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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 look toward some of the more common root causes that have been historically attributed to process safety failures. Unfortunately, some less common root causes are easier to overlook, and therefore do not receive the focus or consideration needed to effectively address them. Failures in our 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 a 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 are somewhat expected when we consider the nature of process safety risks and hazards in the chemical processing and manufacturing industries. However, the study also found something less expected. Among the list of most common PSM-related accident root causes were permit-to-work (PTW) system failures, which were identified as the root cause 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 PTW 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 PTW system failures contributed to PSM-related accidents, poor communication of essential hazard information and improper/missing safe work procedures contained within the permit were found to have contributed to the failure.  

What does all this mean? It’s a sign that PTW 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 PTW 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. 

Paper-Based Permit to Work Systems

Permit-to-work systems have been relied on for a long time to implement health and safety precautions and maintain risk controls during performance of job tasks, but permits have been traditionally managed with paper-based systems—a literal filing cabinet system to keep permits organized. Even with the rapid expansion of specialized software apps over the last few decades to manage virtually every aspect of the business, many companies have lagged in the area of permit management and are still managing their permits this way.  

In many cases, paper permits are often filled out by contractors themselves. Obviously, the big risk here is human error. 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 qualification or familiarity with your specific PTW systems needed to accurately complete the permit, let alone assure that it contains all the required hazard information. Even when paper permits are completed and managed internally by well-trained and qualified employees, 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 hasn’t been fully completed will not only leave you out of compliance with permit 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 even members of the community. 

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

  • Even if it’s filled out incorrectly, a paper permit may sometimes still be used  
  • It may fall into the wrong person’s hands, be completed by that wrong person, or even approved by the wrong person 
  • If a permit has blank spaces in it, you could be missing vital information  
  • If a permit is misplaced, there’s no record of that permit

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 PTW issuance procedure can be very effective in preventing and reducing the probability of human errors.

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. Electronic permits are completed through a centralized, easy to use interface where any missing information or data fields are flagged to ensure all required information is included in the permit. Once completed, the permit can be instantly sent to approvers or other responsible personnel anywhere, at any time from your mobile device. Permit conditions and rules can be configured to reject permits if all relevant information isn’t provided, based on the permit rules and permissions you set. Questions and other permit elements relevant to specific jobs can be made mandatory to prevent any permit information from being missed.  

VelocityEHS Control of Work gives you an intuitive, all-in-one PTW system that can be easily configured to match your organization’s specific PTW processes, 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 PTW system in a way that prompts workers to complete permits the right way, electronic PTW 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.