What is the WHS hierarchy of control?

Worker safety should be a major focus for any organisation. Duty holders have the responsibility to manage the risk for work health and safety matters across work sites. As part of the risk management process, it’s important to understand the role of the WHS hierarchy of control.

The hierarchy of control is outlined in both ISO 31000:2009 ‘Risk Management Systems’ and its predecessor AS/NZS 4360:2004 measures is an outline from the most and least effective control measures for eliminating or reducing potential risks. It’s part of the step-by-step approach recommended for proactive risk management. If an organisation wishes to effectively reduce hazards, the hierarchy acts as a strong foundation for assessing and controlling risks.

What Does the Hierarchy of Risk Control Mean?

Used by a wide variety of safety professionals and organisations, the hierarchy of control is a systematic process designed to minimise or eliminate exposure to potential hazards. The hierarchy ranks hazard control measures. The goal is to start with the most effective measure and work your way through each level.

The system has been adopted by the Model Code of Practice on how to manage work health and safety risks, with approved codes of practice outlined under section 274 of the WHS Act. It is used by managers, directors, PCBUs, and individuals responsible for identifying and managing hazards. The WHS Act Code of Practice for managing risks outlines four steps for risk management. These guidelines help control exposures to various health and safety risks that workers may encounter during their employed duties. The four steps are completed in the following order:

  • Identify hazards;
  • Assess risks;
  • Control risks; and
  • Review control measures.

The hierarchy is applied during the third step in evaluating the risks of the work site. First, you must identify the hazards. Common hazards and risks may involve manual tasks, dropped/falling objects or issues with machinery or equipment.

A risk assessment of the identified hazards is required to be completed. The assessment requires the responsible individuals to examine the risk factors associated with the task. Assessing the risks then makes it easier to implement the most effective risk control solutions, which is where the hierarchy of control is applied.

How Many Levels Does the Hierarchy Contain?

The hierarchy of control consists of three levels ranging from the most effective control measure to the least effective. At the top of the hierarchy is the elimination of the risk posed. Eliminating the risk completely is considered the best way to eliminate risk,however this is not always an option.

The three levels of risk control allow PCBUs and responsible staff to select methods for reducing and managing risks. After selecting these control measures, they must be reviewed and potentially revised to ensure that they work as planned.

What Are the Steps in the Hierarchy of Control?

The recommended code of practice outlines six steps for selecting the hierarchy of control. When assessing potential solutions to reduce the potential of accidents, start with the first step and work your way through each option. Here is a closer look at the steps:

  • Elimination; then
  • Substitution; then
  • Isolation; then
  • Engineering; then
  • Administrative; then the final step of
  • Personal protective equipment.

The first four steps include effective control techniques that may eliminate or control hazards. If elimination is not possible, you may try substituting the hazard with a different material. Substituting with alternate equipment or removing the hazard through isolation is the recommended option. For example, you may need to ensure that chemicals are stored in a secure store room. The goal is to physically separate the hazard from the workers or the workplace.

The fourth technique involves using engineering control measures to modify machinery or equipment to create a safer work environment. For example, you may need to modify guard rails, hoists, or cranes to reduce exposures.

The final options include administrative control and personal protective equipment PPE. These steps belong to the third level of the hierarchy and are considered the least effective at minimising risk. Administrative procedures may include job rotations that limit the number of hours worked on hazardous tasks or training courses for instructing staff on proper operating procedures. Administrative controls also include distributing communication materials.

The hierarchy of controls is part of the risk management process recommended in the WHS code of practice for managing and work health and safety. These steps, along with additional safety procedures, are covered during WHS training courses. If you want to maintain safe working conditions in compliance with the recommendations under either the AS/NZ or International Standards, ensure that you use actively engage and implement hierarchy of control measures across all activities of an organisation.

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