A Quick Guide to the 5 Levels of Hierarchy of Controls

A Quick Guide to the 5 Levels of Hierarchy of Controls

Hierarchy of Controls

Every situation is different, the hazard or the risk. As a supervisor, manager, director, VP, President or leader of an organization you have responsibilities to provide a safe workplace for all employees.

The questions we at Premier Safety Partners get most often is:

“How do I know what is the right method to mitigate the risk? How do I know if I’ve done enough to protect my employees?”

This is a difficult answer and different for every situation. When we guide our clients we first ask them a series of questions related to the hierarchy of controls.

Hierarchy of controls explains a systematic and strategic process used in construction, manufacturing, and a virtually all other industries to mitigate risk and reduce exposure to hazards. Traditionally the hierarchy is illustrated as a triangle with an upward apex. This highly effective tool highlights the priority of actions and their decreasing levels of effectiveness from the top to bottom in the following sequences:

  • Elimination Controls
  • Substitution
  • Engineering Controls
  • Administration Controls
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

The following information is designed to provide insight into the most essential areas of any hierarchy of controls.

Elimination of Hazards

Hazard elimination is the best way to mitigate risk associated with any particular hazard. This can be achieved by removing the cause of the hazard, removing the initial element, removing the machine, or completely removing the process. Elimination is virtually fool-proof because after the hazard has been removed, the risk no longer remains.

Risk is a function of both probability and severity. Since both probability and severity are affected by the presence of the hazard, getting rid of the hazard would most likely reduce the risk from it to zero - as long as the hazard isn't reintroduced back into the environment.

Hazard reintroduction isn't likely with machinery. However, reintroduction becomes more of a factor with services, processes, and workplaces.


Substitution is one step down in the hierarchy of control from elimination. Instead of removing the process, machine, or element entirely, substitution warrants using an alternative. The alternative solution can be a non-hazardous or even less hazardous machine, material, or process.

For instance, beryllium - an extremely toxic metal - is commonly used in high tech applications. People can become sick and contract the acute beryllium disease if beryllium dust contacts their skin or is inhaled. By substituting beryllium with a less toxic material, the designer could eliminate or reduce the possibility of the disease.

However, if the substitute material still contains low levels of the toxic material, the risk is merely reduce. If the new material has no beryllium, then the risk is completely eliminated. In this case, the risk is reduced by ensuring no beryllium dust is created in the process.

Engineering Controls

In the event the hazard is unable to removed and no viable alternative can be used, the next step is to utilize engineering controls to mitigate the hazard. Engineering controls can include a wide array of interlocking systems, mechanical guards, and safeguarding devices, such as:

  • Safety mats
  • Fences and curtains
  • Area scanners

The goal of an engineering control is to proactively reduce the risk associated with the machine, service, or process. Engineering controls must function automatically to prevent access to the hazard, which reduces the likelihood of injury. These controls must act before a worker ever reaches the danger zone and is exposed to the hazard.

Administrative Controls

The fourth tier of the hierarchy of controls is the implementation of administrative controls. Administrative controls are designed to mitigate risk and limit worker exposure to the hazard through the creation of rules or scheduling shorter work times in contaminant areas.

These controls are significantly less effective because the actual hazard isn't reduced or removed. Admin controls are typically not favored because of the number of limitations as well as the difficulty associated with implementation and maintenance. Most importantly, administrative controls are not the most reliable way to reduce exposure. Common examples of administrative controls include:

  • Alarms
  • Warnings
  • Labels
  • Training
  • Exposure control
  • Isolation
  • Monitoring

Personal Protective Equipment

The least effective method in the hierarchy of controls is personal protective equipment (PPE). As the final solution to reduce or mitigate risk, PPEs should only be used when more effective controls, such as engineering controls, are being installed or created. Personal protective equipment is typically not popular, comfortable, and is never fool-proof.

If you PPE is substituted for administrative or any other control, it can actually create hazards. Simply put, PPE should never be the only method used to reduce exposure, except under very specific circumstances. The major problems with PPE is they may fail, the worker may not use it, or the worker may not use it properly. Common examples of PPE include:

  • Safety goggles
  • Gloves
  • Face shields
  • Special footwear

Contact Premier Safety Partners to Bolster Safety Protocol

In any industry, it's vital to continually monitor hazards as well as the methods of control in place to reduce or eliminate those hazards. At Premier Safety Partners, we bring decades of experience creating highly effective hierarchy of controls. Some of the most common tools we use include:

  • Exposure assessment
  • Physical inspection
  • Testing
  • Injury and illness tracking
  • Observations
  • Incident/accident investigations reports
  • Hazard risk management training
  • Employee input/feedback
  • And a host of additional methods.

We offer several innovative safety services designed to help you create a safer workplace with reduced risk of exposure to hazards.

Contact Premier Safety Partners today to schedule a complimentary inspection.

About the Author

Scott Ray is an industry leader in Health and Safety. Recognized for his business acumen and innovative approach, Scott has a track record in successfully implementing H&S systems that result in fostering a culture of operational excellence. His 25 year Health and Safety career includes both technical and leadership experience within diverse industries including energy/utilities, manufacturing, higher education, construction, defense and aerospace.