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August 12, 2020

The 5 levels of hazard control

Scott Rief

In the safety world, our top priority is protecting people from hazards in the workplace. There are many ways that safety is addressed at work including the use of safety committees, written safety programs, and employee training. Protecting employees ultimately boils down to controlling hazards. The Hierarchy of Controls model can help you address safety at the most fundamental levels. The model looks at hazard control through a tiered lens broken down into five different levels. Those levels are:

  1. Elimination of hazards

  2. Substitution of hazards

  3. Engineering controls

  4. Administrative controls

  5. Personal protective equipment (PPE)

NIOSH and the CDC use the pyramid below to illustrate the Hierarchy of Controls. The descriptions below provide more insight into each of the levels.

  1. Elimination
    Elimination is the most effective method of hazard control. At the elimination level, we take a look at how we can completely remove the hazard. For example, there may be a damaged extension cord with exposed wiring in use at a jobsite. Upon discovery, we immediately unplug the cord, remove it from service and cut the plug ends off to prevent any future use. You can see from this example how elimination is the most effective level of the model. The extension cord has been removed from service and the potential for it to cause an injury has been reduced to zero.

  2. Substitution
    With substitution, we look at finding alternatives to a current hazardous process or material. For example, if we were able to replace a hazardous chemical with another chemical or process that is safer but does the same job. Substitution is the second most effective method of hazard control.

  3. Engineering Controls
    Engineering controls are physical barriers that are put in place to isolate people from hazards. An example of an engineering control is installing guardrails to prevent employees from falling from an elevated surface. Engineering controls can come with a higher price tag than some of the other levels but can be a very effective way of protecting employees.

  4. Administrative Controls
    When we talk about administrative controls, we are looking at changing the way that people work. This can be achieved through making changes to policies, posting signage on procedures, and training employees. The biggest challenge at this level of the model is that the success of implementing administrative controls is dependent on employees following the rules. The introduction of this human element demonstrates how the levels become less effective as we move toward the bottom of the pyramid.

  5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
    PPE is considered the least effective hazard control in the model. With that being said, PPE still plays an important role in day-to-day safety and should not be dismissed as ineffective. PPE protects us from many hazards in the workplace such as cuts, head injuries, and breathing in hazardous materials. It is important to keep in mind; however, that PPE cannot prevent every injury. For example, an employee performing work on a highway can still be struck despite having a high-visibility vest on.

Effective use
How can we effectively use the Hierarchy of Controls to protect our employees, reduce the number of injuries, and prevent loss? I had the opportunity to attend the ASSP Northwest Personal Development Conference earlier this year. Al Johnson, Vice President of Corporate EHS for Cargill, Inc. spoke about the steps they are taking to achieve zero serious injuries or fatalities within his organization. The approach that Cargill is taking is to focus on the top three levels of the model: Elimination, Substitution, and Engineering Controls. Although the other levels can be effective, they are allowing only the top three as acceptable solutions in their drive to get to zero significant injuries or fatalities. This is just one example of a company using the hierarchy to move their safety efforts forward. I would encourage you to ask yourself how this tool can be applied to your operations in order to develop a stronger safety culture.

Below are some helpful resources for controlling hazards in the workplace.

If you have specific questions about how your company can utilize the Hierarchy of Controls to improve your safety program, contact your local Marsh McLennan Agency representative.

OSHA Hazard Prevention and Control -

CDC and NIOSH Hierarchy of Controls -

ASSP How to Apply the Hierarchy of Controls in a Pandemic -