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Permit to work

Simon_OlliffLast year 142 people died in the course of their work and there were 611,000 injuries at work. Permits-to-work expert Simon Olliff, will look at how permits to work are operated, the legal requirements around their use and how FMs can use them to assess risks and ensure that their staff, contractors and members of the public go home safely every day

In July 1988, 167 men died as a result of an explosion and fire onboard the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea. A public inquiry concluded that one of the primary causes was a failure in the permit-to-work system. Since then, we have seen a revolution in both offshore and land-based permits-to-work, through both better adherence to the rules and also the introduction of electronic permits-to-work which has automated processes and saved countless lives. 

The cost to society was £14.3 billion, according to statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The adoption of new technologies has not been fast enough.

In December 2015, two companies were fined approximately £200,000 after pleading guilty to section 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 following the death of two workers while carrying out maintenance work on a conveyer belt at a Merseyside woodchip factory. An HSE investigation found multiple failings by both companies, including not properly assessing the risks associated with the work on the conveyor or sharing these with contractors, not having in place a proper process for managing contractors or a procedure for isolating dangerous machinery, and failing to train or check the competence of workers. As in the example above, the vast majority of incidents are due to a lack of the correct processes and procedures or human failure to implement those procedures.

The work must be carried out against previously agreed safety procedures known as a permit-to-work system. It is an integral part of a Safe System of Work (SSoW) and can help to properly manage the wide range of maintenance activities that can take place in a facility.

The permit-to-work is a documented procedure that authorises certain people (who) to carry out specific work (what) within a specified time frame (when) and in a certain place (where). It sets out the precautions required to complete the work safely (how), based on a risk assessment. Permits-to-work give transparency of who is working on a site, what they are doing, when and what qualifications they possess.

Essential features of permits to work are:

  • Clear identification of who may authorise particular jobs (and any limits to their authority) and who is responsible for specifying the necessary precautions and isolations
  • Training and instruction in the issue, use and closure of permits
  • Monitoring and auditing to ensure that the system works as intended
  • Clear identification of the types of work considered hazardous
  • Clear and standardised identification of tasks, risk assessments, permitted task duration and supplemental or simultaneous activity and control measures

Permits-to-work have been in existence for decades and form an important means of fulfilling an organisation’s general duty of care to ensure the health and safety of employees under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This states: “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.”

The 2005 publication HSG250: Guidance on permit-to-work systems: A guide for the petroleum, chemical and allied industries sets out further details of the requirements of a permit to work system. While aimed at those specific industries it has useful pointers for facilities professionals in all environments.

It states: “A permit-to-work is not simply permission to carry out a dangerous job. It is an essential part of a system which determines how that job can be carried out safely, and helps communicate this to those doing the job. It should not be regarded as an easy way to eliminate hazard or reduce risk. The issue of a permit does not, by itself, make a job safe – that can only be achieved by those preparing for the work, those supervising the work and those carrying it out.”

The need for permits to work was brought into sharp focus in April 2008 by the introduction of The Corporate Manslaughter Act which built on the existing Health & Safety at Work Act.

Permits-to-work have typically been paper documents, but over the past 10 years have increasingly become web-based. Under paper-based systems there was often a major disconnect between health and safety policy and what actually happened on the ground. This disconnect was only discovered when near-misses or incidents occurred, and audits took place.

In addition to the overall disconnect, a small number of disreputable contractors would circumvent paper-based permit-to-work systems which meant that health and safety company policies were not followed and the lives of contractors, employees and visitors were put at risk. Electronic permits-to-work reduce that disconnect by automatically enforcing policies and rules in day-to-day activity, managing Risk Assessments and Method Statements (RAMS), checking for adequate insurance, checking the team’s competences and training, following correct decision-making scenarios, highlighting clashes and providing complete transparency.

Permits-to-work have numerous benefits: personal, financial, organisational and societal. They keep people safe when undertaking potentially dangerous work, or being around people who are undertaking such work, while also reducing the risk of damage to property, disruption to business and compromised security. In addition, electronic permits to work enable organisations to have more management control, reduce risks and costs, and create transparency.

They provide:

Contractor control: the organisation knows in real-time who is doing what, when, where, why and how in their buildings.

Reduced costs: organisations with strong, auditable permit-to-work systems can reduce their insurance premiums together with avoiding legal fees and fines from potential incidents. Management time dealing with these types of incidents is avoided allowing them to focus on the core business, and the organisation’s reputation is intact.

Permits-to-work are much like life jackets: they’re only effective, when they’re used – talking about their importance, and having them but not using them properly, or at all, won’t do any good.

About Sarah OBeirne


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