With stubbornly high COVID-19 infection rates and a highly infectious variants of the virus in circulation, now may be a good time for workplaces to review or rethink their pandemic protocols.
WSPS Health and Safety Consultant Kristin Onorato believes the best tool for this is already available to every workplace - the hierarchy of controls.
A critical component of health and safety management systems and standards, the hierarchy of controls is also embedded in Ontario's COVID-19 Response Framework, and can help workplaces determine whether they are taking the most effective steps to reduce the risk of employees and customers contracting COVID-19.
To help you understand how to apply the hierarchy to COVID-19, Kristin explains how it works and provides clear examples of which types of controls work best.
5 types of controls
The hierarchy comprises five types of controls from most effective to least effective: elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
In the rush to implement controls last spring, some workplaces relied on the bottom two controls - administrative and PPE - because they are often seen as faster, easier and cheaper to implement. "But they are also the least effective," says Kristin. While these types of controls play a role in your COVID-19 safety plan, on their own they lessen your ability to prevent COVID-19 from entering the workplace and spreading. "Any savings upfront could cost you more in the long term if they don’t prevent an outbreak," says Kristin.
Controls that are process oriented (i.e. elimination, substitution and engineering) reduce risk more effectively because they typically involve implementing an inherently safer system. For example, removing half the chairs from the lunchroom (engineering control) and staggering breaks (administrative control) promotes physical distancing at no cost.
COVID-19 control examples
When applying the hierarchy of controls, start at the top and ask questions until you arrive at the best possible solution, advises Kristin. "Can I eliminate this? Yes. The work can be done from home. Can I enforce physical distancing? No. Then I will use administrative controls such as signage and floor markings to encourage physical distancing. And so on."
Kristin offers specific examples for each type of control:
- Elimination - often the most effective control there is, says Kristin. Working from home is a classic choice. "It eliminates exposure through in-person interactions." Other examples: screening programs for employees and essential visitors for COVID-19 that bar entrance for anyone with symptoms of the virus.
- Substitution - involves replacing something that's hazardous with something that's less risky. "For instance, replace in-person joint health and safety committee meetings with online meetings, even if they are all in the workplace."
- Engineering - controls built into a system or design. "The best examples from a COVID perspective would be installing a guard or a barrier to separate employees, and updating your workplace's HVAC system to increase air turnover."
- Administrative - "One example would be posting a sign. For instance, a sign in the washroom that says, "Please wash your hands using this method," with photos. Other types of administrative controls include training, policies and procedures (e.g. a requirement for face coverings), postings, and floor markings.
- PPE - this could include gloves, NIOSH-approved masks, safety goggles or face shields depending on a risk assessment of the task. "For example, employees who provide first aid, or those who escort employees with COVID-19 symptoms to isolation areas, might require some of this equipment."
How WSPS can help
WSPS' Post Pandemic Playbook includes a wealth of information on managing COVID-19, including applying the hierarchy of controls and more examples of control methods.
Sector-specific best practices and hazard controls for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appear in more than 100 COVID-19 sector-specific health and safety guidance documents.
WSPS also offers sample safety plans. All employers are encouraged to establish a safety plan to protect against COVID-19.
These and many other resources appear on WSPS' COVID-19 Hub.