Understanding the Hierarchy of Controls

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by Rudi Nieuwoudt

Controlling exposures to occupational hazards is the fundamental method of protecting workers. Traditionally, a hierarchy of controls has been used to determine how to implement feasible and effective control solutions. In the event of nonroutine work or emergencies, a control to an exposure could fail, thereby leaving an employee exposed to a hazard. When you layer the controls from top to bottom (most effective to least effective), the redundancies work together to control the hazard in the case anyone control fails. Be sure to follow up on implemented controls to ensure their effectiveness and to help maintain a safe work environment. 

Elimination

The most effective control measure involves eliminating the hazard and its associated risk. The best way to eliminate a hazard is to not introduce the hazard in the first place. For example, you can eliminate the risk of a fall from height by doing the work at ground level. Eliminating hazards can be cheaper and more practical at the design or planning stage of a product, process or workplace. In these early stages, there is more scope to design to eliminate hazards or to include risk control measures that are compatible with the requirements of the original design and function.

Substitution

Substitute the hazard with something safer. For example:

  • use a scourer, mild detergent and hot water instead of caustic cleaners for cleaning
  • use a cordless drill instead of an electric drill if the power cord is in danger of being cut
  • use water-based paints instead of solvent-based paints

Administrative controls

Administrative controls are work methods or procedures designed to minimise exposure to a hazard. In most cases, administrative controls use systems of work to control the risk.  For example:

  • developing procedures on how to operate machinery safely
  • limiting exposure time to a hazardous task
  • using signs to warn people of a hazard

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

PPE refers to anything employees use or wear to minimise risks to their health and safety. PPE includes but is not limited to the following:

  • ear muffs and earplugs
  • goggles
  • respirators
  • face masks
  • hard hats
  • safety harnesses
  • gloves
  • aprons
  • high-visibility clothing
  • protective eyewear
  • body suits
  • safety footwear

Choose the most effective controls

Consider various control options and choose the controls that most effectively eliminate the hazard or, if elimination is not reasonably practicable, minimise the risk in the circumstances. Reducing the risk may involve a single control measure or a combination of different controls that work together to provide the highest level of reasonably practicable protection.

Employer duties

As an employer you have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety act to eliminate risks to health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate risks to health and safety, you must reduce those risks, so far as is reasonably practicable. The hierarchy of controls helps employers fulfill their OHS Act responsibilities. In line with the OHS Act, the hierarchy of control first instructs employers to eliminate hazards and risks. If employers cannot eliminate hazards and risks, then they must work through the hierarchy and select controls that most effectively reduce the risk.