The ideal way to keep workers safe from hazards is to eliminate them completely. Of course, this is not always possible. However, in many cases it can be done, but has not been considered, as the risks associated with certain hazardous tasks have already been accepted for a long time.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers an explanation of how to identify and minimize the amount of exposure workers have to occupational hazards. Called the Hierarchy of Controls, it can be pictured as an inverted pyramid. Elimination is at the top followed by Substitution, Engineering Controls, Administrative Controls, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at the bottom. The hierarchy begins with the most desirable and effective controls and ends with least effective.
NIOSH also has an initiative known as Prevention through Design (PtD) that aims to implement the hierarchy by anticipating and designing out hazards to workers in facilities, equipment, work methods, and processes.
Using the Hierarchy of Controls
Elimination involves physically removing the hazard, which is best done by conferring with supervisors, engineers, workers and anyone else involved in the process being evaluated.
If it is determined that elimination is truly not possible, then perhaps a Substitution is the answer. A hazardous product or process may be replaced with a safer one. Elimination and Substitution should be done during developmental stages, since once work has begun changes are more difficult to enact.
Engineering Controls can be very effective for protecting workers from hazards such as:
- Hazardous drugs
- Asphalt fumes
- Carbon monoxide
- Nitrous oxide
Examples of typical Engineering Controls include isolating and removing airborne emissions using local exhaust ventilation, and machine guarding to protect operators. Noise control can be achieved through sound insulation in cabs of industrial trucks and vehicles, and the use of quieter tools and machinery such as urethane-coated mining conveyor chains. According to NIOSH, these solutions actually make the work easier to perform and do not interfere with worker productivity or comfort.
Administrative Controls and PPE
Administrative Controls are next to last on the hierarchical pyramid. They can limit exposure to hazards by changing workers’ schedules or adjusting the tasks they are assigned to. Examples of Administrative Controls include buddy systems, the installation of warning signs and alarms, limiting the time a worker can be exposed to a hazard, and creating written procedures for operations.
The last control on the pyramid is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This is only considered acceptable by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) if it is impossible to eliminate the hazard, or the other controls to mitigate risk are in development.
Prevention through Design (PtD)
Design can be considered the pinnacle of the Hierarchy of Controls. NIOSH emphasizes that PtD can go a long way towards eliminating hazards to workers. When architects and engineers collaborate with employers and workers, who have insight to work conditions and safety issues, they can create the safest possible work environment.
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