The COVID-19 pandemic has given renewed attention to the use of engineering controls. We see it daily in the plexiglass that retailers and groceries have placed between their cashiers and the public. It’s also highlighted the reality that personal protective equipment (PPE) and good housekeeping, no matter how stringent, may not be enough to protect workers. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently cited the lack of engineering controls as a significant contributor to the high numbers of COVID-19 cases at a South Dakota meat packing plant. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) maintains an engineering control database that includes the latest research on controls that can reduce or eliminate hazards. Here is how you can use engineering controls in your workplace.

The Importance of Engineering Controls

Engineering controls protect workers in one of two ways — they either remove the hazardous conditions, or they create a physical barrier between the worker and the hazard. An example of the former is a ventilation system. An example of the latter is, of course, the plexiglass barrier.

Engineering controls often work better than administrative controls or PPE because they are intended to remove the hazard before it comes into contact with the worker. In fact, in its hierarchy of effective controls, the CDC places engineering controls just after elimination and substitution and well before administration controls and PPE.

Uses of Engineering Controls

Engineering controls can initially be more expensive than PPE or administrative controls, but over the long term these costs usually level out. Engineering controls can also offer additional benefits to workplaces, such as cost savings in other parts of the process.

Engineering controls cover a wide range of interventions that are designed to protect workers from exposure to chemical, physical and biological hazards. They can include everything from a physical modification of the process to the installation of additional equipment. The type of engineering control you should use will depend on three factors:

  • The type of work process involved
  • The nature of the hazard (toxicity, release mechanism, etc.)
  • The route of exposure (inhalation, absorption, ingestion, injection or other)

Here are how engineering controls can be used to eliminate some of the most common hazards in your workplace.

Chemical Hazards

Chemical hazards put workers at risk in many industries. In some cases, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set exposure limits for specific chemicals, including lead, asbestos and others. Engineering controls, including process changes, ventilation and containment, can help your company stay within these exposure limits and help you protect your workers from these and other chemical hazards.

Process Changes

The use of wet methods which involve the use of water to eliminate dust or inhalation hazards when drilling, grinding or sweeping can help control chemical hazards. You can also change your processes to minimize worker contact with hazardous chemicals. The automation of processes and mechanical transportation also reduces worker contact with dangerous materials.

Ventilation

Local exhaust ventilation can isolate and remove airborne emissions from public areas and worksites. Fume hoods can help protect those who are working in a specific area with these chemicals. General dilatation ventilation, in which chemical content in the air is diluted by uncontaminated air throughout the entire worksite, can also help protect your workspaces.

Containment

An effective engineering control used to contain exposure to hazardous chemicals is to isolate or enclose processes that involve these chemicals. Depending upon the type of hazard, this could mean an isolation booth or room. It could also mean something more simple such as a “glove box” where the chemical is isolated in a ventilated, and enclosed space and the worker handles the material through the use of built-in gloves.

Physical Hazards

Physical hazards exist in every workplace and range widely in terms of both the root cause and the severity of the injury they cause. This means there are an equally wide variety of engineering controls that can be implemented to control these hazards and keep your workers safe. For example, installing cameras can reduce the risk of psychosocial hazards such as workplace violence. Typically, none of these controls interferes with the worker’s comfort or productivity. Ergonomic hazards such as falls, falling objects and noise can all be effectively controlled through engineering.

Ergonomics

Engineering controls are used to design workstations and tools that are a better fit for workers. This helps prevent repetitive strain injuries and other musculoskeletal injuries. Examples of these include mechanical lifting aids in warehouses or office furniture that reduces awkward posture for workers.

Falls and Falling Objects

Examples of engineering controls designed to prevent falls, slips, trips and falling objects include railings, barriers, fall restraints and harnesses. However, you can also eliminate the physical hazards that cause these injuries through engineering controls that redirect traffic and workflows.

Noise

Engineering controls can also reduce or eliminate noise hazards. For example, sound barriers and insulation can enclose or isolate the source of the noise. Conversely, you can isolate the worker in a soundproof room or booth. Eliminating gaps in machine guards or covering them entirely can help reduce vibration noise.

Biological Hazards

Biological hazards exist in several industries, including healthcare, agriculture, laboratories and even the hotel industry. They include bacteria, viruses, fungi, insects, plants, animals and even humans and can cause everything from mild discomfort to life-threatening illnesses. Of course, stringent cleaning procedures can help eliminate biological hazards, but there are other engineering controls, including containment, ventilation and disposal controls, which can help.

Containment

Contain biological hazards in locked, designated rooms such as an isolation room. Construction seals to create negative-pressure rooms are another example of ways to contain bio-hazards. Even something as simple as automatic flush toilets, taps and soap dispensers can help eliminate the accidental spread of biohazards.

Ventilation

Appropriate well-maintained ventilation is a further engineering control that can help protect your workers from biohazards. Depending on the nature of the hazards your people are working with, consider bio-safety hoods with individual ventilation systems.

Disposal Controls

Provide clearly labelled, puncture-proof containers for the disposal of medical and other biological waste, including syringes and needles.

A Multi-Pronged Approach

Few engineering controls work in isolation. Your best defence is a collection of orchestrated physical engineering modifications used in conjunction with other prevention methods all geared towards keeping your workers safe.