The Importance of HIPAA Physical Safeguards: A Comprehensive Guide


Passed in 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was created to protect patient privacy and facilitate the secure flow of protected health information (PHI). Embedded in the DNA of HIPAA is the Security Rule which requires the implementation of Administrative, Technical, and Physical safeguards. Amid an ever-expanding digital landscape and the rise of remote work, organizational focus is often on the Administrative and Technical aspects, overlooking the value of Physical safeguards. This guide seeks to restore the balance, examining the oft-overlooked but no less vital HIPAA physical safeguards and the role they play in HIPAA compliance.

Physical Safeguards Are Divided into Three Categories

The HIPAA Security Rule describes physical safeguards as “physical measures, policies, and procedures to protect a covered entity’s electronic information systems and related buildings and equipment, from natural and environmental hazards, and unauthorized intrusion.” Essentially, physical safeguards are the systems, policies, and procedures put into place by your HIPAA Privacy Officer to protect against unauthorized access to physical PHI as well as to devices containing ePHI. And as is typically the case with HIPAA, the rule affords some flexibility to covered entities and business associates as to how they choose to implement physical safeguards.

The HIPAA Security Rule delineates three categories under physical safeguards:

  1. Facility Access Controls
  2. Workstation Security and Use
  3. Device and Media Controls

Within each of these categories are specific safeguards, each of which carries a status tag—either "Required" or "Addressable". "Required" safeguards must be implemented as they stand, while "Addressable" safeguards offer some flexibility, allowing entities to adjust implementation (or choose not to implement) based on their unique circumstances.

Facility Access Controls

Facility Access Controls, as the name suggests, control access to facilities housing physical and electronic Protected Health Information. The fundamental necessity of these controls cannot be overstated—they stand as the first line of defense against unauthorized access to physical areas storing sensitive health information.

The facility access standard has four implementation specifications.

  • Contingency operations (Addressable)
  • Facility security plan (Addressable)
  • Access control and validation procedures (Addressable)
  • Maintenance records (Addressable)

Contingency Operations

The Contingency Operations requirement under the HIPAA Security Rule underlines the need for healthcare organizations to establish procedures that can be activated in the event of an emergency affecting the security of electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI). This requirement mandates the creation of an accessible, written plan outlining the actions to be taken during a crisis, such as a natural disaster, power outage, or cyber-attack. The contingency plan is meant to ensure that during such unforeseen circumstances, the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI is maintained, and that critical business processes continue with minimal disruption. This may include data backup plans, disaster recovery plans, or an emergency mode operation plan. This requirement, in essence, ensures that organizations are prepared to respond effectively to incidents that pose a risk to the security of sensitive healthcare data.

Facility Security Plan

The Facility Security Plan, as per the HIPAA Security Rule, necessitates healthcare entities to put in place robust measures to protect their physical facilities and equipment from unauthorized access, tampering, and theft. This plan must outline the protocols, practices, and strategies implemented to safeguard the premises and the devices within it that contain or have access to electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI). It ensures that sensitive health data is safe from physical threats, be it natural disasters or potential break-ins.

Examples of physical access controls include

  • locked doors
  • warning signage
  • identification badges
  • security escort

Access Controls and Validation Procedures

HIPAA states that a covered entity must “Implement procedures to control and validate a person’s access to facilities based on their role or function, including visitor control, and control of access to software programs for testing and revision.” The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that individuals only have access to specific information required for them to fulfill their role within an organization.  

Access controls can be as simple as traditional locks and keys or as advanced as biometric systems that require unique biological identifiers like fingerprints or retina scans. In a digital context, access controls can involve usernames and passwords, two-factor authentication, or even sophisticated network access control systems that can determine access permissions based on user roles, device types, and more.

Validation Procedures, on the other hand, are protocols established to confirm that the individuals seeking access to a particular resource are indeed who they claim to be. These procedures add an additional layer of security to ensure that only authorized individuals are granted access. For example, upon entering a username and password (access control), a user might then be prompted to input a unique code sent to their registered mobile device (validation procedure). This two-step process ensures that even if an unauthorized individual manages to bypass the initial access control, they would still need the unique code sent to the legitimate user's device to gain access, thereby adding an additional layer of protection against potential security breaches.

Maintenance Records

The Maintenance Records requirement under the HIPAA Security Rule is a vital aspect of ensuring accountability and tracking potential security incidents. According to this requirement, healthcare organizations must document repairs and modifications to the physical components of a facility which are related to security. This could include hardware, walls, doors, locks, or any other physical changes that could potentially affect the security of Protected Health Information (PHI). The intent is to maintain a clear record of alterations that may impact the security infrastructure. This not only aids in uncovering potential vulnerabilities but also provides valuable information in case of a security breach investigation. These records should be kept for a period of six years, as per the HIPAA guidelines.

Workstation Security and Use

Establishing stringent Workstation Security and Use safeguards is equally paramount. These guidelines focus on how workstations are used and protected, ensuring that sensitive data remains secure even in everyday work scenarios.

Workstation Security and Use safeguards include:

  • Workstation use policy (Required)
  • Workstation security measures (Addressable)

Workstation Use

The Workstation Use requirement under the HIPAA Security Rule mandates that all healthcare entities define what constitutes appropriate use of workstations where electronic protected health information (ePHI) can be accessed. This involves creating and implementing policies and procedures to specify the permissible functions, physical surroundings, and manner of use of these workstations. This requirement is crucial in ensuring that ePHI is not viewed, altered, deleted, or transmitted by unauthorized individuals, thus enhancing the overall security of sensitive health data.

With the advent of flexible working environments and the increasing use of portable devices, the Workstation Use requirement has become more critical than ever. It could involve measures such as restricting the use of workstations to certain activities or requiring automatic screen locks after a period of inactivity. Regular training and awareness sessions should also be conducted to ensure all employees are well-versed in these policies and the consequences of non-compliance. (read Who Needs HIPAA Training? The Ultimate Guide for 2023 and Back to Basics: How Often is HIPAA Training Required? [2023 Edition] to learn our thoughts on HIPAA training)

Workstation Security

The Workstation Security requirement of the HIPAA Security Rule goes hand in hand with the Workstation Use requirement. It necessitates healthcare entities to implement physical safeguards for all workstations that can access electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI), limiting the risk of unauthorized access. These safeguards can range from simple measures like privacy screens, secure workstation positioning, and secure storage for portable devices, to more complex solutions such as biometric access controls. Essentially, the aim is to ensure that workstations - be it a computer in a hospital, a laptop in a home office, or a mobile device used on the move - are all secured in a manner that prevents unauthorized individuals from accessing sensitive healthcare data.

Device and Media Controls

Device and Media Controls cover the use and reuse of hardware and electronic media that store ePHI, including their disposal or reassignment. Implementation of these controls is critical to restrict unauthorized access to or loss of ePHI.

Examples of Device and Media Controls include:

  • Disposal of ePHI (Required)
  • Media re-use (Required)
  • Accountability (Addressable)
  • Data Backup and Storage (Addressable)

Disposal of ePHI

The Disposal requirement under the HIPAA Security Rule demands healthcare entities to establish and implement policies and procedures to properly dispose of electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI). The goal is to render the ePHI unreadable, indecipherable, and incapable of being reconstructed. Whether it involves securely deleting digital files or physically destroying media devices, this requirement is crucial in preventing unauthorized access to discarded, lost, or stolen PHI, thereby bolstering the security and privacy of sensitive health data.

Media Reuse

The Media Reuse requirement under the HIPAA Security Rule mandates healthcare organizations to implement procedures for removing electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) from electronic media before the media are made available for reuse. This ensures that ePHI is not accidentally disclosed to unauthorized individuals when a storage device, such as a hard drive, is repurposed or recycled. Essentially, the requirement aims to prevent unauthorized access to ePHI in scenarios where storage media are reused within the organization or externally.


The Accountability requirement under the HIPAA Security Rule imposes a responsibility on healthcare entities to maintain a record of movements of hardware and electronic media, as well as any person responsible thereof. This helps in creating an audit trail that can assist in identifying the cause and extent of a breach, should one occur. Essentially, this requirement serves to enhance the traceability of protected health information (PHI), thereby helping ensure the integrity and security of sensitive healthcare data.

Data Backup and Storage

The Data Backup and Storage requirement under the HIPAA Security Rule obligates healthcare entities to create retrievable, exact copies of electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI). This is a crucial component of contingency planning, ensuring that critical health information is not lost and can be restored in the event of a data loss incident such as a ransomware attack, technical malfunction, or natural disaster.

Risks of Failing to Implement Physical Safeguards

The risk of neglecting to implement HIPAA physical safeguards is twofold: the potential exposure of sensitive health data and the risk of substantial penalties for non-compliance. Fines can range from $100 to $50,000 per violation, with a maximum annual penalty of $1.5 million for repeated instances of the same violation (see our compilation of the worst ever HIPAA violations).

For example, in 2012, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) paid $1.7 million to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for a potential HIPAA violation involving a stolen USB hard drive—an incident that could have been prevented with adequate physical safeguards.


In the realm of healthcare data security, the importance of HIPAA physical safeguards simply cannot be overstated. From controlling access to facilities and securing workstations to managing devices and media, these safeguards form a solid foundation for protecting sensitive health information. As we navigate the interconnected world of 2023, let's not forget that the physical realm still holds immense relevance in our battle against data breaches and unauthorized access. By implementing HIPAA physical safeguards, healthcare organizations can uphold the sanctity of patient data, maintain legal compliance, and cultivate a trustworthy reputation among patients.

At TeachMeHIPAA, we offer high quality HIPAA training solutions for you and your staff, as well as well researched informational content on our blog. Feel free to contact us at [email protected] if there's anything we can do to help you and your organization on the track to HIPAA compliance!


What are some examples of HIPAA or PHI physical safeguards?
Examples include locked doors and cabinets, security cameras, secure servers, workstation use policies, and proper device and media disposal methods.

What happens if a healthcare provider does not comply with the physical safeguards of HIPAA’s security rule?
Non-compliance with HIPAA can result in civil and criminal penalties, including fines up to $1.5 million and imprisonment up to 10 years for knowing misuse of individually identifiable health information.

Why are HIPAA physical safeguards so important?
They ensure the security of ePHI, foster trust with patients, prevent costly data breaches, and keep healthcare providers in line with the law.

What else should I know about HIPAA compliance?
Read our article The Keys to Success for HIPAA Compliance: What You Need to Know for the ultimate overview of how to hit the mark on HIPAA compliance! Or check out our overview on the three rules of HIPAA for a brief review.

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