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February 28, 2014

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Non-standard operations and how to control them


Phil Chambers BSC, CMIOSH, Strategic Safety Systems Ltd.

Many companies have their core operations well under control and then an accident occurs during an activity which is not directly related to these core operations. Quite often, this activity is being carried out by a contractor, whom the company regard as being an “expert”.  And accidents can occur because people assume that the activities have been completed when in fact they haven’t. (The root cause of the Piper Alpha disaster was just this.)

This describes the simple steps to take with such operations.

What can go wrong?

This shows a typical example of non-standard operations at a printing company. Contractors had been brought in to work on the heating system.

The (unstaged) photo shows the three prime problems:

Problem (with all contractor operations)

Comments on this example

1. Contractor exposed to risk because of the contractor operations

The contractor can fall from height.

2. Employee exposed to risk because of the contractor operations

An employee can be hit by objects dropped from height. Note that there is no barricade to keep people away.

3. Contractor exposed to risk because of the company’s operations

The contractor can be hit by the forklift truck. Again, note that there is no barricade to keep segregate the forklift truck operations. 

Note that, although contractors may have method statements, they normally only address problem type [1] and definitely not type [3].

The key reasons for a having a permit to work are to make you stop and think what the risks may be and how they can be controlled, and also to act as a formal communication system on the stages of the operations so that normal work can be resumed after the non-standard operations have been completed.

Typical pitfalls include confusion about whether or not the work is complete; this can lead to standard operations being reinstated with a contractor still working.  The formal sign-off overcomes this, but beware that contractors may leave the site at the end of their work without signing off.  You need to make them aware that they need to sign-off and you might like to add a clause to any purchase order that failing to sign-off means that work has not been completed and payment will be withheld.

Permits to work can be in any format, but the key features are:

Description and duration of work


Risks and precautions

This is where you list what the risks may be and how you control them, eg the risk may be to employees moving below the work at height, and the controls may be to barricade with tape, etc., the area below the work.

Sign on

This covers both the contractor and whoever is in charge of the area where work is being carried out, acknowledging that standard operations may need to be suspended or modified.

Sign off

Again, this covers both the contractor and whoever is in charge of the area where work is being carried out, acknowledging that standard operations can now be safely reinstated.

Is this too onerous?

The simple answer to this is “no”.  It should only take a couple of minutes to complete this form, but it does make you stop and think and put control measures in place.



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There is no general legal requirement for sprinkler systems to be installed in a place of work but there may be circumstances where sprinklers are required.

This guide provides an overview of the need-to-know information for sprinklers and covers:

  • The legal requirements
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  • Key actions
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Robin Stowell CMIOSH Recent comment authors
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Robin Stowell CMIOSH
Robin Stowell CMIOSH

Whilst a form or permit will provide a control at the point of doing work, go back a planning stage or two and consider the 4Cs of contracting: competence, control, communication & cooperation. By the time you get to conduct the activity you will have greater confidence that risks are controlled and being managed.