4 [MORE] Isolations and Permitting Mistakes to Stop Making Now

We here at Prometheus Group recently published a webinar on four isolations and permitting mistakes to stop making now. This list included:

  • Mistake #1: Lack of communication
  • Mistake #2: Inadequate training
  • Mistake #3: Preparing too late
  • Mistake #4: Complacency

These are mistakes we’ve seen time and again in organizations ranging from multinational corporations to small utilities companies. These mistakes can have major consequences for your organization, including unnecessary long wait times for permits, an increase in incidents and near misses, confusion about who to go to and what to do next, missing vital steps in the process, and the perpetuation of bad safety culture and morale among staff, to name just a few.

Permitting and safety remain critical issues in plant maintenance. Wrangling your permits to work, isolation management, risk assessment, incident management, and management of change is no mean feat, and each decision point in your permitting process has a significant impact on the safety of your plant and personnel.

Given the importance of safe permitting and isolation, it’s not surprising that there are more challenges than the four commonly made mistakes we outlined in our webinar. Ensuring that best practices are implemented consistently and effectively is crucial—and difficult. We wanted to expand on that list, so we’ve compiled four MORE common isolations and permitting mistakes—as well as ideas for tackling them head-on.

Permitting Mistake #5: Relying on Paper Permitting

In a previous article, we listed the reasons paper permitting is the worst: increased risk, conflicts with hazards and isolations, dangerous add-ons, wasted time, compliance problems, culture problems, and higher costs.

There are other reasons, though, why exclusively relying on paper permitting (even if you’re dealing with regulatory bodies that insist on paper permitting) is risky and inefficient. Consider, for example, the time, effort, and cost of simply moving paper permits around your organization. Whether you’re shuttling permits to personnel or vice versa, the resources required to orchestrate these moving parts can be considerable. By our calculations, using an electronic permit to work system such as Prometheus’ ePAS can save you, conservatively, 70% of your effort in moving permits and personnel around, resulting in up to 116 hours of time each month.

It’s also worth noting that relying on paper permitting frequently also means relying on individuals to keep your institution’s permitting knowledge. As we’ll discuss below, using electronic permit to work systems as part of an integrated safe system of work (ISSOW) can help foster a culture of accountability. At the same time, it can ensure that your organization’s best practices around permitting and isolations are captured in real time so that they can be passed down to new generations of health and safety personnel, maintenance managers, and operations managers.

Organizations spend a great deal of time producing institutional knowledge and capability around permitting processes. A lot of the time, though (and particularly with paper permitting), this wealth of information about processes, procedures, and relationships between equipment, hazards, and competencies resides in the heads and hearts of a few individuals. It’s a lot. Over time, that knowledge disappears or degrades as personnel and priorities change.

Consequences of Paper Permitting:

  • Increased errors or gaps in permitting increase risks of incidents and near misses.  
  • Reviewing and cross-referencing isolation lists and permits are time-consuming and prone to inaccuracies.
  • It’s difficult to change paper permits, meaning that dangerous shortcuts may be taken to make additions in the moment.
  • Handwriting permits takes more time, illegible handwriting leads to guesswork, and delays abound.
  • Because there’s frequently no auditable permit trail with paper permits, regulatory compliance becomes increasingly difficult.
  • Paper simply costs more to produce and transport, driving the financial repercussions of your permitting processes up.
  • Knowledge about and insights into your organization’s permitting best practices are contingent upon, at best, a few individuals.

How to Fix It:

Digital permitting systems for enterprise asset management allow you to create and implement an adaptable, scalable, repeatable system in ways that are simply not possible with paper (or at least purely paper) permitting processes.

  • Using adaptable templates for isolations, permits, and certificates creates a standard process to increase efficiency and reduce errors.
  • Electronic permit to work (PTW) systems allow easy cross-referencing between work, hazards, permits, isolations, and competencies. This reduces the number of permits required while ensuring all necessary safety measures are in place.
  • Digital permitting documents knowledge and training around safety, isolations, hazards, etc., meaning that permitting best practices become repeatable and consistent, even with staff changes.  

Permitting Mistake #6: Not Periodically Reviewing Your PTW System

Another advantage of moving toward digital or electronic PTW systems is that they allow you to more easily review, test, modify, and analyze your organization’s process for issuing permits and isolations.  

Too often, and particularly with paper permitting, organizations fall into a downward spiral of not reviewing the PTW system, missing possible improvements, not developing appropriate performance measures for the PTW system, failing to document the purpose or aim of a PTW policy, and ultimately maintaining redundancies and overcomplicating control of work processes.[1] [2]  

Are you conducting a truthful and transparent audit of your PTW system at regular intervals? We’ve created a checklist of permitting and safety requirements to get you started. You may also want to draw up a list of questions to assess the clarity and flexibility of your system, the effectiveness of your responsibility allocation, the ease of communication, and the applicability of your metrics for success. If you’re not scheduling time to take a hard look at where your permitting processes succeed and where there’s room for improvement, you’re putting your people and your organization at unnecessary risk.  

Consequences of a Static PTW System:

  • Not having a robust and documented purpose for a PTW system can result in an organization’s defaulting to simply describing the purpose of an individual document.
  • Without measurable targets and objectives for a PTW system, an organization has no feasible way of understanding where there is room for improvement.
  • Just implementing the same PTW system can quickly overcomplicate work efforts, duplicate tasks, and present opportunities for errors and omissions.

How to Fix It:

  • Generate questions meant to gauge the effectiveness of your PTW system (Is it compliant? Are we measuring the right things? Have relevant people been appointed? How is communication flowing? Is the system scaled to the risks? Are all tasks being documented?)
  • Develop a plan for taking appropriate action and implementing changes based on your review.
  • Consider implementing an ISSOW with integrated incident management to more intuitively record and report incidents and rear misses, define recommendations and changes, and streamline your PTW system.
  • Electronic PTW systems help design easily defined workflows, define new requirements based on data, and automatically update all future permit requirements to seamlessly integrate lessons learned.  

Permitting Mistake #7: Continuing a Checkbox Mentality

We’ve said it time and again: You can change the forms, but you’re not changing anything if the safety culture doesn’t change with them. And, of course, moving away from the checkbox culture, the “rush through the busywork” mentality, and the aversion to bureaucracy mindset is always going to be difficult. These types of thought processes, however, can lead to real problems in your permitting process and, consequently, in your maintenance operations.  

Let’s consider what we’ve called the “checkbox mentality.” It’s difficult to make paper processes and permits configurable to individual use cases, meaning that they are not always accurate, job specific, and relevant. In such cases, it’s easy to begin skimming through paper permitting documentation to speed through a repetitive process that may seem pointless. This perception that permitting constitutes “busywork” is extremely dangerous and puts your maintenance professionals and overall organization at risk.  

Using an electronic PTW system helps to foster a system of accountability. For example (and it’s a big example), these digital systems automatically create an auditable trail. The security of knowing that each permitting and isolation action (from lock out/tag out to isolation point validation and beyond) is accurately and thoroughly documented provides powerful motivation for logging information clearly and concisely while ensuring that permits are prepared and approved with necessary review and cross-referencing.  

Changing plant conditions sometimes means that what were once “one-time” or “emergency” variations from established standards become the norm. This shift is particularly distressing when it becomes normal to accept routine deviations from safety and permitting standards. These incremental changes can occur due to differences between procedure and operating team knowledge, increasing complexity of tasks and equipment, or unavailability of preferred parts. To address these issues, you want a system in place that includes a scheduled review of policies and procedures, as discussed above. You also want a permitting and isolation process that is configurable, customizable, and, ultimately, flexible

Consequences of a Checkbox Mentality:

  • Manual, repetitive paper processes undercut rigor and attention to detail, producing bottlenecks, complacency, and errors.
  • The validation and approval process is not strictly enforced, leading to more and more dangerous shortcuts.
  • The results of the same permitting process vary widely as information is spread haphazardly between employees, requirements are open to interpretation, and data is not verified or corrected.

How to Fix It:

  • Use flexible, configurable templates to ensure all information and prompts are relevant.
  • Reduce the repetition of permits through digital permitting to ensure the accuracy of PTW processes, shifting the focus from administrative paperwork to maintenance task execution.
  • Streamline permitting and controls using Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (HIRA) and automatically integrate the results into your permits.  

Permitting Mistake #8: Allowing Human Error to Infiltrate

This one is a little bit of a cheat. At their core, all of the permitting mistakes we’ve listed here, and the original mistakes discussed in our webinar, are related to human error. But we think it’s a challenge worth talking about on its own terms. Human error factors are consistently cited as being behind approximately 80%-90% of industrial accidents and incidents.[3] While there is certainly room for more training and capacity and competence building to decrease incidents, near misses, data gaps, etc., training alone will never ensure that every aspect of your permitting and safety policies are completed to the letter every time. Humans make mistakes.

The silver bullet is, wherever possible, putting effective procedures in place. These procedures, which can and should include using automated templates, streamlining your workflow, standardizing PTW practices, configuring a specialized hazard and control library, standardizing hazard identification and risk assessment, and capturing and sharing critical information through operational logging, among other steps, each provide incremental protections against human error in your PTW system—and they build up to a robust system of standardization, tracking, and reporting that keeps your workers and your facilities safer.  

Consequences of Human Error:

  • PTW processes, job safety analyses, risk assessments, conflict management, reporting and data collection, reviews, and documentation are subjective and inconsistent, leading to critical errors.
  • Undocumented information circulates, leading to erratic permitting and no thoroughly documented PTW process.

How to Fix It:

  • Harness intelligent solutions to mitigate guesswork and error.
  • Connect maintenance and operations workflows to better identify hazards and assess risks based on a specialized control library.
  • Utilize built-in rules to identify and address hazards and conflicts with increased insight and diligence.  

Many of the solutions we’ve identified for addressing these eight permitting and isolation mistakes to create a robust ISSOW rely on the functionality of a digital PTW system. By creating more and more rigorous automated systems and protocols, safeguarding your institutional knowledge, and integrating and connecting each piece of your asset and work management strategy, you’re able to avoid these common pitfalls and ensure the safety and transparency of your permitting process while increasing wrench time.

For more information on how the switch to digital permitting with Prometheus Group’s ePAS solution can help your organization avoid these and other common mistakes, check out "The Digitalization of Permitting: Safety, Compliance and Productivity.”


[1] https://www.icheme.org/media/13597/lpb272online.pdf

[2] https://www.icheme.org/media/15429/paper-08.pdf

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4792918/#bib1