What is a permit to work?


Permission to speak, sir?

That was it, wasn’t it – Corporal Jones’ usual request whenever he felt he had something important to say to Captain Mainwaring. I’m showing my age again with these ancient references – for the benefit of younger readers, I’m referring to the excellent 1970s BBC comedy Dad’s Army.

Anyway, the point is that Jones always sought permission to proceed in circumstances where something important needed to be done – important in those World War II days of the Home Guard because there was some risk associated with getting it wrong.

And so it is in the world of health and safety, not least within the construction industry. As anyone studying the NEBOSH Construction Certificate will learn, seeking permission to proceed with an activity when there is a significant level of risk associated with it is an important part of the control measures used to reduce the risk.  It’s what we know as a ‘permit to work’.

The use of permits is very common on construction projects. They are used for high-risk activities such as hot works, entry into confined spaces, excavating, gaining access to areas where there are live services, and access to roofs.  In more recent years, permits have been introduced to control the use of equipment such as stepladders (notice I said control, not prohibit).

So what is a permit to work?  Well, to be a bit more precise, I should refer to a permit-to-work procedure, and that, in my view, is significant. A permit-to-work procedure is one where an authorised person (let’s call him or her the Site Manager, as that is usually who it is) ensures that all the necessary controls are in place for a high-risk activity, before he or she issues permission for the work to proceed. You can think of it as a hold-point in the course of undertaking the activity, where those in control satisfy themselves that all is well before the dangerous bit starts. When all is in order, permission to carry on is issued via a permit to work.  So a permit-to-work procedure is one whereby it is ensured that the safe system of work is in place. A permit to work is, usually, a piece of paper.

A common experience I had while working in the construction industry was for someone to arrive at the Site Manager’s office door and request a permit, very often a hot-work permit. The busy Site Manager would ask a few questions about moving combustibles and having an extinguisher to hand, then fill out the permit with all the requisite details, and sign it before asking the person who had requested it to also sign it. Then it would be issued.  At this point I would ask myself a few questions: What has been done to reduce the risk?  How is that piece of paper going to stop a fire?  Answers:  nothing, and it won’t!

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‘Ah but,’ I hear you say, ‘the permit specifies that various things must be done before the high-risk activity starts.’  ‘Ah but,’ I reply, ‘so does the method statement (or at least it should).’  So what has been achieved by issuing the piece of paper?  It appears to me that nothing has been achieved!

What should happen to make the process valuable is that the issuer – our very pressed-for-time Site Manager (they usually are) – should actually check that the controls are ‘all present and correct’ (I think that was another one of Jonesy’s sayings) before issuing the permit.  In other words, go out to the place of work and have a look. Now something has actually been achieved. The issuer – the person in control – knows that the necessary precautions are in place before a high-risk activity starts on his or her watch.  That, in my view, is a good thing.  Issuing a piece of paper without the necessary checks, on the other hand, has no benefit.

‘Ah yes but,’ I hear you say again, ‘how is a busy Site Manager going to have the time to do that when there is a queue of people at the door asking for this, that and the other?’ Let’s face it, most Site Managers are very busy, so this is a point I appreciate. The answer lies in a combination of resourcing a project properly to ensure that necessary processes can be implemented.  After all, does it really have to be the Site Manager who does everything? This probably means more personnel resource for many projects.

I may be committing heresy by suggesting this, but poor use of permit procedures is just one of the many processes on a construction site that are not always followed properly, and I’m not just referring to health and safety. Well, I’m going to commit heresy again because, in my view, if we don’t use permits properly, there’s no point in having them.  I haven’t found a piece of paper yet that will stop a fire (unless it’s the kind made from asbestos, but. . .well I don’t need to go into that here), or make a confined space safe, or stop someone falling off a flat roof.  If you have, please tell me where I can get some!  It’s the process that reduces the risk, not the piece of paper.

And finally, I hear you say, ‘all that is well and good in the ideal world, but at least it protects the Site Manager’s back’.  Really? I don’t think it will take long for a clever lawyer to see through that piece of paper.

Corporal Jones was a stickler for getting it right, and so was Captain Mainwaring. Of course, that’s where much of the comedy came from as they often not only didn’t get it right but made a bit of a hash of it. When it comes to some of those high-risk construction activities, though, it is vital to get it right and follow the process properly before issuing the piece of paper. Getting it wrong is no laughing matter!


Rodger Hope CMIOSH, IIRSM

Rodger Hope

Rodger Hope

Rodger has been involved in health and safety for over 15 years and has been particularly involved in construction health and safety for over 10 years. He really enjoys tutoring because of the opportunity it provides to influence peoples’ attitude towards health and safety. In his spare time Rodger enjoys sailing and boat maintenance.

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