The Reason Safe Permit to Work Systems Fail

The Reason Safe Permit to Work Systems Fail

Accident data from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), case studies, and practices laid out by the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) all point to the failure of permit to work (PTW) systems as a main contributor to major workplace accidents. These sometimes-catastrophic events often damage facilities, causing a loss of time and materials within that correlating industry, and can sometimes cost workers’ lives. To better understand the root of this recurring issue, we must first take a closer look at the process for PTW acquisition.

What is a permit to work?

Permit to work connects various health and safety systems, to implement a robust control on high-hazard work activities. PTW was created to manage operational risk related to maintenance activities, safeguarding lives and assets.

A permit to work is typically required in the following two situations:

  1. Within Manufacturing- when there is a deviation from normal operating procedures (non-routine work).
  2. Within Construction- when the risk and complexity of the activity are too high to be managed by regular safe operating procedures.

The purpose of the permit is to verify that the designated area is safe to commence work. This is achieved by conducting checks on multiple mechanical, electrical, civil, and structural components in the work area. The intent of a permit to work system is to motivate a careful approach to highly dangerous situations and encourage workers to STOP, THINK, and ACT appropriately. PTW demands permit users to meticulously plan the work and control all observable hazards within reason and predictability by:

  1. Serving as a check sheet for identifying hazards and their corresponding controls.
  2. Assigning accountability and responsibility to the designated staff.

Completing a safe PTW does NOT make the work safe, however. It provides the most practical framework to implement field-level safety controls and processes for mitigating risk. Permit to work systems cooperate with other EH&S practices (e.g., hazard identification and risk assessment- HIRA, the hierarchy of controls, incident management, and change management).

Types of PTW:

Safe PTW systems differ depending on the nature and complexity of the organization, but some of the common types of permits include:

  1. General Work Permit (painting, power tools, equipment, electrical, and chemical transfers)
  2. Hot Work
  3. Working at Heights (scaffolding and manually elevated work platforms)
  4. Confined Space
  5. Excavation Permit
  6. Lock Out of Hazardous Energy
  7. Heavy Lift or Critical lift
  8. Radiography
  9. Photography or Videography Permit
  10. Vehicle Entry Certificate
  11. Special Hazards

Coordination between operations, maintenance, and EH&S protocols is of prime importance to ensure the effectiveness of the PTW systems.

The problem with hardcopy.

Permits are inherently hierarchical documents that require multiple layers of approval. Hardcopy permit to work systems require workers to obtain permits before beginning certain operations. This system has been criticized for its lack of clarity, making it difficult for workers to navigate. Additionally, when the general fields in a PTW (date, time, location, activity, equipment, permit issuer, reviewer, etc.) all need to be manually filled in for each work permit before work can commence, there is a perceived loss of productive hours for that operation. Most employees and contractors, therefore, consider PTW systems to be an unwanted administrative task, rather than intentional mitigation of risks.

With the introduction of software that utilizes automation, the pace of work has accelerated in a way that hardcopy PTW systems cannot attain. Continuing to utilize an archaic system causes workers and contractors to cut corners on risk-mitigating processes to maintain a desirable level of production. Additionally, hardcopy PTW systems entail the difficulty of permit administrators often being separated from the worksite and therefore, unable to quickly verify that the appropriate controls are in place. Digital PTW systems allow users to provide real-time worksite condition updates by accessing device cameras to take pictures and immediately upload them (along with any other necessary documentation) to the cloud.

Control is key in the administration of a PTW. In the case of hardcopy, when a change is made to one part of the permit, that change is not immediately applied to all the copies held by all assigned users (the permit issuer, a contractor, the permit reviewer, etc.) and must be laboriously communicated before work can safely continue. Furthermore, editing carbon copies can result in missing fields, damaged copies, and illegible text.

Hardcopy PTW poses additional challenges to data tracking. Often permits will call upon previously filed data, leading to much time and space being dedicated to the storing and accessing of such information. Relaying permit conditions, cancellations, and/or suspensions via email, spoken word, or the transfer of hardcopies can also be an administrative nightmare that ends in more audits being required. When an operation involves multiple types of permits, tracking the various required paperwork can be a daunting task. For example, spray painting the interior of a tank could require at least 4 different permits (general work, confined space, working at a height, and hot work permits). These challenges can be more easily controlled by grouping electronic forms, digitally assigning work permits to user groups, and including permit tags that enable the ability to quickly cross reference correlating work by type, group, or area.

PTW systems that rely solely on hardcopy permits require much more time, training, and other resources from teams. The lack of real-time visibility means administrative and corrective actions take a greater toll. Additionally, written permits are at an increased risk of being delayed or lost in transit, potentially exposing workers to foreseeable dangers. These rigid and complex solutions cannot keep up with rapid changes in workplace conditions. Maintaining hardcopy permits heightens the probability of introducing human error and could lead to non-compliance or worse.

The business case for a cloud-based permit to work solution.

Cloud-based permit to work systems fill the gaps and workarounds that come with dated systems. A fully integrated, cloud-based solution allows users to digitally track all permits and relevant data from the comfort of a desktop or mobile device. Having all permit information stored digitally in a central location diminishes the possibilities of inputting errors, miscommunication, delayed approval and reviews, etc. Archiving essential permit information (including the permit number, status, location, assigned PPE and employees, etc.) in a secure, online repository also expedites the processes of accessing and exporting that data. This greatly increases the reach and control that management has over any hazardous work being performed in their facilities.

A configurable, cloud-based software solution empowers users to manage different permit to work forms (such as printing off permits for worker use) and update permit templates as necessary. These templates available on robust PTW management software typically include the details (building permits, contractors with existing permits in the same location, etc.) required to meet state and federal regulations.

During the auditing process, permits are often discovered to be expired due to a lack of tracking. Cloud-based systems solve the problem by managing data in real time, improving transparency and effectiveness. Other advancements in digital platforms (such as the development and design of user-friendly interfaces) also increase field-level applicability and reduce the confusion inherent to hardcopy forms. Automatic notifications mean that when updates are made to the permit, all stakeholders are immediately made aware of these changes. Additionally, when PTW software is integrated with other EH&S management software, the ease of operation is expanded. For instance, if an incident were to occur within a permit to work area, utilizing comprehensive incident reporting software that connects with the company’s permit management software would allow users to more easily track the controls and conditions that were in place when the incident occurred.

A study from the National Library of Medicine (NIH) detailed how errors in permit to work systems could lead to catastrophic industrial accidents and concluded that “automation of PTW issuance procedure could prove to be an effective solution for preventing and reducing the probability of human errors.” Integrated programs for managing permit to work processes benefit users by enabling a seamless transition from hardcopy systems and greater visibility of the required data. This saves time and (with the increased effectiveness of EH&S protocols) lives.

Author Bio

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The SafetyStratus Research Advisory Group (RAG) brings together thought leaders from the global environmental, health, and safety community to promote best practices and provide key insights in the profession and the industries they serve. The Research Advisory Group also advocates, where practical, the intersection of and advances with the use of technology, such as the SafetyStratus enterprise EHS software platform. Group membership consists of representatives from across varied disciplines and market sectors as well as select members of the SafetyStratus team.
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While the objectives of the RAG are varied, the primary public-facing outcome will be available through engaging and practical content found on the SafetyStratus resource pages. Various articles, papers, and other valuable resources will be produced and shared as part of an ongoing effort to cultivate a robust community. Ultimately, the SafetyStratus RAG will expand to have a broader reach and provide opportunities for more inclusion by all interested EHS professionals in a collaborative community environment.

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