Injury prevention and the hierarchy of controls

In the real world, injuries happen. However, not all injuries are created equally. In other words, first aid injuries are not as serious as broken bones and broken bones are not as serious as a fatality.

Injury incidents and fatalities are decreasing in almost every industry, but when an injury does happen, it is usually serious. The worst injuries can be low frequency and high severity incidents.

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With this in mind, injuries might indicate that how we’re controlling hazards is not as effective as they should be. 

How to Prevent Injuries Using the Hierarchy of Controls

A Job Safety Analysis (JSA) is the most commonly used tool to reduce injuries and get the employee involved in safety. But, safety managers' other favorite tool is the hierarchy of controls pyramid. The top of the pyramid has elimination, the most effective control. The bottom has the least effective, PPE. In the middle sits substitution, engineering and administrative controls.

Obviously, removing the hazard means we don’t have to do anything else. Moving down the hierarchy of controls introduces “defeatability” of control, and increases the chances of an incident related to the failure of the control.

To clarify, PPE provides the least control and protection. It is also easily defeated - a worker can simply choose not to use it. However, moving up the hierarchy increases your hazard control and decreases the ability of someone defeating it.

Decrease safety costs and increase profit

As you move up the hierarchy of controls, associated safety costs go down and profitability goes up. Think about it, if you can eliminate a hazard, you don’t have to do anything else. Spend less time monitoring workers for correct PPE and spend more time getting the job done. You may reduce employee training time and PPE costs.

Safety pros will spend less time being safety cops. They will have time to think of innovative ways to use the hierarchy of controls to find ways to enhance safety and ultimately, your profitability.

Higher levels of control involve less people time. Activities requiring less people time are more profitable. Decreasing costs and increasing profits are a driving force when evaluating a job or investigating an incident. Making a task inherently safer means you’ll spend less time investigating.

In every task, safety and feasibility meet. The hierarchy of controls helps you reach that point, and keeps you from automatically going to PPE - the lowest level of control.

Work be never always be inherently safe. Yet, we owe it to ourselves, employees and our companies to use every tool to make the job safer, cut costs and increase profits.  A company doesn’t stay in business long if it can’t pay the bills.

So, evaluate your task hazard controls before the next project. When completing a job hazard analysis (JHA), check the hierarchy of controls next to determine what isfeasible and doable. If you already have a JHA, look at it again with a fresh set of eyes.

Ensure your safety folks and supervisors look at each task when they’re in the field for ways to move up the hierarchy and take some of the “defeatability” out of the safety controls.

Measuring Safety

Using injury statistics (a lagging indicator) to measure the effectiveness of a safety program is easy. However, it leaves a company open to low frequency, high severity injuries. You can’t measure effectiveness just by injury rate. A project finishing without any incidents might just be down to luck. If a project ends with injuries, you need to keep it from happening again.

Consider changing the way you think about safety from a lagging indicator, “we had no injuries today” to a leading indicator “What did we do today to minimize risk and prevent incidents?” Put a positive spin on your safety program. Instead of asking how many bad things happened today, ask how many good things happened.

You have to use lagging indicators to provide injury statistics. It’s a fact of life that we still have to measure what has happened, but if you want to know how safe your company is, look at the controls that have been put in place to protect your employees and your company. That’s how you can identify leading indicators and help ensure that your company doesn’t have blind spots that may lead to a low frequency, high severity incident or a catastrophe.

If you have a low frequency, high severity injury, it might be appropriate to bring out the hierarchy of controls chart and review it along with the investigation report to look at the controls you have in place to prevent these types of incidents from happening and remove luck from being one of the factors in your safety program.


In a world where profit margins are getting smaller and contractors face greater competition and tighter schedules, spending time to look at how injuries are prevented is well worth the effort.

Moreover, if your safety program identifies how you’re using the hierarchy of controls to prevent injuries and help enhance your clients reputation and profitability then you have an edge over your competition.  And everyone can use a little edge, especially if it doesn’t cost anything.

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