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A Layered Approach to Mitigating Workplace Safety Risks

A construction worker is working on a rusty metal bridge.

When it comes to improving occupational safety and reducing the costs that workplace risks present, organizations often want to know how insurance carriers measure those risks, according to Don Tolbert, a speaker at the International Safety Equipment Association's fall meeting in Alexandria, Va.

Although the number of workplace injuries and illnesses has generally declined over the past decade, fatalities have increased. There were 4,821 fatal workplace injuries in the U.S. in 2014, according to the 2014 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS said this is the highest number of fatalities since 2008.

So what can businesses do to reduce the risk of serious injury or death in the workplace?

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Determine Regulatory Requirements for Safety]

Businesses should take a layered approach to risk mitigation, said Tolbert, who is the technical director of risk control services for Liberty Mutual Group—a global insurer headquartered in Boston.

Some employers focus only on personal protective equipment, and while that's important, it should be considered the last measure, he said.

Identifying the Risks

The Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety produces an annual safety index that identifies the top 10 causes of disabling workplace injuries. Tolbert noted that the following causes have consistently been in the top five:

  • Overexertion.
  • Falls on the same level.
  • Falls to a lower level.
  • Struck by an object or piece of equipment.
  • Other exertion or bodily reactions, such as slipping without falling or reaching for a falling object.

The cost of falls on the same level has increased in recent years and is likely to continue increasing in the future, Tolbert noted.

Falls to a lower level and incidents where workers were struck by objects or equipment are also costly. They represented a $10 billion cost in 2013—the year for which the most recent data were collected.

It's safe to assume the reported costs will be higher in the next index, Tolbert added.

Layered Approach

As a best practice for mitigating the risk of serious injuries, Tolbert pointed to the "hierarchy of hazard control," which is a tiered approach to minimizing safety risks and works as follows:

  • Elimination. In simple terms, this means that safety hazards should be eliminated from the workplace whenever possible. For example, Tolbert said, if employees are working at heights, businesses should evaluate whether any activities can be done on the ground instead.
  • Substitution. Can a hazardous substance or piece of equipment be replaced with something less dangerous?
  • Engineering controls. These controls don't get rid of the hazard but they aim to isolate workers from the risk. Tolbert said these controls mitigate events that could cause harm by, for example, putting workers behind guardrails or on elevating work platforms.
  • Administrative controls. These include employee training, placing warning labels on products and posting signs in work areas that alert people to possible hazards.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE includes items such as safety glasses, hard hats and respirators. Tolbert said this is the last point at which harm can be mitigated.

Businesses should think of the hierarchy of hazard control as a layered approach rather than a menu of options, he suggested. "Many people may think that if they put guards up they don't have to do anything more, but it's more complex than that," he said.

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