“Safety first!” is preached in any workplace or industry with hazards

Keeping workers safe is vital to creating a healthy work environment. Any manager who supervises a team assumes the responsibility of ensuring that risks are limited and kept under control. 

One of the most well-established systems for helping organizations to control risks and occupational hazards is called the “hierarchy of controls.” It's so well-established, in fact, that it's promoted by various worldwide safety organizations, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the CDC, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)  

In essence, it's a risk control hierarchy based on a series of control mechanisms to be performed in a specific order, prioritized by how effective each step is at controlling risk - a hierarchy of controls.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at the hierarchy of controls, some of the benefits of using it, and some examples of how it works.

What are the 5 stages in the hierarchy of controls?

The phrase "hierarchy of controls" refers to a system that can be used to help individuals and organizations to control risks. It's a series of 5 stages that should be taken in order: 

  1. Elimination: remove the hazard

  2. Substitution: replace the source of the hazard

  3. Engineering controls: change the workplace

  4. Administrative controls: change the way work is done

  5. Personal protective equipment: protect the workers as best you can


Elimination means to remove the hazard entirely from the workplace, at the source. For example, if there's a dangerous machine in the workplace, it would be eliminated by removing it from the premises. It could also mean changing the work process to stop using a toxic chemical.  Elimination is the best way to control a hazard, because no exposure to workers can occur. It should always be the first step considered.


Substitution involves replacing the source of the hazard with a less hazardous alternative. 

One example would be swapping out toxic solvents for plant-based solutions. Another would be replacing a machine that emits harmful fumes or makes incredible noise with a newer machine that doesn't carry those risks.

Whenever considering a substitute, it's critical to examine the potential risks of the alternative, especially how the substitute will work with other materials or systems in the workplace. The goal, after all, is to not create new risks.

Even though they are the most effective steps in the process, elimination and substitution can also be the most difficult steps to enact in an existing process. These steps can be ideally used during the design or development stage of a workflow. For example, elimination and substitution are very effective when selecting new equipment or procedures. 

Engineering controls

Engineering controls involve physical changes to the workplace in order to make it safer, by working to prevent hazards from coming into contact with workers. For example, this can mean modifying equipment or a workspace, such as installing protective barriers, upgrading ventilation systems, designing sound-proof enclosures for work areas, or even revising floor plans to increase safety. 

For more examples, and their demonstrated effectiveness, the NIOSH Engineering Controls Database lists examples of published engineering control research findings.

Engineering controls can cost more upfront than administrative controls or PPE. The long-term operating costs, however, are usually lower.

Administrative controls

Administrative controls involve changing the way that work is done in order to make it safer. This often means adjusting the duration, frequency, or intensity of exposure to hazards. For example, implementing changes in work rotations, break times, and work time near, or access to, hazardous material or equipment are all administrative controls. It can also mean introducing new employee training courses, restructuring management hierarchies, or improving team oversight to ensure that employees stay safe. 

Another example of administrative controls is in the event of physical security breaches in an office. Where eliminating the risk or staff rotations aren't viable options, implementing access badges, medical requirements or security protocols are the proper administrative controls available for the scenario.

Personal protective equipment

Personal protective equipment is the last line of defense against a hazard and should only be used when all other measures have been exhausted. 

In recent years, we've all been familiarized with PPE as we've had to wear masks to work, the store, or the doctor.  Basically, PPE is any equipment worn to minimize exposure to a hazard. Gloves, safety goggles, masks, respirators, and hearing protection are all PPE. In cases where the work environment is bringing employees near exposure to hazards, employers should provide PPE and implement PPE guidelines. 

PPE can be effective, but only when workers use it correctly and when other protective measures are in place. PPE might seem to be less expensive upfront, but can actually be quite costly over time. 

How does the hierarchy of controls work?

When using the hierarchy of controls, it's important to remember that each step should be taken in order from top to bottom, 1 through 5. The steps can either be taken in reality, by physically implementing the measure and assessing its effectiveness as it goes, or virtually, by running virtual risk-assessment testing scenarios. 

This system is, of course, not foolproof, but following these steps can help to reduce the risks associated with many hazards. The system is designed to be used in conjunction with other risk management tools and techniques, can be customized to fit the specific needs of the business, and can be applied to any area where risk management is important.

What are the benefits of using the hierarchy of controls?

The hierarchy of controls is not a silver bullet solution to all risk management problems, but it can be a useful tool in many situations.

As a system, it provides a highly effective framework that helps individuals and organizations to identify, assess, and manage risk. By layering control measures in a top-down hierarchy, it enables teams to prioritize both risks and the steps to address those risks. 

Prioritizing those measures ensures that a team considers all possibilities for mitigating hazards and the potential consequences of any measures. For instance, if eliminating a hazard - like not using a particular machine - is not an option, you can move down the list, step-by-step, to find the option that does work. 

It also allows for the measure to be implemented and then assessed in action, before moving on to measures that might be easier to implement but will undoubtedly be less effective. Before asking employees to accept a certain amount of risk, it can be helpful to have processed the viability of more consequential measures.

The bottom line

As you progress down the the hierarchy, there is an inverse shift between time and proximity. The higher up the list a step is, the earlier it comes in the planning process and the further away the worker is from the hazard. That means that there's still time to either eliminate risk completely or swap out equipment to keep workers out of the safety process altogether.

The lower on the list a step is, the later in the planning phase the measure is implemented and the closer the workers remain to the hazard. The goals shift to simply protecting the workers from potential harm as best as possible.

Ultimately, you'll likely need a combination of control methods (such as engineering controls plus administrative controls) to provide the best level of protection. But if you implement the measures early enough and can train staff well enough, the hierarchy of controls is the best path to keeping your workplace safe. 

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