Hierarchy of Controls: Limiting Occupational Hazard Exposure

In many industries, exposure to hazards that can be harmful or even life-threatening is unavoidable. In some cases, there is no way to completely eliminate potential exposure to carcinogens, toxic chemicals, hazardous waste, cryogenics, extreme heights, heavy objects, dangerous machinery and other things that can injure, maim or kill. 

There are, however, a number of ways to mitigate harm. Businesses can arm employees with tools and protocols that will help them avoid a potentially life-changing accident on the job. They can also ensure that employees always have what they need to protect themselves and that they know how to use these items effectively. 

In an effort to break down solution options for business owners, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has outlined a hierarchy of effective control solutions ranked from most effective to least effective. There are five levels in the hierarchy of controls. If the first level is unavailable or impossible, the second, third, fourth or fifth can still provide opportunities to protect employees and businesses. 

This hierarchy of controls includes the following levels, listed from most effective to least effective:

  1. Elimination

  2. Substitution 

  3. Engineering Controls 

  4. Administrative Controls

  5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

1. Elimination

Physically removing the hazard from the workplace and making sure it is no longer a risk to employees is the most effective way to manage a hazardous situation. Ideally, this means zero exposure to toxic chemicals, hazardous work conditions and all potentially dangerous machinery. 

Unfortunately, this may not be possible to do across the board, depending on the nature of the business and its purpose in serving customers, clients, the public or other businesses. However, it may be possible to minimize exposure to specific issues in certain parts of the business or for specific departments or employees. 

For example, if there are hazardous chemicals in a business that cannot be eliminated completely, it may be possible to confine their storage and use to one part of the building. The overall plan may involve allowing only those who are highly qualified to enter that area of the building and stopping everyone else from coming anywhere near the substances. 

2. Substitution 

In some cases, it may be possible to substitute a chemical that is less hazardous in place of one that puts employees at risk. Similarly, it may be possible to substitute a new protocol in place of one that risks employees’ safety or a new product in place of one whose development consistently causes problems. 

Replacing the hazard with something less hazardous may be more or less complex, depending on the nature of the issue. Making a major product replacement, installing a new machine or storage system or figuring out how to get the same or better results using a nonhazardous chemical will take planning and time to implement. 

Smaller projects, like switching cleaning chemicals or adopting new protective gear for transporting dangerous items, can be much easier to implement. In some cases, Alsco can be instrumental in streamlining these changes. 

3. Engineering Controls 

If it is impossible to eliminate a hazard or make a substitution that protects employees, the next option on the list is to create engineering controls that limit employees’ exposure. 

Engineering controls can provide a way to manage, use or handle a hazardous chemical or situation without bringing employees into the equation. For example, it may be possible to use or apply a hazardous chemical within machinery processing rather than have an employee handle the substance. Similarly, if the situation is hazardous or threatens injury, there may be a way to engineer a solution using machines that will alleviate employees’ risk. 

Though this can mean a large, up-front financial investment as the business develops, tests and implements the new processes, it can result in significant cost savings in the long run. Depending on the specifics, it can even mean savings in other areas of the business as well. 

If you’re looking for inspiration, check out some of the engineering control technologies that have recently been researched

4. Administrative Controls 

When accidents or injuries are frequent due to a lack of oversight or poor training, administrative controls can be valuable because they change the way people work. Although these controls may be less expensive up-front, their maintenance can be more expensive long-term because it requires manpower and training sessions. Companies must either hire more people or lose productivity as the current team members redirect their attention. 

Implementing administrative controls starts with a full assessment of current issues. It continues with assigning a point person to oversee the processes, develop educational sessions, train employees and provide oversight on the job, noting when issues stack up and new people are hired so that more training sessions can be provided. 

5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Personal protective equipment is at the bottom of the list because it is easy to implement but expensive to maintain over many years. However, in almost every situation, PPE is necessary for a period. This is true even if, in using one of the first three options on the hierarchy of controls, it is possible to create major shifts that stop the problem from affecting employees. If engineering controls are a long way off or unfeasible, a combination of administrative controls and PPE is the best choice for the immediate future. 

Implementation of the Hierarchy of Controls for the Protection of Employees

When safety is a priority but efficiency and productivity are concerns as well, Alsco becomes a key part of any process protocol. 

At Alsco, we specialize in taking care of the details so management can redirect its attention to monitoring, training and protecting employees. We ensure you have fresh and clean uniforms, cleaning supplies and more so you and your team members can focus on your jobs. 

Contact Alsco today to learn more about how we can help you. We can make a big difference in your day-to-day operations.


Prevention Through Design (October 2013). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Hierarchy of Controls (January 2015). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Directory of Engineering Controls (January 2015). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

NIOSH Directory of Personal Protective Equipment (August 2021). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Contact Us

Interested in Alsco's Services? Visit our Contact page and let us know!