The hierarchy of hazard controls is a long-standing system that involves methodically taking steps to eliminate and reduce personal risk from a known hazard. In 2018 the hierarchy was added to NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace training manual.
Can we use this approach to respond to a new known hazard such as the novel coronavirus? Let’s look at the methods, from the most effective to the least effective, and review how they may apply:
Elimination — The most effective step would be to just eliminate the hazard (coronavirus) altogether. In electrical safety, elimination often means de-energizing/powering down prior to performing work, thereby eliminating the risk of shock or arc flash. However, we can’t simply turn off coronavirus and make it go away.
Substitution — This step involves modifying a hazard or replacing it with some other agent that’s less hazardous. Doing this with coronavirus isn’t possible either and doesn’t make sense, so we move on to the next step.
Engineering Controls — In the electrical world, we use engineered devices, systems, and controls to reduce the risk of injury or death. These include overcurrent devices, protective relays that detect abnormal situations, and Chicken Switch® devices that create a safe working distance between people and the hazard. With coronavirus, such a control may be a vaccine that reduces or eliminates health risk, similar to flu and polio vaccines. Hopefully, this type of solution is on the way, but we aren’t there yet. For now, an engineered control might be the design and implementation of physical barriers to separate or physically distance the infected from the well. Barriers will be important measures for health-care systems, nursing homes, and those infected and at home around their families.
Administrative Controls — Setting procedures, standards, policies, and enforcing rules/laws around social distancing, quarantines or curfews are effective measures that governments (and companies) can take to curb the spread of the virus. Agencies can communicate these administrative controls by posting warnings and signs in workplaces and schools to remind people to wash hands upon entering and exiting. Social media is an obvious outlet agencies can use to build awareness of hygiene and disinfecting best practices, as well as recommended protocols.
PPE — In electrical and arc-flash safety, personal protective equipment (PPE) is an absolute necessity. However, it is also considered the least effective and last line of defense because it means the worker must be in physical proximity to the hazard. Appropriate PPE should be used in coordination with various other measures and when all other options to eliminate or reduce the hazard are exhausted. PPE is worn when there are no other options; it’s for the unavoidable frontline stuff. For coronavirus, this is what medical professionals must rely on. It includes particulate-filtering face masks, biohazard suits, and gloves. Please leave these limited supplies for those who must rely on them. PPE may not be as effective as the other measures, but for the dedicated professionals on the front lines, it may be their sole line of defense.
It’s important to look at the hierarchy as a system. Since administrative controls include policies, procedures, and decisions that determine how an organization’s people work, that’s a good place to start. Administrative controls outline the strategy, effort, and investment put into other levels within the hierarchy. For example, administrative controls include posting warnings, deploying communication channels, developing testing parameters, planning for crowd control, funding isolation areas, and prioritizing the appropriate use of available PPE. For coronavirus, the elimination and substitution levels of the hierarchy require added time and scientific research, but the steps from engineering controls through PPE are deployable right now and could change the trajectory of the infection rate.
Justin Gaull is the business development manager for CBS ArcSafe and is a former firefighter/EMT. He holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s degree in technology entrepreneurship. He is NFPA 70E certified.