High-risk activities require additional control measures to ensure that they can be carried out safely by those assigned to undertake them. For such activities, a permit to work provides an added layer of protection. Although having a suitable and sufficient permit to work system in place does not remove the risk completely, if followed by all those involved the risk can be reduced. However, there are a number of factors that can cause the system to fail, which can result in serious consequences.
Before implementing a permit to work system, it is important to know what it entails; why they are needed; and, how to craft a suitable system, and who are the key players in the task. Human Focus has two training courses that explore these factors to aid the knowledge and competence of those who will be overseeing and involved in a permit to work system.
It should be noted that permit to work procedures are not a legal requirement. Where high-risk activities are not carried out, such as in a low-risk environment like an office setting, they are not needed. They are only required where the work to be carried out poses sufficient risk to warrant strict control over access to the work environment and the work itself.
A permit to work (PTW) is a formally documented procedure that helps to manage certain classes of work that potentially place workers at significant risk. A PTW is a management system that aims to control high-risk activities by specifying what the activity is; the hazards involved; the specific measures required to reduce the likelihood of harm; and, the necessary precautions to be taken. High-risk activities that require a PTW include activities like hot works, such as welding, and working in confined spaces.
When followed correctly a permit to work procedure ensures that high-risk work can be conducted safely and therefore the likelihood of workers being harmed is reduced. However, if not followed correctly the results can be catastrophic, leading to serious harm and in some cases fatality.
Documenting this control of the work system means that the instructions on how to carry out procedures safely are not misinterpreted, which is often a key factor when things go wrong. The permit is a record of authorisation of the work activity as it must be signed by an authorised person before work can start, and again when the work has been completed and the environment has been left in a safe condition.
It is important that the system is used correctly and not seen as a paper exercise to get dangerous jobs done. They require much thought, collective thinking, expertise, and planning. They are not a quick win, but a considered approach to completing a task in a way that prevents serious harm to people and property.
Employers must ensure that workers carry out their work tasks safely and therefore should have a policy and accompanying procedure on the high-risk activities that will require a permit to work. Within these documents, there will be a breakdown of the roles and responsibilities of key players such as:
This is the individual who has been appointed the authorised person. Their responsibilities include preparing, issuing, monitoring, and cancelling the permit to work. They will have received the necessary training to fulfil their role and have a good working knowledge of the task at hand. They must ensure that the permit receiver understands the content of the permit before they can authorise work to start.
This role works under the direction of the permit issuer and considers the associated hazards of the work activity, highlighting the necessary precautions. The competent person(s) will be on hand when the work is being undertaken to provide advice where necessary. Dependent on the complexity of the risk or working environment(s), there may be more than one person who has the competency required to perform the competent person role.
This is the person who will receive the permit on behalf of those that will be doing the work. This role is typically carried out by the supervisor of the workers carrying out the work. The permit receiver must make sure that all workers are informed of the conditions of work; how to conduct tasks safely; what precautions are in place; emergency procedures; and, necessary personal protective equipment that must be worn. Should they believe the workers are in danger they have the power to stop work.
A permit to work is needed when the foreseeable risks associated with specific work activities are high. A task risk analysis will identify where additional precautions are necessary. The role of the permit is to stipulate exactly how the work operation should be carried out.
The purpose of a permit to work system is to enable high-risk work to be done in a reasonably safe manner. Ultimately, the system is in place to manage and mitigate risks in situations when just having a safe system of work alone is considered inadequate. The aim is not to prevent activities from taking place but to cast a closer look at the dangers to human life, and implement a procedure that will ensure that competent individuals can undertake the necessary job tasks required and access to the environment is restricted to those individuals only.
Having a permit to work system in place will not eliminate the risk. The risks will remain but with well designed and operated permit to work the risks can be greatly reduced, and in turn, the likelihood of harm to the workers involved will be far less than if a permit to work was not in place.
The main activities where permits are typically used are for:
- Entry into and work within confined spaces
- Hot work such as welding and grinding but these activities might pose additional risks such as when they are carried out close to flammable materials
- Work on high voltage electrical equipment
- Maintenance work on certain types of large and complex machinery, particularly when guards and other safety systems have to be disabled
- Working at height
- Lone working, for example in isolated areas where a worker is at significant risk if something goes wrong
- Cold work
- Excavation work
- Working with a hazardous substance such as asbestos-containing materials.
As you can see, PTWs can be used for a wide range of activities. Fundamentally, the format for each of these permit classes will be the same but the content will differ to reflect the inherent risks associated with each activity.
There are many reasons why a PTW can fail. Accident investigations have demonstrated these factors include:
- Lack of understanding by the workers involved
- Poor personnel competency and training
- Ineffective communication – particularly at shift handovers work permit documentation has to be handed from one duty holder to the next
- Human factors such as complacency – experience has shown that like any management system a PTW can slowly deteriorate over time if it is not maintained properly
Yes. Completing a risk assessment is necessary for all work tasks where there is the likelihood of harm to individuals. The risks identified will inform the permit to work.
A general permit to work document will include the following components:
- Company/organisation name
- Name, role, and work contact details of everyone involved in the activity
- Permit title
- Permit issue number
- Job description
- Location of work
- Equipment used
- Associated hazards
- Safety measures
- Emergency contact details
- Personal Protective Equipment
Permit to work systems is not an everyday tick-box form that can be completed by any member of staff. They require specialist knowledge of the high-risk activities involved and how the PTW system operates. This know-how can come from competent individuals that are familiar with the task. In addition to this task-based knowledge each of the duty holders involved must have received suitable training in how a permit to work system operates and the role in making it effective.
Human focus offers two online training courses in the permit to work – these are:
This course provides a good introduction to what a permit-to-work system is; why they are necessary; how they work; and insight into all of the key elements involved in the process. The course includes a worked example of how a permit to work is implemented and adhered to on the job and the differing roles and responsibilities from one duty holder to the next. The course aims to show that a permit to work system need not be a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise but rather are there to protect workers and through the course, it shown that effectively implemented permits to work systems save lives.
This course explores a number of real-life case studies, including the Piper Alpha oil rig tragedy, where workers were killed due to deficiencies in the permit to work systems in place. It highlights common failures, such as the failure to accurately use and follow the PTW health and safety system; not having a linked risk assessment in place; inadequate communication channels; human factors, and lack of adequate training/incompetence.