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EHS OutLoud Blog

Controlling the Hazard, Not the Employee

In his newest post, guest blogger and Future Leader in EHS Jason Townsell discusses the hierarchy of controls.

I am often asked what I do for a living. Because the field of health and safety management is mostly unknown to those not within the industry, I have developed a simple and appropriate response: I am in hazard control, which may also be referred to as risk management.

There are typically three hazard control methods that managers may implement: engineering controls, administrative controls and the provision of personal protective equipment. Each of these is effective, but there is a hierarchical approach to their use.

Hierarchy of Controls

The hierarchy of controls is a system that lists the controls in descending order from the most effective to the least. This very important tool provides a listing of the available options for hazard control and also provides the best option for protection.

In the workplace, the best option for hazard control is the utilization of engineering controls. Engineering controls effectively remove or minimize hazards, thus eliminating or reducing the exposure to employees. Well-designed engineering controls can be highly effective in protecting workers and are typically independent of worker interaction, which reduces the potential of malfunction due to improper use.

The initial cost of engineering controls can be higher than the cost of administrative controls or personal protective equipment, which may make them the least used method of control. Over the long term, however, operating costs are frequently lower once the controls are put into place; in addition, maintenance is typically in low demand.

Administrative controls and PPE (in this order) fall lower on the hierarchy as they provide less protection than engineering controls. They both involve the worker adhering to set policies (i.e. following an injury and illness prevention program and/or appropriately wearing PPE) and other types of controls such as worker rotation and medical screening. Administrative controls minimize worker exposure through the provision of policies, procedures and training, but they do not eliminate hazards.

Like administrative controls, the use of PPE does not eliminate hazards but rather attempts to protect workers from the impact of hazardous exposure. Safety experts refer to the use of PPE as the last resort for worker protection. There are several concerns with this approach. First, PPE cannot guarantee employee safety as hazard forces are not completely predictable. Second, for PPE to do its job, it must be worn correctly and under the appropriate circumstances – and there is no guarantee that this will take place (it often does not). Finally, PPE takes a great deal of maintenance and inspection, both of which can be neglected.

Effective Hazard Control

Engineering controls are by far the most effective control available and thus should be the most frequently used. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as hazard control is often addressed by managers taking the path of least resistance (which in business often is the cheapest and easiest path). This usually consists of reminding employees to wear their PPE or by requiring them to read the safety manual and attend required safety training. While these are effective, they do not control the hazard but rather the employee. Hazard control must be concerned with controlling hazards.

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