Many job tasks that expose workers to serious hazards in all industries are non-routine, maintenance-type activities that must be managed to control risks. These hazards are controlled in industry through written safework permits that are completed prior to initiation of these nonroutine activities. Safe work permits are administrative controls and must be developed, implemented, and managed properly in order to be effective at managing risk. Examples include hot-work permits, contractor-work permits, confined-space-entry permits, and line-break permits. Having a safe work permit management system to manage and review the effectiveness of these safe work permits is a proactive best practice. This management system must follow the continuous improvement-plan, do, check, act-process. Safety professionals and process safety practitioners can use this paper to guide them in the development of their own safe work permit management system and program.

The Need for a Safe Work Permit System

A survey conducted by a safety agency in the UK 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, safe work permit systems. In a study of small- and medium-sized chemical factories, the HSE found:

  • Two-thirds of companies were not checking systems adequately;

  • Two-thirds of permits did not adequately identify potential hazards;

  • Nearly half dealt poorly with isolation of plant, electrical equipment, etc.;

  • One-third of permits were unclear on what personal protective clothing (PPE) was needed;

  • One-quarter of permits did not deal adequately with formal hand-back of plant once maintenance work had finished; and

  • In many cases, little thought had been given to permit form design.

Safe Work Permit System Defined

A safe work permit system (SWPS) is a formal written system used to control certain types of work that are considered non-routine and present potential hazards or take place in potentially hazardous work locations.

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