Guest Post by John Wettstein from Safety Strategies
The below graphic ‘Hierarchy of Controls’ is a standard system promoted by the majority in safety as a reference for control to minimize or eliminate exposure to hazards.
The below graphic how to apply the ‘Hierarchy of Controls’ during a Pandemic has been floating around on LinkedIn, various safety blogs, etc.
Let me offer some views from my reading and learnings on why the HOC is not so effective. The Hierarchy of Control drives linear or simplistic thinking and does not include many other ways we need to analyze risk. (e.g. bias, experience, knowledge, hubris, hindsight, etc.). ‘Hierarchy of Controls’ does not force thinking on risk shift or unintended by-products/trade-offs. For example, when we say ‘Stay at Home’ and believe we have managed the risk (risk cannot be eliminated only managed), what about by-products now introduced (e.g. isolation-mental health). As another example, ‘Wearing a Face Mask’, we may now have created a safety illusion. I’ve noticed people wearing masks in stores and many not observing the six feet of
social physical distancing. Considering one of Dr. Rob Long’s questions offered below; could masks be creating unintended consequences? Could a mask provide such a strong sense of security that we become lax in protecting ourselves in all the other ways that are recommended?
To strengthen our critical thinking on risk management, Dr. Rob Long recommends:
“The only way to escape the trap of the tool as the method is to take up more qualitative activities in safety work. It is such activities as walks, learning, listening, dialogue, considering uncertainties, conversations and critical thinking that are of much greater value to the development of a safer organization.”
My personal favourite open questions to ask when considering hazard controls and to avoid using the HOC are:
- Walk me through the process or what you are doing?
- What are some of the things that might go wrong and what do you/can you do about them?
- What are some better ways (I don’t say safer ways) of doing this?
- What effect might those different ways have on the risk to other people or other steps in the process?
To end, the question I would like people to think about (and answer here if you are brave) was inspired by Rob Sams, who asks this question: “I’m not sure that a simple linear ‘solution’ focused approach (e.g. The hierarchy) is well matched to complex challenges (like risk). Do you think that the Hierarchy of Controls might be the outcome of a too simplistic approach to dealing with risk?”
Thanks to my mentors and colleagues Dave Collins, Dr. Robert Long, and Robert Sams along with some reading for these learnings that make a difference.