As safety practitioners, we know that engineering controls (elimination, isolation or substitution) are the first and preferred levels in the Hierarchy of Controls. By eliminating or reducing the exposure to a hazard through the design of a job or workstation, we establish a level of safety for all people working there. Engineering controls, also called Prevention through Design (PtD), also reduce the need for administrative (behavioral) controls and use of personal protective equipment. PtD is not a new concept, but is a recent initiative that is taking hold again.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is leading a national initiative to promote this concept and highlight its importance in all business decisions. The concept continues to focus on planning and design of new workstations and process through two steps:
- Identifying hazards and
- Designing out the hazards through engineering controls.
It sounds easy. But if it is, why do environment, health and safety (EHS) programs struggle to control hazards after the fact? Why do safety professionals and management still rely heavily on behavioral and administrative controls instead of engineering controls? In my experience and through Humantech benchmarking studies, we’ve identified the three key elements for successful PtD processes as “At the right time, by the people (in the right role), and with the right criteria.”
- Right time: Prevention starts at the design phase when layout and tool design are concepts. This is where chemical, musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), and pinch-point hazards (to name a few) are easily identified by reviewing drawings and mock-ups. Changes made during the design phase to add capture ventilation, reduce reach distances, and add guarding cost 1/10 to 1/100 of what they would cost if made retroactively.
- Right people (role): The person(s) who designs the workplace or tool or specifies equipment is the best person to find and fix unacceptable exposures. Typically, these people are in an engineering role (process, production, mechanical, facilities or new product design engineers). Benchmarking studies continue to show that a common characteristic of companies with effective ergonomic improvement processes is that engineers, not solely the safety staff, are responsible and accountable for low-hazard design of the workplace.
- Right criteria: For engineers to be successful in designing jobs and workstations with low risk/hazard, they need the right tools. I am not referring to a shelf of engineering textbooks, but a limited and focused set of design guidelines, specific to that product or industry, that quickly provides the acceptable limits for design. Examples of ergonomic design guidelines include standing workstation height; reach distance; force limits for reaching, pulling or pressing; and viewing distance and placement. From this, engineers can quickly design the physical parameters of the workplace to fit the capability of the working population.
The concept of PtD sounds simple. And, in fact, it is simple. As simple as patching a leaky boat so you can paddle, not bail. Is PtD working in your organization? Is it practiced at all levels of the organization, or does EHS have to be the cheerleader and driver of the process? If success relies on EHS, what are the barriers you’ve encountered and how have you overcome them?