The Occupational Health and Safety Act, Section 5(a)(1) contains the General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide their employees a safe place to work. Look around your workplace. Is it safe? How do you know? Because there has not been an accident? If that is your definition of “safe” then you are relying on your employees to be safe. What if we told you there was another way to ensure you have a safe workplace? What if you relied instead on safety systems that you can put into place?
Effective health and safety systems and programs encompass several key areas that include the use of a hierarchy of controls that contain both Inherent Safety Programs and the application of safety controls when hazards cannot be eliminated. The assessment process and subsequent recommendations used in this case are based on the hierarchy of controls established by the American National Standards Association (ANSI) and the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) including ANSI/ASSP Z10.0 – 2019, Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems, and ANSI/ASSE Z590.3 – 2011 (R-21016), Prevention through Design Guidelines for Addressing Occupational Hazards and Risks in Design and Redesign Processes.
Near the top of this hierarchy are steps that provide the greatest levels of protection and rely less on employee performance, because employees are human, and humans are sometimes less effective. At the bottom of the hierarchy system are steps that are less effective in controlling those hazards and which depend on employee performance and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Inherent Safety Programs: The top components of the hierarchy include those that are designed to not introduce risk through the use of inherently safer design, or to eliminate the hazards associated with a particular task or operation by removal or elimination of some of the more hazardous processes or materials used in the various operations. If the elimination of a particular hazard is not possible, the next level would be to look for opportunities to substitute less harmful processes or materials, which in themselves would reduce the risk associated with their use. An example of an inherently safe program would be the elimination of the need to expose someone to a fall hazard through the relocation of elevated activities to lower levels, thus completely eliminating the need to work at a higher location. Another example would be the removal of a more hazardous material with the substitution of less harmful ones, which would result in reduced exposure potential.
Safety Controls: When the hazards cannot be completely eliminated, OSHA requires that measures to be implemented for controlling the exposure or potential exposure that employees have to a particular hazard. These measures are termed Controls and are implemented in order of decreasing effectiveness with the higher Controls being the most protective and required when feasible. When possible, multiple levels of these Controls can be used together to further reduce the potential for exposure by the employee. The required Controls are as follows:
Engineering Controls: Engineering Controls are the first step used to help reduce the potential exposure of the employee to the hazards that are (or potentially could be) present in the workplace. Examples of this form of control include the installation of guardrails at elevated locations, or the placement of automatic fire doors that close upon activation of the alarm systems. Engineering Controls require the least involvement of the employee in order to be effective but are not always feasible in many types of situations such as emergency response operations or with older equipment that might be in the workplace.
Warning Systems: When Engineering Controls are not effective or are not feasible, the use of warning systems helps to ensure that employees are made aware of hazards that require their attention and action. Examples of warning systems include alarm systems to indicate the presence of hazards, workplace signage systems, and vehicle backup alarms.
Administrative Controls: Administrative Controls are often used in conjunction with Engineering Controls and Warning Systems or alone. These Controls are required whenever other forms of controls are not effective in reducing risk to an acceptable level. An example of an Administrative Control would be the use of training programs to teach employees proper safety procedures to followed in particular situations or when performing specific tasks. Other commonly used Administrative Controls include the scheduling of personnel to minimize exposure and the development and use of standard operating procedures (SOPs). The use of this level of control requires significant employee involvement and their conformance to rules and procedures.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): The final level of controlling the exposure of employees to occupational hazards is through the use of PPE. The use of PPE often provides a physical barrier between the employee and the hazard that is present. There are numerous types of PPE that provide protection from a wide range of hazards that could be present, including respirators to provide protection from airborne hazards, gloves and body coverings that protect employees from chemical or physical hazards, and earplugs and muffs that limit exposure to loud noises. As with the issues associated with the application of Administrative Controls, the use of PPE has a high degree of employee involvement for this form of control to be effective. Additionally, there are numerous variables that limit or reduce the effectiveness of PPE such as the proper selection of the PPE, maintenance of the equipment, and using it when required.
Using this hierarchy of controls places emphasis on controlling the environment rather than depending on employees to always do the right thing. It provides you with a stronger and more likely Inherent Safety Program.