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Understanding Engineering Controls

Posted by EHS Insight Resources on February 19, 2020 at 11:12 AM

Picture this. A hazardous chemical splashes a worker. The worker wasn’t seriously injured and the appropriate investigation commences. Workers are given training after the incident that focuses on the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

But the question isn’t about this process. The question is what comes before. Did anyone consider a scenario where the worker didn’t need to directly interact with a harmful substance?

Engineering controls are designed to address questions like this. Here’s what they are and how they can help your workers.

What Are Engineering Controls?

Engineering controls are designed to protect workers by placing a barrier between workers and a hazard. This includes designs and modifications to equipment and processes that reduce the risk of workers being exposed to a hazard.

They can reduce the risk of harm from a wide variety of hazards, from falling to asphalt fumes to harmful drugs to contaminated materials.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), engineering controls are the third most effective method of worker safety. The two most effective methods are removing the hazard completely or substituting a hazardous substance.

Since engineering controls are designed to operate without a human action, they’re considered more reliable than PPE or administrative controls. Unlike PPE or administrative controls, engineering controls can function even in the face of human error.

The Hierarchy of Controls

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and NIOSH outline a hierarchy of controls for protecting workers from hazards. Traditionally, this hierarchy was used to determine the feasibility of protective solutions.

From top to bottom, the hierarchy is as follows:

  • Elimination
  • Substitution
  • Engineering controls
  • Administrative controls
  • PPE

The hierarchy progresses from the most effective protection (elimination) to the least effective (PPE). Engineering controls sit firmly in the middle because they do not remove or replace the hazard, but they also don’t rely on human action or inaction to work.

Why choose engineering controls over more effective options? The truth is, while elimination and substitution are the most effective, they’re also the most difficult to implement. If you’re dealing with an existing process, elimination and substitution could require major (and expensive) changes.

Control Banding

Control banding is related to engineering controls. It’s not a method of protection, but rather a risk assessment to determine the right course of action.

Basically, control banding is a technique which guides the assessment and management of workplace risks. It determines a control measure (i.e. engineering controls, substitution) based on a range (band) of hazards and exposures.

The approach is based on two key tenets:

  1. There are only a limited number of hazard control approaches
  2. Many problems have been encountered and solved before

Control banding allows safety professionals to refer to recommended solutions used by others before them and gather suggestions to deal with similar problems.

Creating an Effective Controls Process

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers are responsible for maintaining a safe and healthy working environment. The good news is that they provide guidelines to assess and control hazards.

Their process can be broken into six steps:

  1. Identify potential control options
  2. Select viable controls
  3. Develop and update a hazard control plan
  4. Select controls to protect workers during non-routine operations
  5. Implement your chosen controls in the workplace
  6. Follow up regularly to determine whether controls are effective

Let’s say, for example, you want to reduce chemical hazards. OSHA offers a few possible engineering controls to aid in the process, such as fume hoods, wet methods to reduce dust, or general dilution ventilation.

Ready to Build a Safer Workplace?

We know that safety is a process. But we also know that the process can always be improved. Engineering controls are a part of that improvement. If you’re looking to revitalize your workplace, we can help. Find out more by visiting the EHS Insight Blog.

Topics: Performance Improvement, Process Safety, Workplace Health and Safety, Risk Management, Safety Management, Safety Culture

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