Permit to work is a formal record-keeping process that is used to plan and control potentially hazardous work. The permit to work process involves input from all levels on the site, including senior management and contractors. The process ensures communication around all potentially hazardous activity—the who, what, when and how—is effectively communicated across all stakeholders on the site.
Permit to work is a best practice that is promoted by regional standards agencies, including the UK Health and Safety Executive, Ireland’s Health and Safety Authority, and OSHA in the United States. The permit to work process can additionally be used to enforce compliance to operational risk management standards, including OSHA Process Safety Management standards and the EU’s Seveso III.
After several major oil and gas incidents, including the Piper Alpha incident in 1978, the UK Health and Safety Executive issued HSG 250 for oil and gas, chemical and other asset intensive industries. Titled "Guidance on permit-to-work systems: A guide for the petroleum, chemical and allied industries", HSG 250 outlines assessment guidelines for paper and emerging electronic systems, advice on how to devise a new permit to work system based on best practices and key terminology to adopt in order to standardize communication of permit to work across different sites within the organization.
The UK Health and Safety Executive also describes permit to work as a core component for ensuring safety critical communication on hazardous worksites. Along with shift handovers, a permit to work system is designed to keep all functions across the site aware of planned and ongoing work and their hazards and through all shift changeovers. Teams performing different functions, including Operations and Maintenance teams, will make use of these formalized communication systems to ensure complete awareness of activities across the site.
While the oil and gas industry and its adjacent industries have traditionally adopted formalized permit to work systems, formalized permit to work processes are emerging in other industrial industries, including pharmaceuticals, food manufacturing, discrete manufacturing, renewable energy, utilities and general construction. Especially in asset-intensive and smart manufacturing scenarios, permit to work helps ensure compliance to LOTO procedures.
Work Permit Types
There are many kinds of permit types that are typically administered in permit to work systems. Hot work permits are used to meet the requirements of major Process Safety Management frameworks, including OSHA’s Process Safety Management Standards. Common work permit types are:
- Confined Space Entry
- Hot Work Naked Flame
- Hot Work Spark Potential
- Cold Work
- Breaking Containment
Many other types of work permits may be issued on the site, depending on the relevancy of hazards including:
- Work from Height
- Radiation Exposure
- Electrical Work
Safe Systems of Work
Organizations that produce, store or transport large quantities of hazardous substances, including flammable and toxic materials, are routinely presented with the potential for incidents with serious consequences. These hazards need to be managed with Safe Systems of Work (SSOW), to ensure the safety of staff, the facility and the environment. An SSOW is essential for sound health and safety management.
A Safe System of Work can take any form in the organization but, at the bare minimum, considers:
- Risk level of your team’s operations
- Complexity of hazards and risks
- Commitment to a safety culture
Communication to all people affected by the proposed SSOW is key. Easy-to-read work permits and a simple process to capture hazards and check controls in the field are essential. These risk assessments should be reviewed as often as necessary. When high-risk activities are involved, including confined space entry and hot work, then a formal permit-to-work process becomes necessary.
When permit to work processes are not followed, communication breaks down between the people planning the work and the people doing the work. This leads to a greater potential of incidents occurring on the site due to:
- Lack of understanding of hazards
- Failure to ensure controls are in place
- Inadequately trained personnel
- Conflicting work activities
- No feedback cycle on effectiveness of the permit to work process
- Unclear work instructions
- Undocumented Safe Work Practices
Electronic Permit to Work
Permit to work systems have traditionally been implemented as paper-based processes. The permit office would issue paper permits to operators and maintainers in the permit office, and the operators and maintainers would then bring these paper permits directly to the work site. Copies of these documents are kept on file, and they serve as artifacts that endorse the holder to perform the work described in the document.
The downsides of paper-based permit to work systems include:
- Failure to comply to the formal permit to work process
- Skipped signatures
- Rushed permit drafting
- Inadequate hazards assessments
- Disorganized work preparation and execution
Electronic permit to work systems have begun to emerge, to improve on common paper-based permit to work systems. Drivers of electronic permit to work systems include:
- Compliance to company health and safety standards
- Auditing capabilities
- Efficiency improvements on the site.
Web-based systems come with a simple user experience, leading to higher adoption of the Safe System of Work and higher rates of employee engagement.
With the rise of electronic systems, risk assessments and dependent work are typically included in the permit to work workflow. For example, permits that require isolations to be performed before being issued are interlocked with the permit and controlled in the electronic permit to work system. With a fully integrated permit to work system, a permit cannot go live until a risk assessment is finished and an isolation has gone live. Conversely, a permit cannot be closed unless the isolation has been de-isolated.
Yet other permit to work software will also include management of worker competencies for performing the work at hand. Responsible parties regularly maintain competency records in the electronic system.
A large driver of permit to work software is the ability to gather, analyze and report on data throughout the entire permit to work process. Users search through permit activity over current and previous shifts, and managers study past activity to determine trends and areas for improvement. Meanwhile, auditors and investigators can view a full audit trail of activity when tracing back events of the past.