How Digital Solutions Are Helping Transform the Hierarchy of Controls

Hierarchy of Controls

Have you ever wondered how you could create a safer workplace through technology?  It’s a question we ask ourselves constantly here at Cority. Fortunately, we have the privilege to partner with some of the world’s foremost EHS thinkers, innovators and researchers to help us dive into these emerging ideas, and better understand what new opportunities lie ahead through the integration of technology & EHS practice.  

Recently, Cority partnered with Verdantix, a global research and advisory firm, to explore how digital solutions can offer companies new ways to apply traditional EHS tools more effectively, in turn helping them reduce the chances of workplace harm. And nowhere is the impact of digitization providing more exciting possibilities than within the Hierarchy of Controls (HOC). 

In this article, we’ll be answering the following questions: 

  1. What are the Hierarchy of Controls? 
  2. How are digital solutions Improving how we use HOC? 
  3. What are key considerations when implementing digital solutions? 

Understanding the Hierarchy of Controls 

Since its introduction in the 1950’s, the Hierarchy of Controls (HOC) has remained a critical tool used by companies globally to identify the most effective ways to control worker exposure to occupational hazards and reduce the risk of on-the-job injuries and fatalities.  

The hierarchy consists of five levels or categories of control measures, presented in descending order of effectiveness and priority

  1. Elimination 
  2. Substitution 
  3. Engineering controls 
  4. Administrative controls 
  5. Personal protective equipment (PPE) 

Ideally, organizations should consider control measures starting at the top of the hierarchy, working their way down. Eliminating the hazard (or exposure thereto) is always the best approach, but often impractical. PPE, while inexpensive and easy to implement, offers the least protection and thus should be used only as a “last resort”. 

And while HOC has been in play for over 70 years, firms continue to struggle to utilize the methodology in the way it was intended. But as companies continue to digitally transform their EHS programs, interest in how technology may help improve how HOC can (and should be) applied is quickly growing. 

Companies are struggling to control risk effectively 

EHS technology adoption has helped drive a marked decrease in the rate of lower-consequence workplace injuries over the last ten years in many western countries. In the United States, for instance, the Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) dropped 22% from 3.43 per 100 FTE in 2011, to 2.67 per 100 FTE in 2021. Yet interestingly, current EHS management practices have not had the same wholesale effects on more serious injuries and fatalities (SIF), with rates of those outcomes remaining stagnant or, in some cases, increasing over the same period. But why is that? 

According to Verdantix’ Tom Brown and Nathan Goldstein, part of the problem is barriers to workforce engagement. Front-line workers are encouraged to share information about their environment – reporting incidents, sharing observations, communicating hazards, etc. – with the management team so reasonable interventions can be identified and prioritized. Unfortunately, many workers view their EHS program as nothing more than a “data black hole”, where data is provided but nothing is seemingly done with this information. Consequently, employees frustrated with that lack of progress often refuse to continue to share this data, which reduces the organization’s ability to proactively identify where risk may be creeping into processes, in turn, creating the conditions for the next critical event to occur. 

Another major challenge facing organizations interested in reducing the risk of serious event is how to guide individuals on applying the Hierarchy of Controls effectively. In a drive to ‘get things done’, many firms may quickly turn toward inexpensive, and fast-to-deploy lower-order controls in the hierarchy – like procedures or PPE – despite the fact that a more effective control may exist further up the model. 

Beyond selecting the appropriate control measure, then there’s the challenge of actually getting it in place and ensuring it’s sustainable. While EHS professionals may identify the appropriate control for a situation, often the ability to deliver that measure in a real-world setting is the key barrier. It’s great if we correctly identify that workers need training on a particular task or hazard to reduce their risk of harm. But how do we deliver that training in a way that’s relevant, engaging, accessible to where people are, and based on their individual learning needs?  

How Digital Solutions Are Improving How We Use HOC 

There’s a mountain of evidence supporting the positive impact that digitization can have on EHS performance. But some of the most exciting developments in the field relate to how technology can be used to ensure more timely and effective selection and deployment of the Hierarchy of Controls (HOC). 

Let’s first return to the idea of supporting individuals in selecting the most appropriate controls from the hierarchy in a given circumstance. One of the clearest benefits gained from digital solutions is their ability to empower people across the organization to make better real-time decisions. By arming individuals with deep analytics and data-driven insights, software can help EHS professionals and front-line workers alike understand the most effective interventions from the HOC for a given situation, helping them reduce related risk to the lowest available level. In some cases, organizations have altered their incident management workflows via software to encourage a deeper consideration of higher-order controls. In the event of actual or potential SIF events, firms have configured their EHS software to require investigators to select at least one control measure from the elimination, substitution, or engineering control levels of the hierarchy. Failure to do so will prevent the investigation from proceeding to these next workflow stage. This change ensures investigators do not place undue focus on lower-order controls that are less effective at addressing underlying causal factors and preventing recurrence. 

And new advancements in scenario modeling and ‘what if’ analysis are expanding the options available, enabling firms to proactively evaluate multiple interventions at the same time, and assess which option will have the greatest impact on risk level. This approach ensures more responsible resource use, since organizations can model the anticipated benefits of more expensive elimination, substitution, and engineering approaches before actually investing in them. Likewise, data-driven insights help EHS professionals clearly describe to senior leaders how lower-order controls – while relatively ‘quick and easy’ – aren’t always the most effective approach. 

By enabling individuals to easily aggregate, analyze, and draw insights from collected data, they will be better positioned to make better decisions that can help optimize HOC implementation and the overall return on resources deployed. 

Beyond assisting workers in selecting the most appropriate control(s) in each situation, digital solutions also help organizations effectively deploy proposed interventions in a systematic, seamless and sustainable way. Whether it’s automating processes with robotics to eliminate manual tasks that can create exposures, leveraging software to assess hazardous chemicals and automatically recommend alternatives for substitution, to providing mobile access to learning content so to complete assigned training, technology is revolutionizing the way we ensure workplace safety.  

For instance, many companies are investing in digital Control of Work solutions to help streamline processes and guide individuals through the completion of high-risk tasks – like working from heights or confined space entry – while offering automated alerts, process checks and redundancies to ensure gaps in critical controls aren’t missed that could lead to a severe event. And while it’s considered a last resort, digitization can also improve the effectiveness of selected PPE. Advancements in “connected worker technologies” is opening the door toward better PPE – equipment that not only protects the individual, but can capture real-time information on the environment and worker behavior, and feed advice back to the worker or supervisor for follow-up. PPE is only truly effective when it is worn correctly. Technology is now making it possible to identify when that hard hat is removed, and alert the individual in real-time of the uncontrolled risk created to allow for immediate correction.  

Key Considerations When Implementing Digital Solutions 

For organizations interested in utilizing digital solutions to optimize their use of the Hierarchy of Controls, where should they start? And what are the factors they need to consider when embarking on a digital EHS transformation through softwareLet’s take a quick look. 

First, navigating this change successfully requires a comprehensive company-wide mindset shift towards digitalization. Companies need to be mindful that they shouldn’t immediately replicate their existing EHS processes and workflows in a digital format. Use the transition as an opportunity to rethink how work is performed, and specifically how the Hierarchy of Controls is currently used, and how it can be made better. Rules and processes will change, so it’s important to have everyone on the same page regarding how EHS software will impact the company, and the anticipated benefits it will bring. 

Secondly, before deploying any new technology, it’s recommended to conduct a targeted hazard identification and risk assessment to map out the major operational risks for the business. By knowing what issues or failures are most likely to arise, and the most likely consequence of those events, the organization can prioritize which processes or levels of the Hierarchy of Controls should be tackled first from a digitization perspective, and then select the most appropriate vendors and/or platforms that can help the business achieve those ends. Digital solutions that can be tailored to the company’s unique activities, operations, organizational structure and hazard/risk profile will offer the most flexibility to address the business’ current and future EHS needs. 

Next, take a look at cybersecurity and data privacy for your EHS software. Being prepared to deal with legal rules and regulations as it relates to data – particularly personal health information (PHI) and personally-identifiable information (PII) – will make the digitization process much smoother and will allow you to move past any roadblocks with ease.  

Finally, understand that the process doesn’t stop with implementation. Using any digital software requires analysis and a positive feedback loop, so leverage the data to build upon existing information and uncover the root causes of risks and hazards. Let your EHS software help you continuously update your systems, improve your EHS practices, and reduce risks across all areas of the company. 

Revolutionizing Safety 

The future of EHS management is bright, thanks to the transformative power of digital solutions. By embracing technology and leveraging its capabilities, organizations can revolutionize their EHS practices and make significant progress in reducing serious injuries and fatalities. Digital solutions, when selected and used correctly, can ensure the Hierarchy of Controls is optimized to its fullest extent, leading to a more targeted and impactful way of reducing workplace risk, and creating safer and more productive work environments. 

Want to learn more? Check out our webinar, How Digital Solutions are Helping to Transform the Hierarchy of Controls.

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