal Key Focus Areas”

OSHA, Hazard Prevention and Control

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2019