The hierarchy of safety controls provides a framework—which the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) represents as an inverted pyramid containing five levels—that enables organizations to identify, assess, and control workplace hazards. And there is no shortage of hazards in the construction industry. By leveraging the hierarchy of controls in construction projects, contractors can help prevent workers from sustaining on-site injuries.
In addition to increased safety, companies implementing NIOSH’s hierarchy of controls as a systematic approach to worker safety will likely save on workers’ compensation claims, improve morale, and enhance their institutional reputation.
Let’s take a closer look at the hierarchy of safety controls and examine each of its five components in more detail, noting any practices that your company can implement right now to ensure a safer workplace.
The Hierarchy of Safety Controls: A Detailed Overview
Before exploring the five hazard controls that constitute the hierarchy, it’s important to remember that this hierarchy is approached most effectively as a framework for comprehensive workplace safety. While each control offers guidance for removing or reducing hazards, effectively implementing the hierarchy of controls requires attention to all elements of the safety framework.
Below, we examine each control, note its defining characteristics, and provide a scenario to illustrate how it works in practice.
Control #1: Elimination
Elimination is considered the most effective method used to prevent an injury. Depending on the nature of the hazard, implementing this control can range from simple and inexpensive to challenging and costly. In either case, though, site managers must be able to view their facility or worksite with a fresh perspective. Sometimes, it’s as simple as noticing and removing an obvious hazard. Perhaps you’ve encountered the scenario described below on a job site.
An extension cord snakes across a high-traffic area of the construction site that workers cross and recross throughout the day. It’s an obvious tripping hazard, but the extension cord has stretched across this area for as long as the crew can remember.
Moving the cord eliminates the hazard. This simple implementation reduces the potential for worker injury tremendously and displays an organization’s commitment to team safety.
Control #2: Substitution
Like the elimination control, the next level of the hierarchy — substitution — can effectively rid the worksite of hazardous materials or substances. When implementing this control, however, the hazardous substance or process is replaced with a less hazardous one. When elimination is not possible, substitution can offer significant safety benefits.
A coating needs to be removed during pipe preparation. The chemical currently applied to remove the coating is hazardous and requires a well-ventilated area, personal protective equipment (PPE), and specially trained workers. To implement a substitution safety control solution, the quality team can replace the current coating removal chemical with a less toxic substance that can remove the coating without additional health hazards.
Control #3: Engineering Controls
The next level in the hierarchy of safety controls focuses on engineering controls. These controls are applied to the physical structure of the workplace and administered to eliminate or reduce potential hazards. By constructing a barrier that separates the worker from the hazard, these controls can significantly increase workplace and worker safety.
Roof work presents a common scenario for introducing engineering controls. By applying temporary guardrails to the roof’s perimeter, workers can gain protection from accidental falls and serious injury.
Control #4: Administrative Controls
The fourth level in the hierarchy of safety controls is comprised of administrative controls that should be applied in any comprehensive safety program focused on hazard reduction and elimination. By identifying and changing work processes that create potential hazards, site managers can effectively increase worker safety. Administrative controls often denote policy changes such as increased job training requirements or time limitations for hazard exposure.
A worker is ready to begin a new task on the job site. Before starting the work, though, they must complete a risk assessment illustrating the potentially hazardous areas of the task. The assessment not only explains the potential hazards but also outlines ways that the worker can mitigate risk. In this way, administrative controls can enable the worker to prepare for potential hazards in advance.
Control #5: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Personal protective equipment (PPE) represents the final level in the hierarchy of controls. PPE applies to the worker wearing the equipment and does not effectively remove or reduce the hazard itself. PPE’s ideal application is on worksites where all other safety controls have been exhausted. At this stage, PPE can help reduce risks in those situations that could not be mitigated through elimination, substitution, engineering, or administrative controls.
One familiar example of PPE in the field is the use of hard hats on construction sites. This effective safety implementation reduces risk and harm by protecting workers from injury due to falling objects, debris, or electrical shock. Even when all safety controls have been considered and implemented, accidents can happen. PPE provides risk mitigation for these unavoidable events.
H+M Industrial EPC: Hierarchy of Controls for Capital Projects
The most effective way to leverage the hierarchy of safety controls is to approach their implementation comprehensively. From the top of the pyramid to the bottom, each level of the safety control hierarchy increases your ability to prepare for and mitigate the many risks associated with capital projects.