What are the Hierarchy of Controls in a Workplace?

By  //  January 23, 2023

Most workplaces have some kind of job that is risky, from picking heavy loads to working with dangerous materials.

Every job comes with risk, and to manage and reduce that risk, workplaces exercise risk assessments and subsequent risk controls for them.

Competent persons with the necessary risk assessment training can perform these checks to determine what type of risk aversion procedure they need to place. After the risk assessment procedure, the risk is eliminated through a hierarchy of controls.

In this content piece, we will look at what those risk controls are and why their hierarchy matters in a workplace.

What are Risk Controls?

Risk controls are a part of the safety procedures that come after the risk assessment processes have been conducted. Once a risk is detected or determined a risk control is put in place to either reduce the risk or eliminate it entirely. This is done in a number of ways, following a set of hierarchies that produce different controls for the type of risk.

From administrative changes to reduce time wasted while on the clock to protective and safety equipment for working at height, effective risk controls need to be created and put into practice to keep workers safe. The hierarchy of controls simply makes this process as effective as possible and eliminates risk or reduces it where elimination is not possible.

The Hierarchy of Risk Controls

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) posits five hierarchies of controls to protect workers from exposure to risk. These are:

  1. Elimination of the risk
  2. Substitution of the risk with a less risky procedure
  3. Engineering controls or the use of machinery
  4. Administrative controls to change the method of working entirely
  5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to ensure worker safety if no other risk control can be implemented

These five risk control measures are conducted in order so that all options for reducing risk are exhausted before any person is put at risk of exposure, even with complete safety and protective equipment with them.

Most workplaces have some kind of inherent risk, and part of safety measures is to assume the worst so that we are prepared to handle the work kind of situations.

Elimination of the Risk

This is the first process in the hierarchy of controls. It means that any present risk should be first eliminated or removed if possible. For example, if there is a spill on the floor, it creates a risk of slipping and falling. However, the risk can be eliminated by getting the cleaning and sanitation staff to remove the spill and get it cleared away. Doing so makes workers there safe and risk-free again, at least from the spill itself.

This is the most effective form of risk control, and almost every safety procedure will ensure that the risk is removed entirely before any other possibility is considered.

Substitution of the Risk

The next level of risk control determines that if a potential risk cannot be removed entirely, one can try to see if it can be substituted with something else that is less risky and dangerous.

A good example of this can be how it is always useful to upgrade equipment to newer models that have better safety features and controls.

This also comes with the caveat that the new method of work should also be assessed for risk, and it should be determined if a risk control measure needs to be put in place.

Engineering Controls or Machinery

If a person is conducting manual handling work, managers and organizations first need to look if it is possible to use machinery to conduct the work. According to the third level of the hierarchy of controls, these engineering controls are when some type of assistive machinery, system, or ‘engineered’ control is put in place to reduce the risk.

This can range from isolating the individual from the risk, or giving them additional help from any time of machinery or gadget. The best kind of engineering control will require minimal to no input from the user or will be designed to make their job as risk-free as possible, though their primary goal is to reduce risk while making the work easier as well to some degree.

Administrative Controls and Changing the Method

Going back to manual handling, physical work should not be conducted continuously and must have a regular rotation of employees. This is an administrative control where policies and work procedures are designed to reduce or eliminate risk.

Providing training, regularly updating procedures, and limiting exposure to certain hazards is administrative control.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

This is the last resort of risk aversion in the hierarchy of controls. If the hazard cannot be removed, isolated, changed, or altered in some way, the worker is provided with proper safety equipment.

This has plenty of other considerations, such as regular inspection, pass or fail states for the equipment, maintenance, etc., but that is another subject entirely.


These risk controls are determined through a hierarchical process of elimination where every possible safety procedure is eliminated before workers are exposed to risk—even with proper safety equipment.