What are engineering controls?

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When attempting to improve workplace safety it is important to try to address every hazard that exists. In a typical facility there are many different potential dangers that need to be addressed. To make things even more complicated, there are often a wide range of different ways that they can be addressed. To help employers come up with the best solutions to potential hazards in the workplace, the hierarchy of controls was developed.

The hierarchy of controls is a concept where occupational hazards are addressed in different ways based on their effectiveness and feasibility. In some cases, more than one level of this process can be used to help reduce the risk of a specific hazard.

Levels of the Hierarchy of Controls

There are five levels to the hierarchy of controls, each focused on different methods of dealing with hazards. The levels are as follows:

  • Elimination
  • Substitution
  • Engineering
  • Administrative
  • Personal Protection Equipment

In this article we will focus on engineering controls and how they can be used. A company should only use engineering controls if they are unable to physically eliminate a hazard or substitute the hazardous situation out with a safer solution.

What are Engineering Controls?

Engineering controls are steps that can be taken to isolate any people from a specific hazard. An example of engineering controls would be a machine in a facility that has rapid movements and could cause serious harm to anyone in the area when it is operating. To keep people safe, walls should be placed around the hazardous area. To make it even better, install a switch that locks the door to the area whenever the machine is in use, and prevents the machine from activating whenever the door is open.

By engineering this solution, you will have effectively eliminated the risk of someone walking through the area and getting injured by the machine while it is in motion. There are, of course, thousands of different examples where engineering controls can be used to keep people safe.

Costs of Engineering Controls

While the costs of engineering controls can vary greatly based on the situation, they will generally be quite a bit more expensive than administrative solutions or simply using personal protection equipment. These costs will typically be almost entirely up front, which means that over time they become a better and better investment.

Even if the long-term costs will be higher than other solutions, however, it is worth it to use this type of strategy. Engineering controls do not typically rely on people following procedures (as is often the case with administrative controls) and will be far more effective than relying on personal protection equipment. The dramatically improved safety that can be found by using engineering controls in a facility will make it the obvious solution in many situations.

Choosing the Right Level of Control

Engineering controls are right in the middle of the hierarchy of controls. While not as effective as eliminating or replacing the hazard, it is still a great way to improve workplace safety. For many workplace dangers, engineering controls are the first reasonable option for determining how to keep people safe. Most facilities have many different machines and other areas that can be dangerous but are essential for production.

Anything that has to be there in order to do business but is still a danger to employees or others in the area, should first be evaluated to see if engineering controls are possible. Of course, there are times when an engineering control is technically possible, but it is impractical for a variety of reasons. For example, it is technically possible to build physical barriers around an area of the floor that gets wet and becomes slippery, it really is not practical. In that situation, the better option is to use administrative controls to alert people to the hazard and take extra care.

In other situations, an engineering control may be to expensive to be implemented. In those cases as well, using administrative controls along with PPE is the right solution. It can be tempting for safety managers to only give a brief consideration to engineering controls and then move on to the other options because they are easier to implement. This is a big mistake that can not only leave dangerous situations in place but could also be a violation of regulations from OSHA or other organizations.

To the extent possible, engineering controls should be seriously considered for all hazards that cannot be eliminated or replaced with safer solutions. In the majority of cases, it will be possible to come up with an engineering control that is both effective and practical for the facility.

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