Using the Hierarchy of Controls to Reduce the Risk of COVID Infection and Spread at Work

Many workplaces are trying to create safe, healthy work environments so workers can come to work and get work done while also not getting infected with COVID-19 or spreading COVID-19 to other coworkers.

In some cases, it’s a safety professional who’s playing a big role in the organization’s COVID mitigation strategies. And in those cases, even if the safety professional would be happy for additional guidance and suggestions, workers are no doubt in good hands. Job hazard analyses are being performed, risk assessments are being run, and hazard controls are being put into place using the hierarchy of controls.

In some other cases, an organization won’t have a dedicated safety professional on staff and these COVID mitigation prevention efforts may fall to someone in HR or someone with similar job responsibilities. It’s our belief that this article can be helpful to people in the first group (the safety professionals) and people in the second group (our friends in HR), but that in particular these people in HR-like roles who have COVID safety and health responsibilities thrust on them during a national emergency can use (and deserve) a helping hand.

So in this article, we’re going to introduce the idea of using the hierarchy of controls to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the workplace.

Before we get started, we wanted to direct your attention to three things:

With that, we’ll get started introducing you to how to use the safety concept of the hierarchy of controls to reduce the spread of COVID during your Return to Work efforts.

What Is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a virus (and a virus in a family of viruses known as coronaviruses). It emerged in 2019 and spread throughout the world, creating a global pandemic and contributing to the death of millions of people.

Currently, COVID is linked to at least 500,000 deaths in the US, and that number is of course rising daily.

How Does COVID Spread?

COVID largely spreads through the air. Generally a person who’s infected with COVID ejects small droplets of water while talking, breathing, sneezing, or coughing; those droplets, which contain the virus, travel briefly through the air; the droplets them land in an uninfected person’s eyes, mouth, or nose (such as when the second person takes a breath); and that’s how the second person gets infected.

Read much more about COVID and how it’s spread at the CDC website.

What Are Some “Every Day” Ways to Limit the Spread of COVID-19

Methods we can all practice every day, even when at home, include staying home; limiting the number of people we’re around; staying six feet or more away from people; wearing face masks; covering our mouths with a tissue or something similar when we sneeze; washing our hands frequently and well; and, of course, getting vaccinated when it’s our turn.

What Can I Do at Work to Limit the Spread of COVID-19?

Of course, those “every day” COVID prevention strategies can work at the workplace, too.

Allow workers to stay home if they can telecommute and definitely have them stay home if they’ve been exposed or if they may have the virus. Make sure workers know what COVID is and how it spreads, how they can work together to reduce the spread of COVID, and all of your special COVID-related workplace policies and procedures.

We’ve prepared a handy 16-point Prevent COVID at Work checklist for you that spells out a whole bunch of things you can do. Be sure to download it and use it to make your workplace safer.

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What Is the Hierarchy of Controls?

This is familiar territory for safety professionals (at least most of them) but may be less-familiar to people who are “all hands on deck” at work to help reduce the risk of COVID spread despite the fact they’re not typically involved in occupational safety and health issues.

To get you started, take a look at this CDC-NIOSH Hierarchy of Controls page.

The general idea is that once you’ve identified a hazard (or hazards) at work, sometimes through a process known as a job hazard analysis, you use the hierarchy of controls as a framework to consider how to implement controls that mitigate the risk of the identified hazards.

The basic ideas are these:

  1. When considering controls, you should work from the “top” of the hierarchy of controls (things like elimination) and work your way down toward the bottom (things like PPE). That’s why it’s called a “hierarchy”–because controls at the top of the hierarchy, if they can be implemented, are preferable to controls at the bottom.
  2. The hierarchy of controls is often discussed in a way to make you think you’ll ultimately select only one control per hazard, but that’s not necessarily the case and often isn’t the best final solution. You may use two or more controls for a hazard, such as implementing an engineering control and also using PPE.
  3. Personal protective equipment, or PPE, should NEVER be the first control you should consider implementing. PPE is always the control of last resort. Always try to use other controls from higher levels of the hierarchy of controls  before you consider having workers wearing PPE.

How Can I Use the Hierarchy of Controls to Limit the Spread of COVID-19 at Work?

When it comes to using the hierarchy of controls to mitigate the spread of COVID at work, OSHA calls for a combination of controls, including eliminating the hazard, implementing engineering controls, putting into place workplace administrative policies, using PPE, and implementing other measures. Notice this isn’t a “one-control-is-the-entire-solution” situation.

For example, to eliminate the hazard, have workers work from home when possible; have workers who have been exposed or are infected stay at home; and isolate any worker who begins to show symptoms at work.

An example of an engineering control might be improving the ventilation at your workplace or placing physical barriers so that people can’t work as closely.

Administrative workplace controls might include things like providing safety and health training about COVID, staggering shifts, and paying workers even when they leave work to get tested or get a vaccination.

And PPE, of course, includes things like cloth facemasks, gloves, and tight-fitting respirators.

What Further Tips Does OSHA Provide for Mitigating COVID-19 Risks at Work?

OSHA’s January 29, 2021 guidance provides a lot of good tips for employers. Perhaps the central feature is set of guidelines for creating your own workplace COVID Prevention Plan that includes 16 elements and is the basis of the COVID/Return to Work checklist we’ve mentioned a few times.

Additionally, OSHA places additional emphasis on the importance of:

  • Isolating and quarantining workers who are sick, potentially sick, exposed, or potentially exposed
  • Using physical distancing and keeping people six feet away from each other or more
  • Using face coverings
  • Providing and/or improving ventilation
  • Using PPE when appropriate and necessary
  • Providing materials so workers can practice proper personal hygiene
  • Disinfecting and sanitizing the workplace

Conclusion: The Hierarchy of Controls Can Help Keep Workers at Your Organization Safe and Healthy During the COVID-19 Pandemic

We hope this article was helpful to you, whether you’re a safety professional or not, and we hope your organization is able to keep working while also keeping employees and their families safe and healthy during the COVID pandemic.

Please feel free to check out these other articles on COVID we’ve written recently:

And before you go, don’t forgot to download the checklist below! 

COVID-Return to Work Checklist

Download this checklist, based on OSHA’s January 29. 2021 “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace,” to help keep the workers at your organization safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Download Checklist

COVID Return to Work Checklist Button

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