Hazards are present in all work environments. Controlling the risks that these hazards present is part of creating a safe work environment. But how would you know how best to control a hazard? There are so many control measures available, pick the wrong one and you could be at more risk than you need to be. More than is safe. Not all control measures are equal. Enter, the hierarchy of risk control.
Step 3 of the HSE's 5 steps to risk assessment involves evaluating if existing control measures are adequate, or if more should be done to reduce risk. One of the best ways to both assess existing controls and identify new control measures is to consider how effective they are based on the hierarchy of risk control.
The hierarchy of risk control is used when undertaking risk assessment activities, to control hazards and minimise risk. Once you have calculated the level of risk, you should decide on the precautions or controls needed to reduce the risk.
To control risk, you need to do everything 'reasonably practicable'. This means balancing the level of risk against the measures needed to control the real risk in terms of money, time or trouble. Always aim to reduce the risk as low as is reasonably practicable, also known as ALARP.
Can you eliminate the risk by getting rid of the hazard completely? If the hazard cannot be eliminated, then how can the risks be controlled so that harm is unlikely?
You will probably already have some safety measures in place for a task or activity. Controlling risks means assessing the adequacy of existing controls or introducing new controls to prevent harm. When controlling risks, there is a hierarchy of risk control which should be followed:
This is often simplified into a 5 tier system:
The top control 'elimination' is most effective, and the list follows in order from most effective to least effective.
Elimination is the best and most effective control. If a hazard is serious, and the risk cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, then it should be eliminated. There may also be safer ways to do a job that means a hazard can be eliminated. For example, work at height can be eliminated if the work can be safely carried out using extendable poles.
Substitution is a common control measure that should always be considered. With changes in technology and advances in manufacturing, safer alternatives are always becoming available. New equipment might have lower noise and vibration levels. A scaffold can be used for safer access instead of ladders. A different substance might be less risk, for example, a different cleaning solution.
Engineering controls are a good way of controlling hazards at source. Enclosures, barriers, guards and insulation. Fixed ventilation. Anything that can be designed and built to make the work environment safer. This type of control usually provides a safer environment for everyone, rather than an individual. For example, an enclosure separates a hazard from everyone outside it. Ventilating hazardous fumes or gases at source means cleaner and safer air for everyone.
Sometimes, it's not possible to reduce the risk any further by changing the equipment or substance. But you can still reduce the time people are exposed, through work patterns, monitoring and supervision. Safe systems of work like permits to work can be used for high-risk activities. Training and inductions can be carried out to raise awareness. Regular, scheduled activities can be used to maintain safety. Like inspections, testing, good housekeeping and cleaning.
This is the last line of defence. It might be least effective on the list, but it doesn't mean it's not important. Where risk remains, PPE can be a good way of protecting individuals. It can give protection if the correct PPE is selected for the hazard, and it is used and maintained correctly.
Don't make the mistake of thinking you can only pick one type of control. For complete protection, to reduce risk to a safe level, multiple controls may be required. Control measures can work well together. For example in a paint spraying activity, you might substitute an oil-based paint for water-based paint (substitution). But you might still choose to carry out the work in an enclosure with fixed ventilation (engineering controls). Put in place work patterns and to reduce time exposure to hazardous substances and a cleaning schedule (administrative controls). And provide workers with gloves, overalls and goggles to prevent skin and eye contact (PPE).
A combination of two or more controls from the hierarchy is often needed to adequately control the risk, particularly high risks, to a level that is 'reasonably practicable'. Remember, risks should be as low as is reasonably practicable before work goes ahead.
Even if you have substituted a high hazard for a low one, you still have a legal responsibility to reduce risk. And, just because PPE is last on the list, doesn't mean it can't be a good way to control risk, especially when used with other control measures. Sometimes, PPE can be vital to the safety of users, especially in emergencies or difficult work environments.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations contain the principles of prevention. This fits in with the hierarchy of controls and which you should always consider with the hierarchy of controls.
Find out more about risk assessment and the five steps to risk assessment with our online introduction to risk assessment elearning training course. Download a certificate for your records on completion of the end of course assessment.