Risks to workers’ health and safety caused by work activities should be adequately managed so that the risk is reduced to the lowest reasonable or technically practicable level, but how do you effectively minimise and control the risks and ensure you are following employers’ legal duties?
Good occupational health and safety is to eliminate or reduce the risk of accidents or developing occupational diseases in a structural and hierarchical manner. Key principles involve eliminating, substituting and the application of engineering and administrative controls before implementing the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
This paper introduces the Hierarchy of Controls for worker protection before introducing the key steps of a programme designed to effectively implement PPE.
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Controlling exposures to occupational hazards is the fundamental method of protecting workers. Traditionally, a hierarchy of controls has been used as a means of determining how to implement feasible and effective control solutions.
The hierarchy of controls is an approach to environmental safety (the environment in this case being a workplace) that structures protective measures into 5 stages, in order of most to least effective:
Elimination is the best possible defense. When you eliminate a hazard, you eradicate it or remove it from the environment where it can affect people. Curing a disease or finding a way for employees to do their work without leaving ground level would be examples of elimination.
Substitution is the second-best defense. It means replacing the hazardous thing or way of operating with something else—something non-hazardous or less hazardous. Maybe you replace a piece of cutting equipment with one that has fewer exposed sharp edges, for instance, or switch from a hazardous cleaning chemical to one that doesn’t produce toxic fumes.
Engineering controls are the next line of defense. When you engineer a solution to a hazard, you physically separate people from the hazard. Examples of engineering controls include guardrails, partitions, sound dampening materials, automated machines, and so forth.
Administrative controls aren’t as effective as engineering controls, but can still keep people safe. The idea here is to change the way people work—for instance, through rules and policies (e.g. “employees must wash their hands every 90 minutes”) or signage (“do not enter”).
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last line of defense. If you can’t get rid of the problem, swap it for something else, or engineer or govern it away, the only option left is to provide people with equipment such as helmets, goggles, gloves, boots, respirators, and hazmat suits.