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January 22, 2008

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All systems go

As commercial buildings, production facilities, and offshore structures get ever larger and more complex, the risks involved in their construction and operation become harder to keep track of without smart information management. Simon Olliff sheds light on why electronic permit systems are a popular way of doing so.

A permit-to-work system is a formal written system used to control certain types of work that are potentially hazardous, and a permit to work is a document that specifies the work to be done and the precautions to be taken. Historically, these systems have been paper-based and tailored to suit the requirements of the environment in which they operate. When operated well they have provided an excellent level of protection for millions of workers over the years.

However, a HSE survey showed that a third of all accidents in the chemical industry were maintenance-related, the largest single cause being a lack of, or deficiency in, permit-to-work systems.1 The resulting guidance was aimed at every industry.

The kinds of pressure that can compromise a permit system are familiar — volume of permits, tight deadlines, lateness of submissions, or inappropriate documentation — all of which can compromise the quality of the information and the time available to consider it. Progress has been achieved by changing attitudes at work and encouraging everyone to take ownership of health and safety, but new technologies can also play a part in achieving step changes in safety performance.

These days, few draughtsmen could control complex drawing changes on projects without their CAD system, busy M&E maintenance teams would be lost without their Computer-Aided Facilities Management (CAFM) system, and I can’t remember the last report I hand-wrote and put in the post. Ink drawings, T-cards and hand-written documents have inevitably been cast aside and replaced by smarter systems that bring speed and accuracy to traditional practices.

The transition from traditional paper permit pads to smarter electronic versions — or e-permit systems, as they are known — has begun to happen in earnest, led by the pioneers in each sector and being driven forward by the good results they are delivering. It is no surprise that the petrochemical sector was at the forefront of this development, given the events of 1988 when the Piper Alpha oil platform exploded, and the findings of Lord Cullen’s inquiry into the disaster, which resulted in shifting responsibility for offshore safety to the operating companies and away from the regulators.

But while the offshore industry has had the greatest incentive to innovate and change, the benefits are rapidly spreading into the built environment onshore — from the construction stage to the safe operation of commercial buildings and production facilities.

Why is electronic different?

E-permit systems ultimately generate a piece of paper at the end and may always be required to do so. But if the end result is the same, what is the difference? Do electronic systems simply offer a neater way to produce and store the same information? Not at all, I would argue. It is the intelligent process that precedes the e-permits that makes such applications so distinctly different to paper systems. Before the permit is actually produced the electronic system can affect the timing of people’s actions, the consistency of the safety checks, and the quality of management information that is available.

E-systems typically encourage the earlier submission of risk assessments, method statements and permit requests by contractors, which gives the Authorised Persons (APs) more time to consider their assessment and influence events in advance. The systems are also able to perform automatic checks on the request that is being submitted to ensure the information is not just complete but also compliant with current guidelines, the safety criteria set out in a company’s health and safety policy, and its site rules.

They can also present relevant and timely management information about such things as clashes of work and residual risks to help APs make a better informed assessment of the request and decide whether it is safe to approve, or should be rejected.

Implementing new applications can appear quite daunting and, as with all new technologies, the early pioneers bore the worst pain to stay ahead of their contemporaries. But as the market matures implementation practices are perfected and the demands on the customer become less onerous.

Information about health and safety policy and site rules can be gathered through short workshops or questionnaires, and the data about the site can usually be extracted from existing sources. Indeed, some systems can operate with very little data and are very easy to set up.

The issue of usability is also important, in that the HSE has always stressed that a permit system should be simple to operate. There is a natural inclination to circumvent procedures that are too complex or time-consuming, and the HSE wants to encourage the correct use of permits in all work situations that are potentially hazardous. It is therefore important that electronic systems do not deliver their secondary benefits at the expense of usability. There is no value in an application with impressive functionality that is never used.

Usability has been seriously considered by the developers such that the time taken to interface with an electronic system is not greater than with a paper-based system. Much of the time-saving comes from the automated communication features, notifying people who need to be involved and providing a quick route to the information they need to see.

Principal benefits

The main benefits of electronic systems fall into three categories:

– Risk reduction;

– Management control; and

– Productivity gains.

E-permit systems are designed to reduce the risk of injury to people, damage to property, and disruption to business by ensuring that the right people, with the right skills, work to the right method statement, in the right place, at the right time. These are the fundamentals of any permit system, paper or electronic, but it is when one of these things goes wrong that someone gets hurt, or money is wasted.

By running predetermined checks that reflect the specific company’s safe system of work, electronic systems can recognise ill-conceived or poorly resourced plans so that APs can prevent them from proceeding. Some systems can also check that the working party has the appropriate competencies to undertake the work safely, and that the company has valid insurances.

A great advantage of electronic systems is their power to share information that can keep people safe. If the facilities and engineering teams are familiar with the hazards of a property or process, such as the presence of asbestos or stored chemicals, the information can be shared with the team coming on site while they are still considering the risks they will face and planning their precautions to mitigate those risks.

Even when a permit request has been well prepared and is, in isolation, an appropriate way to work, there is still the danger that it will interfere with, or be compromised by another piece of work, creating an unforeseen and dangerous situation. Electronic systems that check for clashes of concurrent activity can highlight these potential dangers to the APs when they are assessing the request. For instance, they could highlight multiple isolations of a fire-alarm system associated with unrelated jobs, or plans to work on a fire detection system at the same time as a fire protection system.

Particularly when there are multiple activities under permit at one time, the simple presentation of this information can be invaluable to an AP and a life-saver to the parties planning to work. These systems can point out when two parties are applying to work on the same service, or a related service, or one in the same location, at the same time. In a small building with few permits open at any time, it is quite practical to keep track of what is happening throughout the property. If, however, a permit system spans a large building, or a disparate campus, and there is a large amount of permitted activity going on, it can be very difficult for a permit office to know who exactly is working, where they all are, or what presents the greatest danger at any given moment.

Management information is the key to control. To be able to see at a glance what is going on allows the permit system to perform its prime function of controlling work that is potentially hazardous.

Integration with CAFM systems

Because CAFM systems employ similar types of data to those used by permit systems it is possible to integrate or link the applications to very good effect. There are some obvious functional flows between the systems that make integration very attractive. Planned, or reactive work orders can be set to trigger the requirement for a permit and prepopulate much of the basic data about who, when, where, and what from the CAFM to the e-permit system. The work order can be put on hold until the permit is completed and approved, and then released with the permit and its associated risk assessment and method statement.

Suitable sectors

The best indication of which sectors are most suited to electronic systems comes from looking at those in which they have been implemented so far. They include petrochemicals, local government, banking, insurance, manufacturing, transportation, health care, telecommunications, and retail.

The systems are sufficiently flexible to suit almost any industry and scenario. They simply need to be configured to reflect the regime in which they are to operate — these can range from very rigorous for a highly regulated, secure, or dangerous environment, to a more relaxed regime for a lower-risk situation — in the same way that a paper-based system would be tailored.

It is also feasible to tighten or relax the regime when the risk profile in a building changes. For instance, a building under normal occupation may have a low prevailing risk profile that would change dramatically if some floors were being re-furbished. Control of specific areas can be passed to a third party’s APs temporarily under CDM without losing the management information about clashes of work on a service. Indeed, these systems have proved most effective in multi-tenanted buildings, where the landlord and several tenants all impact each other.

The Web

Some electronic systems are PC-based while others harness the power of the Internet, whose speed and accessibility make it an ideal medium. Authorised access can be gained via any browser, making it possible to interact with the systems from any location at any time. It is even possible to access some systems via mobile devices to capture risk assessments around the site, audit compliance during the life of the permit, and record the issue and closure of permits from the workplace in real time.

With accessibility comes visibility. The transparency of the systems makes it possible for management to monitor activity across multiple buildings, focusing on time-frames, activity types, or locations of particular interest.


Paper permit systems have been a cornerstone in companies’ safe systems of work for many years, and countless people still walk among us because of their competent use. Sound progress can be made in health and safety as elsewhere by building on proven procedures and adapting them to suit the new challenges of our changing world.

As long as electronic systems do not overcomplicate the process and remain within the reach and comprehension of all those they seek to protect, we could witness the wide adoption of such systems within the next few years. It is possible that e-permit systems — like CAD, CAFM and Office before them — soon become the industry standard.


1 HSE (2002): Permit-to-work systems (INDG98), rev3, C100 — available from HSE Books, tel: 01787 881165

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