Electronic Permit To Work – 10 Myths busted

Over the next 10 weeks or so, we will be posting one of the 10 myths of electronic permit to work systems. These are a collection of myths based on our experiences and encounters during product demonstrations and projects over the years.

We decided to write this article to expand on a popular LinkedIn discussion that first appeared at http://www.linkedin.com/grp/post/1954881-5994719885219880961.

This article is authored by Peter Kingwill, Safe Work Consultant and Sage Technology Company Director.

Myth #1 - Our guys can't use computers

I hear this one a lot. Yes, some people are not particularly computer literate, but many will say that as an excuse to resist change. People can be intimidated by computers and technology and will push back on using it. However, if we put this in context with what people actually do in their day-to-day lives, we find that almost everyone in the workforce is using technology in one form or another:

Who are the largest group of eBay purchasers – guys!

How to they keep in touch with family and friends – Facebook

How do most people book their airline tickets or holidays? The internet

Where do people research for products and services? The internet

What do they use for entertainment, sharing photos, and checking their share portfolio? Need I go on?

The other question to ask is: as new people join our organisation how many will already be using a PC/laptop/smartphone/tablet? Most generation X, Y and Zers use devices to access social media/apps/web continuously. Even many baby boomers do now too!

The largest group of people who interact with an ePTW system are the requestors and permit holders. Typical functions are requesting a permit, doing a JSA and getting their permit. A good ePTW system should require minimal, if any, training for this group of users.

That’s why it is really important when looking at systems, that ease of use for this group in particular is important.

In summary I think this myth is busted, based on what I've seen, I just don't buy this as a valid excuse anymore.

Myth #2 – We can’t change our procedures

Over the years I’ve met with many organisations considering the shift from paper based PTW system to an electronic PTW system. On many occasions I’ve been asked the question “can the product align with our procedures”? This really means “we can’t/won’t change our procedures”. OK I get it, yes it can be hard work to change the procedures in an organisation, however I’d like to challenge this myth.

The myth is driven by several factors including how long it took to get them to this stage in the first place, the impact of any change and the retraining costs associated with the change. It is almost guaranteed there will be at least one person who wrote the PTW procedure who will protect it with their life from anyone who dares suggest it be changed! As you can guess by now I don’t subscribe to the view that procedures can’t be changed. Let me illustrate why I think they can be changed.

New tools require new procedures
The Supermarine Spitfire was one of the most famous aircraft of World War II and was attributed to winning many battles in the sky. The operating manual for the Spitfire was totally relevant to the operation of the aircraft but I wouldn’t use it to fly a F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter. In other words, as we make use of new and improved technology, we need to update the procedures to be relevant and to take advantage of the new capabilities available.

Additionally, the switch from paper to electronic tools highlights the fact that many procedures are really a detailed “how to fill out the form” instruction and how to cross reference permit documents, none of which are required when using an electronic system. If we are to take advantage of the benefits of new electronic tools, then we must change the procedures to reflect the new operating environment.

Continuous learning requires change
The rate of change today is greater than it has been throughout history, the accumulation and sharing of knowledge is enabling rapid development of the way we carry out a huge range of activities. We also learn from incidents and near misses that often identify inadequacies in current practices. As we learn more, we identify better ways to do the same things and if we are to take advantage of these, we need to update (you guessed it) our procedures.

Regulations and standards change
In complex or high risk facilities, the procedures will reflect the requirements of any legislated standards or regulations the site must comply with. These do not remain static and will change from time to time requiring changes to the PTW procedures.

I think by now you probably know what I think about this myth but, just to be clear, if you want to get the best value from an ePTW or iSSoW system then the procedures will need to change. Typically, we expect to see a simplification and reduction in the size of the procedures; in the case of large multi-site project from 5,000 pages to less than 100. The benefits are multi-fold in reducing cost, simplification, improving efficiency and even reducing effect maintaining documentation.

In summary, an ePTW system can help simplify and improve your procedures, but it does require some willingness to accept change. Busted? 

Myth #3 - It will take longer to issue permits

The method of issuing a Permit to Work to an authorised person varies greatly anywhere from formal face-to-face inspections, to being left on a desk to be picked up anytime. I have to say, I’m not a fan of the latter due its lack of communication between parties.

I’ve used the term authorised person to describe the receiver of the permit who might be called a performing authority, recipient, permit holder, acceptor or person in control – take your pick or just make one up like most companies do.

In the context of issuing a permit using an ePTW system, they are typically more formal; specifically, face-to-face issue and include the validation of the authorised person. The view of some is that it will take longer to issue permits if they use an ePTW system. However, I would suggest that if the current PTW procedures require a formal issue process, then the time cost of the ePTW issue process is quite small if not negligible.

The real problems around permit issuing, specifically congestion, have much more to do with workforce management and planning than the ePTW system. Let me elaborate; the worst case scenario is usually the start of a shutdown. I have a collection of photos from various sites showing their permit hut/office at the start of a shut. These often resemble a post-Christmas department store sale! Crowds of people, in this case wearing hi-vis gear, waiting to get their permit(s) and of course all complaining how long they’re waiting while drinking coffee. This is obviously wasteful, inefficient and very expensive, not to mention the tick and flick mentality that it can encourage.

So what‘s wrong with this picture? What are the causes and how can it be fixed? In short, it’s really about taking control of a shutdown and the workforce - rather than being the victim of it. An easy throwaway line I know, but here are some actions that can help put the organisation back in control.

Plan the work; not every job has to start at the beginning of the first shift on day one of the shut. Stagger them over the first day or two and where possible, spread the permit issue workload over time. This might be based on the shut critical path, workgroup or areas of plant.

An authorised person should only turn up to get their permit if it’s ready to be issued, sounds dumb I know, but lots turn up when they can’t be issued anyway. If using an ePTW, then that is usually very easy to find out.

The authorised person should be the only one to attend the permit office to get the permit, no need for every man and his dog to be waiting around, they can be out mobilising the tools/equipment and keeping the job moving along.

Make sure the facilities are optimised for permit issue, no couches/chairs (we don’t want them to get too comfortable), have a counter so the issue process is more like a transaction - i.e. you are here to receive a formal document that keeps you safe not for a friendly chat.

And finally ensure the isolation/issuing team is resourced appropriately. The workload and effort to plan the isolations/permits, isolate the plant, prepare permits, issue, change, manage and closeout permits is frequently underestimated and often under resourced.

As you can see there are a number of strategies that can help minimise permit issue congestion. I would argue that ePTW systems actually help manage and support efficient permit issue through increased visibility of permit status and the planning capabilities they deliver. ePTW systems taking longer to issue permits – I don’t think so! 

Myth #4 – We'll look at ePTW after we've rolled out our new PTW procedures

I hear this one a lot and it goes along the lines of “we’ll just finish doing an update to our procedures, settle them in and then we’ll look at ePTW”. On the surface it sounds quite reasonable, but dig a little deeper and it doesn’t stack up very well. Let me elaborate on the problems with this approach.

Locking in site specific practices
The process of revising an existing procedure is a tried and true response to an incident(s) or other changes. The changes are done in the context of the existing procedure and the specific site practices targeted for improvement. Without a doubt, the changes will increase the complexity and size of the PTW procedures and further lock in “our” way of doing PTW. Unfortunately, the more the PTW procedures reflect very company-specific processes, and the less industry standard they are, the more work an ePTW vendor needs to do to configure their product to meet these specific company needs. That is, it takes longer and costs more.

Missing opportunities to adopt best practice ideas
ePTW vendors generally work across multiple sectors and different types of sites giving them extensive knowledge of the PTW subject area. In other words, an internal review of the PTW procedures without an external contributor is missing the opportunity to improve by incorporating industry best practice.

Difference between manual procedures and ePTW
In one of my previous myths, I described the difficulties in making changes to PTW procedures. To reiterate, there is a fundamental difference in writing the procedure for a manual PTW system versus and ePTW system. They are most often shorter, become less of a “how to fill out the form” instruction, focus on principles and don’t need to detail every business rule provided by the technology.

Change management
Okay, say you go about the job of making revisions to the PTW procedure. Once you have it approved, developed the training update, rolled the training out to your staff and contractors, go live, run some audits to check compliance, do some follow up training then you can pat yourself on the back right? Then a year or two down the track you can look at the ePTW and guess what? You have to do all the same stuff again as well as the technology implementation for ePTW. Efficient use of the companies resources?

Extending on the previous comment the change process is expensive. In fact, it is usually more expensive than the actual spend on the ePTW solution itself. So paying for the change management process twice does not make a whole lot of financial sense.

Wrap Up
There are lots of reasons (excuses) why companies keep revising the PTW procedures and they are often disappointed with the outcome. Personnel are known to be resistant to change and keep doing things the way they always have. Strangely, it seems people ultimately accept a significant step change rather than a continuous stream of incremental changes. We all know revision 14 of the procedure was better than revision 13, right?

So if you find yourself needing to revise the PTW procedure and are thinking of changing to an ePTW system, give some serious thought to doing both at the same time and save yourself a lot of angst and expense.

Myth #5 - ePTW is not flexible if something out of the ordinary is needed

This myth is a real gem and it goes like this: “we have a lot of breakdowns at our site so we need to be flexible in our permitting”. This is code for “we’ll take shortcuts whenever we need to”. Unfortunately, I have heard this far too many times to mention and it concerns me greatly. Basically if a site is abandoning, bypassing or shortcutting the PTW process because of a breakdown situation then something is seriously wrong! Do you have a PTW procedure or don’t you? What justification is there for a shortcut? I’m afraid saying “sorry Your Honour I only took that shortcut because we were trying to get the plant back into service quickly” just won’t cut it. The safe work process is the safe work process, it is not optional or open for selective use. I am afraid once a culture of shortcuts exists it is very, very hard to fix without a significant step change in the culture.

The PTW and related procedures should be designed to cover both planned and breakdown work. If there are unusual events that require work to be done outside the process then I would expect escalation in authorisation as we’re talking high risk work as soon as we deviate from approved processes. Then there should also be lessons learnt from the event and the procedures updated so these unplanned activities are accommodated and controlled.

A good ePTW or Safe Work System package should enforce the PTW procedure’s safety rules making them harder, if not impossible, to short cut. Often the objection from those against ePTW is that they don’t want to be forced to comply with the organisations safety requirements, they want the freedom to do as they like. I know this sounds harsh but if the culture is such that it allows the safety rules to be circumvented then don’t even bother having them! In my opinion this myth should not only be busted, but terminated!

Myth #6 – ePTW costs too much and management won't pay for it

The myth goes that ePTW solutions are expensive and management won’t pay for it so we won’t bother looking. There are certainly costs associated with implementing an ePTW/Safe Work System. These include licensing costs; hardware, implementation services and training just like there are for any information technology project. The costs of course are only one side of the equation the more important question is “how much will it save us?”

Unfortunately everyone is highly skilled in asking the cost question but not so on the savings/benefits question. In my paper on the “Calculated benefits of ePTW” I go into some detail in building the picture of the potential savings following the usual return on investment (ROI) process. What I do want to focus on in this myth is “what is it costing you now?” In my experience, rarely do people look at, let alone calculate, the current costs of a business function or process, particularly in this space. So, they have no idea of the costs they are carrying in their everyday PTW operations.

At a very basic level these include:

I could easily go on expanding the list but hopefully you get my drift. Once you can identify the real cost of the status quo you’re half way there. Identification of the projected future costs using an ePTW tool allows the savings to be defined, calculated and used in the ROI.

The ROI may also include non-tangible benefits related to avoided costs such as less incidents, investigations, injuries, regulatory fines, civil action, production loss etc.

So, before dismissing ePTW because you may think it costs too much ask the question about the true cost doing things now and the possible savings. Management will nearly always entertain ideas on improving efficiency and saving money. Hopefully this myth is busted but I’ll leave that to you to decide. Have a great weekend.

Myth #7 - If the ePTW system goes down, we can't do anything

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve heard this excuse. Certainly technology is not bullet proof and will on some occasions go down. More often than not the network/communications or server or power has failed; it’s fairly rare these days for the software itself to fail.

OK, so how do we manage this situation rather than use it as an excuse for not moving ahead with an ePTW solution? As it turns out it’s not much different than any other business technology solution, it’s called Business Continuity Planning. A Business Continuity Plan typically covers both Disaster Recovery Plan (how do we get systems back ASAP) and the Contingency Plan (what we do while we don’t have access). The IT Department is usually well versed in Business Continuity Planning, particularly in the disaster recovery aspect.

In the context of ePTW the immediate need is “what permits do I have out”. i.e. what is the current state. The solution is quite simple, either have an automated report or even a manual report generated daily of all active permits, it can be more frequent if needed. This can be physically printed or sent to a workstation with a backup power supply.

The next need while the ePTW system is missing in action is “I need to plan and issue a new permit/isolation”. Again the solution is not that complex, a simple “Crash Pack” which contains blank permit/isolation forms which can be used manually. It’s a good idea to have a current copy of the procedure in the same pack for quick reference. These forms can be used as a short term solution while the IT guys are frantically trying to get the network/system back. Leave the DRP stuff to them as they’ll have back up servers, hopefully data backups and will be aiming to restore service ASAP. Good idea not to talk to them during this period!

Time sensitivity is another consideration before necessarily kicking in the manual process. Given most system outages will be short many ePTW users will take a pause on issuing new permits for x hours. i.e. they’ll wait a while to see if the system comes back before invoking the Contingency Plan. Is not uncommon for sites waiting say four hours before invoking the plan, during a plant shutdown it would be far less of course.

One of our clients recently had a planned system outage coming up so had to dust off their Crash Pack and make sure it was up-to-date so make sure they are maintained.

I hope I’ve dispelled this myth as an excuse not to move from a paper process to electronic.

Myth #8 – There’s too much work involved in setting up ePTW and we don’t have the resources

OK I get it, we’re all really busy and as many companies downsize their workforce, there is more and more work to do by less and less people. However, I think people forget about the effort and cost of the status quo. Recently I was speaking with a shift supervisor who had been a user of our system, but had moved to a new organisation that had a paper based permit and lock system. He was lamenting the fact that now he had to spend hours hand writing isolation tags, where before he clicked a button and picked them up from the printer. Is this a productive use of time by an expensive resource?

We see this time and time again people planning the isolations from first principles and hand writing the isolation list, tags and permits. This ties up lots of people for hours and hours and it’s repeated over and over.

Yes, there is work in preparing data and information to load into an ePTW system but, once done that’s when the real payback starts. After setting up the core plant and isolation data, no-one needs to re-enter that data again. This significantly improves productivity and makes it much faster to plan and implement an isolation or permit.

My response to this myth is that you can keep doing things the way they’ve always been done or you can invest an initial amount of effort to reap future savings. I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying ‘too busy fighting alligators to find time to drain the swamp’….stop making excuses and get on with it! Busted!