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A hierarchy of controls is the best defense we have against this pandemic, or any pandemic, for that matter.

These Five Workplace Measures Combat COVID

Rule No.1: Don’t panic.

As the world continues to come back from COVID-19 and people navigate the “new normal,” we face the possibility that there will be more illnesses, deaths, business closures and more time hitting the “pause” button while we try to figure out how to keep the economy going while limiting infection.

If we do this wrong, we’ll see another wave of infection. We’re here to help you get through this.

First Rule: Don’t Panic

The coronavirus may be novel, but infectious diseases are nothing new. The same methods organizations use to control other infections can effectively stop the spread of COVID-19.

Use the hierarchy of controls, to structure protective measures into 5 stages:

1. Elimination

2. Substitution

3. Engineering Controls

4. Administrative Controls

5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Each stage makes up your line of defense.


It is the first and most effective option but it’s also the most challenging. Once a virus enters an environment, you can’t conclusively or permanently remove it. Instead, you must remove the people, which means temporarily closing your business.

No work means no chance for workers to transmit COVID-19 to each other but isn’t ideal when you must have workers on location.  Also, closing the business is effective in ensuring employees will not contract the virus in the workplace, but they still can contract the virus elsewhere.


Since it isn’t necessarily reasonable to close your business, many people use the second form of control: substitution. You can’t replace the virus, but you can replace the workplace with another environment – or rather a network of isolated environments. Substitution means having employees work from home when possible.

Engineering Controls

In the safety field, these frequently take the form of machines and structures—e.g., fences, lifts, restraints, and pullback devices. But with COVID-19, you can’t build a fence around a virus.

social distancing at work .jpgInstead of isolating employees from hazardous areas, consider how to isolate employees from each other. Separate workers into discrete areas like cubicles or offices that are spread out. Remove community amenities such as coffee stations, snack plates, community sitting areas or breakrooms.

At the same time, you need to keep your customers far apart, limit the number of them entering your physical location, or consider if you need to keep them outside your location altogether.

If and when customers enter your business, limit their proximity to each other, as well as to employees, especially receptionists. Consider putting up a temporary partition at your front desk or increase the efficiency of the air filtration system with stronger filters.

Finally, door handles are one of the biggest areas of contamination.  Push bars on exit doors and foot pull tabs on restroom doors (which do not require hand interaction) could be engineering control upgrades.

Administrative Controls

This may be the most practical form of preventing COVID-19 infection. Your organization keeps your people safe through policy-level behavioral interventions.

Social distancing is one form of administrative control. You already know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people maintain at least six feet from one another. This means no handshakes, hugs or high-fives.

Consider requiring employees leave at least one seat between them during meetings and other gatherings. Limit the number of people who can occupy a space.

Institute mandatory hand-washing times. Employees in shared physical environments should wash their hands every 30 minutes. Consider announcing hand-washing times over your speaker system or remind people via email or text. Employees should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds.

Common surfaces must be disinfected, such as desks, door handles, stair handrails, elevator buttons and light switches. Wipe things down often. Fogging machines have widely been used to disinfect larger areas and customer areas such as vehicles which employees must enter.

Lastly, stop any sharing among employees. No sharing phones, equipment or keys. Any shared vehicles should be disinfected between uses. Disable touch screens or restrict their use wherever possible and wipe them down regularly.  

Investigate different ways to obtain data and authorization signatures so customers no employees need to touch screens, pens, or keypads.  If a consent to perform work is needed, consider text confirmation from the customer.


Technically, PPE is the least desirable and least effective way to prevent COVID-19 when you’re thinking about the hierarchy of controls.

But right now, it’s necessary, and can save lives. Just don’t make it your only strategy.

Elimination, substitution, and engineering and administrative controls are all better strategies. And the best risk management strategies have all five levels of control in place.

Zach Pucillo.pngOnerous as it may seem, the hierarchy of controls is the best defense we have against this pandemic, or any pandemic, for that matter. (Wards Industry Voices contributor Zach Pucillo, left) 

Zach Pucillo is a team supervisor for environmental health and safety at HR consultancy KPA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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