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When it comes to process safety management (PSM)-related accidents or other major industrial accidents, incident investigators and other EHS professionals tend to concentrate on some of the more common root causes of process safety failures. Unfortunately, it’s easier to overlook some less common root causes, and therefore not to sufficiently focus or consider actions needed to effectively address them. Failures in your permit-to-work (PTW) systems, more specifically human errors in the permitting process, are one of these.   

A 2017 study in the journal Chemical Engineering Transactions looked at more than 600 process safety-related accidents in the chemical processing and manufacturing industries between 1990 and 2015, and identified the most common root causes of these accidents as follows:  

  • improper operating procedures (16.86 %) 
  • inadequate process hazard analysis (16.27 %) 
  • poor employee participation in PSM (13.20 %) 
  • inadequate/ineffective training (11.01 %) 
  • mechanical/asset integrity (9.17 %) 
  • poor management of change practices (8.22 %) 

These root causes seem reasonable and expected considering the nature of process safety risks and hazards in the chemical processing and manufacturing industries. However, the study also found something less expected. Permit-to-Work system failures were the root causes in 6.98% of the 600 cases studied.  

By itself, this might not seem like a significant contributor to the overall incidence of PSM-related accidents, but the study also noted that the percentage of accidents caused by Permit-to-Work system failures had not improved year-over-year during the 25-year period of the study. The study also found that in every case where Permit to Work system failures contributed to PSM-related accidents, poor communication of essential hazard information and improper/missing safe work procedures contained within the permit contributed to the failure.  

What does all this mean? It’s a sign that Permit-to-Work system failures have not received the same attention or emphasis as other common accident root causes, and that their role in PSM-related accidents continues to go unaddressed. As EHS practitioners, we need to recognize the fact that incomplete, inaccurate, and poorly communicated permit information is one of the most prominent causes of Permit-to-Work system failures. It’s not unheard of for mistakes or errors to be made during the permitting process, but these seemingly simple mistakes can have serious and life-threatening consequences. 

What are the Limitations of Paper-Based Permit-to-Work Systems?

EHS managers have long relied upon Permit-to-Work systems to implement health and safety precautions and maintain risk controls during performance of job tasks, but they’ve traditionally managed permits with paper-based systems—a literal filing cabinet system. Even with the rapid expansion of specialized software apps over the last few decades to manage virtually every aspect of the business, many companies are still managing their permits via hard copies.  

In many cases, contractors themselves fill out paper permits. Obviously, human error is the big risk here. Aside from relying on outdated and inefficient paper-based systems to manage permits, requiring contractors to fill in their own permits can expose an organization to unacceptable risks. Contractors or other temporary workers are likely to lack the qualifications or familiarity with your specific Permit-to-Work systems needed to accurately complete the permit, let alone assure that it contains all the required hazard information.

Even when well-trained and qualified employees complete and internally manage paper permits, oversights and errors are clearly all too common.  By the very nature of it being a paper permit, it’s far too easy to leave important information out or accidentally skip over a vital piece of information. A permit that‘s not fully completed will not only leave you out of compliance with requirements of applicable workplace health and safety standards, but as the data shows, frequently results in accidents or injuries to co-workers, contractors, site visitors and members of the community. 

In addition to these failings, paper-based permits can lead to other Permit-to-Work system failures, including: 

  • Personnel may sometimes still use an incomplete paper permit on the assumption that it’s complete and accurate
  • Inaccurate permits can fall into the wrong person’s hands, or the wrong person may complete or approve the permit 
  • If a permit has blank spaces in it, you could be missing vital information  
  • If you misplace a permit, you won’t have any record of it

In fact, a separate 2016 study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that adherence to a formal permit review process and automation of Permit-to-Work issuance procedure can be very effective in preventing and reducing the probability of human errors.

The Benefits of Electronic Permit-to-Work Systems

Moving to an electronic permit system, like that in the cloud-based VelocityEHS Control of Work solution can reduce and even eliminate the risks, inefficiencies, and potential for human errors inherent to paper-based permit systems. You can complete your electronic permits through a centralized, easy to use interface that flags any missing information or data fields to ensure all required information is included in the permit. Once you complete the permit, you can instantly send it to approvers or other responsible personnel anywhere, at any time from your mobile device. You can also configure permit conditions and rules to reject permits if all relevant information isn’t provided, based on the parameters you set. And you can make questions and other permit elements relevant to specific jobs mandatory to prevent any permit information from being missed.  

VelocityEHS Control of Work gives you an intuitive, all-in-one Permit-to-Work system that you can easily configure to match your organization’s specific Permit-to-Work processes. The solution improves visibility of health and safety policies throughout the workplace and connects workers to what’s actually happening in your organization. By providing greater transparency, strengthening compliance with EHS policies and structuring your Permit-to-Work system in a way that prompts workers to complete permits the right way, electronic Permit-to-Work systems can save a company significant time and headaches with day-to-day tasks while minimizing risk.  

Visit our Control of Work Solutions page to learn more.