What is the difference between a permit to work and a risk assessment?

Mar 3, 2022 | Article, Permit to Work

Reducing Safety Risk

Both the permit to work and the job risk assessment are critical procedures designed to ensure that work takes place safely.  Both methods involve identifying hazards, determining the risk, and specifying the necessary precautions.  The permit to work and job risk assessment seems to accomplish the same thing at face value.  Is this not then an unnecessary duplication of effort?

This article will explain the main differences and why both procedures are necessary.

Permit to Work

The permit to work and risk assessment processes are complementary to each other, and both are required.  First, let us look at the Permit to Work (PTW).

The PTW is an important document that covers the entire lifecycle of a job, starting with the work planning, the initial permit request, the listing of expected hazards and setting out the necessary precautions to be taken.  The PTW stays valid for the duration of the entire job until the equipment is formally handed back to production and returned to operation.

The PTW verifies that all the steps in the set-out procedures were followed correctly.  The responsible persons must sign the document at the different stages of the permit life cycle.

A well-designed PTW system will help guide the user to follow the necessary procedures in order to work safely.  It will also assist in enforcing safety rules and assigning clear accountability between operations and maintenance.  It will also clarify the energy isolations necessary and identify all the precautions necessary for certain high-risk activities such as entering confined spaces or working at height. The PTW will also identify and help control work group interactions where several crews are required to work in adjacent areas or on common systems.

The PTW is, therefore, a vital part of operational risk management and a safety management system.  The permit essentially assists in identifying, quantifying and mitigating safety-related risk in advance of, during and after work in the field.

Job Risk Assessment

The PTW is necessary but not always sufficient.  The other critical safety procedure is the job risk assessment (JRA).  Depending on the industry and organisation terminology, the JRA is sometimes referred to as the point of work risk assessment (POWRA) or job hazard analysis (JHA).

So, how does the JRA relate to the PTW?  To explain the difference, consider a simple example of a maintenance team installing scaffolding to replace old lagging located at the top of a high-temperature reactor.  The team will have obtained a PTW in advance of the job.  The PTW will identify the hazards (in this example, working at height and high temperature).  The permit will also show the precautions to be taken (e.g., the incoming steam valve must be isolated, the reactor must have cooled to less than 30 degrees, prescribed wearing of a harness when on the scaffold structure and the use of leather gloves for protection).  The production superintendent will have signed the permit, and after preliminary preparations, he will hand over the reactor to the maintenance crew for work to proceed.

When the maintenance crew arrives at the reactor to set up the scaffold, they discover that several cylinders of welding gas are standing at the base of the reactor.   They are in the way of the work crew.  The cylinders were missed during the permit handover because they had been delivered while the crew was getting their tools and equipment.  The gas cylinders were left there by another team, unaware of the scaffolding work about to take place in the same space.

This is where the JRA becomes a critical step in the process.  A JRA is done at the worksite by the people directly involved in doing the job.  The JRA is intended to identify any hazards relating to the actual site conditions.  It is the final step in assessing risk before work commences.  The JRA will also ensure that any additional precautions are implemented before anyone is potentially exposed to new, unexpected hazards.

In our example, the person completing the JRA will record the new hazard, namely gas cylinders, in the immediate vicinity. He will then have to mitigate the risk.  Working between gas cylinders is an unnecessary hazard to the free movement to install the scaffold.  In our example, the supervisor decides to instruct the operations team first to remove the gas cylinders before his crew can commence work.

The table below summarises the main differences between the PTW and JRA:

When Applies to the whole job from job initiation/planning to handover back to operations. Completed just ahead of the work taking place.
Where Often issued from a central permit office located some distance from the job site itself. In the field, where the work is to take place.
By Whom All role-players including operations, maintenance, permit officer, isolation officer and other. Filled in by the designated leader of the working party. All workers then also sign the JRA to confirm that they have reviewed and are satisfied that work can take place safely.
Rules/checks applied Safe work rules are prescribed by procedures and may be printed on the permit certificate. The JRA relies on the experienced judgement of the working party at the work site itself, combined with supporting information from the permit certificate.

The combined processes

There is some duplication between the permit to work and the JRA.  For example, the hazards shown on the permit should also be identified in the JRA. But the JRA is intended to also identify other hazards that might have been missed when the permit was prepared.

The permit will specify specific precautions which are later found to be incorrect or conflicting.  For example, wearing thick leather gloves might not be practical when using small tools, and this requirement might need to be updated for specific steps in the procedure.

These and many other scenarios are possible in a typical production environment and cannot be foreseen when preparing the permit.  Therefore, the JRA and the PTW must function seamlessly together to ensure all risk is considered and double-checked.

A computer-based PTW and JRA system will have many advantages compared to a paper-based system.  Many organisations issue a computer-based permit and fill out the JRA manually using pre-printed forms.  However, there are significant benefits to digitising the whole process. For example, the information provided on the permit can be automatically checked against pre-defined safe work rules to ensure its integrity and then later cross-checked against the data entered in the JRA.  The system can immediately flag any inconsistencies to prevent errors or oversights.

Another advantage to using a mobile device for the JRA is that the device will also usually also have a camera that can be used to record details of the worksite and scan bar codes to verify the location, the isolations and even the equipment about to be worked on.  There are many other advantages to a fully computerised system; for example, important engineering information and maintenance procedures can be delivered to the technicians through a tablet.

The above example illustrates several differences and similarities between a Permit to Work and a Job Risk Assessment.  In short, both are essential tools to ensure that people work safely.  A fully digital solution will have many benefits and ensure that risk is better managed.

For more information

Adapt IT Manufacturing provides digital solutions that enhance safety performance and operational excellence to help industrial companies achieve more.

For more information on how IntelliPERMIT and OpSUITE can help you better manage your process safety please contact the team at Adapt IT.

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