Protecting workers and ensuring workplace safety

Occupational hazards can be managed via risk assessments and the hierarchy of controls. Employers across the globe follow the hierarchy of controls to manage, reduce, and eliminate hazards and risks in the workplace.

In this article, you'll learn the definition of the hierarchy of controls, hazards, and risks within the realm of health and safety, along with examples of safety controls and how to add this specialist skill set to your CV. 

What is the hierarchy of controls?

The hierarchy of controls is a structured framework for ensuring that employees are kept safe at work. The consistent approach means that organisations can select the most effective control measure to either remove or reduce the risk of hazards that have been identified via a risk assessment. 

The hierarchy of controls is a widely accepted model for assessing and controlling occupational hazards by many health and safety organisations, including the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

In order of decreasing effectiveness, the five stages in the hierarchy of controls are:

  • Elimination: physically remove the hazard

  • Substitution: replace the hazard

  • Engineering controls: isolate people from the hazard

  • Administrative controls: change the way people work

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE): protect workers with equipment

Workplaces typically combine all five levels of control for thorough protection.

What is a hazard?

The words “hazard” and “risk” are usually used interchangeably. While they are related, they mean different things - especially in the world of health and safety. 

Regarding the hierarchy of controls, a hazard is a potential for harm or an adverse effect. It could be:

  • An object, e.g. a knife

  • A substance, e.g. a chemical

  • A material, e.g. asbestos

  • A process, e.g. welding

  • A condition, e.g. a dark tunnel

  • A behaviour, e.g. ignoring control measures

  • A practice, e.g. working at a height

Identifying hazards should take place:

  • In the design and implementation phase: Consider potential hazards when creating a new process or acquiring new equipment

  • Before starting tasks: ensure equipment is functioning properly, adhere to established procedures, and evaluate the environment

  • During task execution: monitor for any variations, unusual circumstances, or unexpected emissions

  • During inspections: this includes formal, informal, supervisory, and health and safety committee inspections

  • Following incidents: including close calls, minor incidents, or injuries

What is a risk?

On the other hand, a risk is the likelihood of a person being harmed or suffering adverse health effects if exposed to a hazard.

Once an employer has identified the hazards in the workplace, they must assess the level of risk. This includes reviewing how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how serious it could be. 

Businesses should:

  • Identify individuals or groups who may be at risk of harm and the potential consequences

  • Evaluate current measures in place to manage risk

  • Determine additional steps necessary to effectively control risks

  • Assign responsibility for implementing risk control actions

  • Establish a timeline for completing risk control actions

What are control measures?

Control measures are the steps taken to eliminate or minimise the hazard or risk. They are a key part of a risk assessment that sets out actions that must be followed to safeguard employees and other people in the vicinity.

A structured method for managing hazards and risks is necessary in most workplaces. When determining actions to take, applying the principles of control is important. Control measures are commonly called the hierarchy of control measures – a structured approach to hazard prevention.

Employers should consider existing controls and evaluate whether the hazard can be removed completely and, if not, how can they control the risks to minimise harm.

If additional controls are required, businesses should consider:

  • Revising the job duties and responsibilities

  • Substituting the tools, equipment, or method used

  • Reorganising work tasks to decrease contact with hazardous materials, machinery, or procedures

  • Identifying and implementing necessary safety measures

  • Supplying and enforcing the use of personal protective equipment

Risk assessment obligations in UK law

Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulation 1999 and the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974, employers must protect employees and others from harm. The legislation states that the minimum employers must do is:

  • Identify potential sources of injury or illness in your business operations (hazards)

  • Assess the likelihood and severity of harm by a competent person (the risk)

  • Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn't possible, control the risk

Once the risk assessment is made and hazards identified, the employer must implement a “hierarchy of controls” to prevent employee exposure to harm. 

The 5 levels of the hierarchy of controls

The hierarchy of controls for safety includes five key levels, which are ranked according to their effectiveness. These levels are commonly illustrated using an inverted triangle diagram, with the most effective measures at the top and the least effective at the bottom.

These five stages can be considered protective barriers that safeguard employees from encountering or being affected by work-related hazards.

Inverted pyramid showing hierarchy of controls

1. Elimination

The first principle of the hierarchy of controls is eliminating the hazard or physically removing the hazard. It's the most effective step in the hierarchy of controls because when hazards are eliminated, they can no longer cause harm.

However, it should be noted that elimination is often the most difficult to execute, as it may require significant changes and financial investments in current workplace procedures.

Examples of elimination include: 

  • Removing a hazardous substance from the workplace so that it can no longer pose a risk to employees

  • Positioning goods at lower elevations so that employees don't have to scale heights, therefore decreasing the risk of falling and accidents

  • Reformulating a product to exclude toxic components to eliminate the risk of exposure to harmful substances for both workers and consumers

  • Replacing manual handling of toxic materials with robotic systems to eliminate the direct exposure of workers to harmful substances

2. Substitution

The second level of the control hierarchy is replacing hazards with safer alternatives. It's the second most effective step, if eliminating the hazard is impossible. In many ways, it's the same as the first step, incorporating removal. However, in this particular instance, the hazard is replaced.

Examples of substitution include:

  • Substituting a hazardous chemical with a safer alternative that eliminates the risk of exposure

  • Switching solvent-based paint for water-based paint

  • Replacing manual lifting of heavy objects with conveyor belts or forklifts to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries

  • Using environmentally friendly and non-toxic cleaning agents instead of conventional chemical cleaners

3. Engineering controls

The third stage of the hierarchy of controls is similar to phase two, except it focuses on replacing processes or equipment or even reconfiguring the physical layout of the workplace to isolate employees and minimise exposure to hazards.

Examples of engineering controls include:

  • Discontinuing a work process or activity that is identified as dangerous and replacing it with a safer one

  • Redesigning a process to eliminate the need for employees to work close to a hazardous substance or machine

  • Installing local exhaust ventilation systems to capture and remove airborne contaminants at the source

  • Installing barriers or enclosures around noisy equipment to reduce exposure to excessive noise levels

4. Administrative controls

The fourth principle of the hierarchy of controls focuses on changes to training, procedures, rules, or planning that reduce an individual's exposure to hazards. They are less effective and dependable protection methods than phases one to three, but it's the next line of defence if engineered solutions aren't an option.

Administrative controls are often used in conjunction with other methods, in situations where hazards can't be fully controlled. Organisations often prefer administrative controls because they're generally less expensive. However, these types of measures are often less effective and require a high level of involvement from employees.

Examples of administrative controls include:

  • Establishing and enforcing safety policies and procedures, such as rules for personal protective equipment usage or emergency response plans

  • Assigning specific safety responsibilities to designated individuals or teams within the organisation

  • Implementing a safety incentive programme to encourage safe behaviour among employees

  • Rotating employees through different tasks to minimise prolonged exposure to specific hazards and reduce the risk of ergonomic issues or fatigue

5. Personal protective equipment (PPE)

PPE refers to any equipment or clothing worn by workers to minimise the risk to their health and safety. PPE is considered to be the last resort in the hierarchy of controls, providing the lowest level of protection and the least dependable method of control.

Like administrative controls, PPE is often used with pre-existing processes that haven't completely controlled the hazard. PPE is usually costly and ineffective if worn incorrectly. 

Examples of PPE include:

  • Hard hats

  • Goggles

  • Masks

  • Earplugs

  • Hazmat suits

  • Heat-resistant gloves

Why the hierarchy of controls is important

The hierarchy of controls is a method that helps employers abide by health and safety regulations in UK law. There are many industries and jobs where risk assessments and the hierarchy of controls may seem more important than others, such as roles where toxic chemicals, diseases and illnesses, and heavy machinery are prevalent. However, workplace safety measures are necessary regardless of the profession. There are even specific health and safety rules for the self-employed. 

While the hierarchy of controls is particularly vital in occupations where employees come into regular contact with hazards, it's applicable in every industry to ensure that the workplace is safe for all employees.

How to add health and safety skills to your CV

Health, safety, and environment roles exist, and often vacancies require NEBOSH-qualified candidates. However, a knowledge of health and safety procedures can be desirable in any role, especially in small businesses where processes are still being established.

Here are a few examples of duties and achievements that you might relate to and would find beneficial to add to your CV:

  • Established and maintained safety standards, processes, communications, training, and systems

  • Prepared reports using statistical and other analytical tools, showcasing health and safety issues and successes across the business

  • Completed a regular review of safety systems, including conducting assessments of existing measures and reporting shortfalls and practical solutions

  • Completed thorough and timely risk assessments, identified risks and suggested practical solutions to negate those risks

  • Maintained an understanding of how health and safety legislation can impact organisations 

  • Educated the team on fire safety

Risk management skills

Plenty of risk management skills are desirable in any industry, and you may want to consider adding them to your CV if appropriate. They include:

  • Analytical skills

  • Problem solving skills

  • People management skills

  • Relationship building skills

  • Mitigation strategy development

  • Strategic thinking

Key takeaways

  • The hierarchy of controls is a safety framework that keeps employees safe from illness and injury at work.

  • The five steps of the hierarchy of controls include elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

  • The hierarchy of controls is most important in roles where toxic chemicals, diseases and illnesses, and heavy machinery are prevalent. However, workplace safety measures are necessary regardless of the profession.

The hierarchy of controls is the control measure behind protecting workers and ensuring workplace safety. Whether you're an HSE professional or simply looking to use risk management skills in a new role, submit your CV for a free review to determine if you've done your application justice. 

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