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By Amanda Morton, VelocityEHS Consultant

The hierarchy of controls is the framework that safety professionals use to determine the most effective improvements to reduce exposure to hazards in the workplace. Exposures include chemical hazards, physical hazards, biological hazards, and musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk factors such as heavy lifting and repetitive motion (OSHA).

One of the leading causes for injuries and illnesses in the workplace is a failure to identify hazards that could have been anticipated. When it comes to MSD risk, having the right tools to quantify risk in your workplace is the first step in an effective ergonomics process. The next and arguably most important step is determining what kind of meaningful changes will make a positive impact on your workforce, enabling them to maintain their wellbeing in the tasks they are performing while also benefitting other areas of business such as production and efficiency.

Hierarchy of Controls for MSD Risk Mangement

The hierarchy of controls model for MSD risk management is based on current models of leading agencies and institutions. We are guided by five general levels of control to reflect the current research supporting their effectiveness, from most impactful to least impactful:

  • Eliminate
  • Equipment Change
  • Job Rotation & Schedule
  • Work Instruction & Coaching
  • Provide PPE, stretching, fitness, or other programs

MSD Risk Control Categories

Of the five levels of controls, we can bucket each into three category types:

  • Engineering: Physical changes to the work environment that eliminate or reduce exposure to MSD risk factors. “Well-designed engineering controls…will typically be independent of worker interactions.” (NIOSH, 2016). This includes Elimination & Equipment Changes.
  • Administrative: Administrative changes to the work pace and work force to reduce exposure to MSD risk factors. “These measures include additional relief workers, exercise breaks, and rotation of workers. These types of controls are normally used in conjunction with other controls that more directly prevent or control exposure to the hazard.” (OSHA, 2015) This includes Job Rotation & Schedule, Work Instruction & Coaching.
  • Other: Personal protective equipment (PPE), stretching and fitness programs, job matching, etc. (NIOSH, 1983,1994,2013; OSHA, 2003, 2008)

Impactful Improvements for the 2 Largest MSD Risk Factors

When determining how to make changes that will have the most impact, we also focus on the top two MSD risk factors: High Force and Awkward Posture. The presence of a high force in a task has the highest potential to increase the risk of MSDs, followed by the presence of an awkward posture. Below are examples of controls, listed in order of most to least effective, to help steer you and your team toward implementing meaningful improvements in your workplace.

  • Engineering: Eliminate MSD risk – Provide a lift assist device to eliminate manual material handling; Design the workstation to eliminate awkward postures.
  • Engineering: Change equipment to reduce MSD risk – Provide handles to allow for optimal grip using large muscle groups; Orient fixed height workbench within the optimal hand working height zone.
  • Administrative: Job Rotation & Scheduling – Implement job rotation to decrease length of exposure to MSD risk factors; Provide relief workers to allow for extra breaks.
  • Administrative: Work Instruction & Coaching – Educate operators on proper lifting techniques or to seek assistance when lifting bulkier objects; Educate operators on how to set up their workstation to maintain a more neutral posture.
  • Other: PPE, stretching, fitness programs, job matching, etc. – Implement task-specific stretch programs to prepare and maintain muscle groups to perform the task; Post-offer and/or pre-employment testing to ensure workers can safely perform the jobs they’re tasked with.

Engagement Is the Key to Long-Lasting Workplace Improvements

The key to making any workplace improvement long-lasting is to engage your operators. They are the experts in their role and may be eager to provide ideas for changes that you might not have considered. The effectiveness of engineering and administrative controls to reduce risk has been described by OSHA (2016), NIOSH (2015), and other organizations. Consider following our hierarchy of controls when determining the most feasible and effective improvements based on the needs of your operators and the capacity of your budget and resources.

For more insight on managing your ergonomics process to reduce MSD risk, check out our eBook, Learn.Do.Manage.


OSHA: Identifying Hazard Control Options: The Hierarchy of Controls 

OSHA: Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs