SIF Prevention with Better Permit to Work Program Management

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It seems that everyone is talking about ‘SIFs’ these days.  For those new to the term, SIF stands for Serious Injuries and Fatalities, otherwise defined as ‘life-threatening, life-altering or fatal events’ that can occur during the course of normal work. 

Recent studies have revealed that companies are shifting their EHS strategies to identify where, why, and how these severe outcomes might happen at the workplace and how to prevent them. In its 2023 Global Corporate Survey, research firm Verdantix reported that nearly 80% of EHS corporate leaders they spoke to indicated that reducing the risk of serious injuries and fatalities will be a key priority for their organizations over the next two years. 

And it’s easy to understand why. Beyond the human toll of these events, SIFs can wreak a devastating impact on compliance risk and corporate liability, poison workforce culture, reduce productivity, erode profitability, and even paralyze an organization’s ability to raise growth capital or attract the best talent.   

So, what can we do to reduce the threat that SIFs pose to our people and our businesses? 

In this article, we’ll cover –  

  • What SIFs are, how they happen, and how to prevent them 
  • The relationship between SIF Prevention and Permit to Work 
  • How building better Permit to Work programs can help reduce our SIF potential 
  • The benefits of digitizing your Permit to work program through SaaS software 

The Skinny on SIFs 

For years, organizations have focused their prevention efforts on reducing the number of minor incidents at the workplace in hopes for a corresponding drop in the number of more severe events.  This idea was based on the persistent belief that certain events shared the same underlying and/or contributing factors. Thus, if we reduced the causes of these ‘lower order’ events, the more severe ones would follow suit. But that’s not exactly true. 

What we’ve come to learn over the past decade is that the conditions that must exist to create a SIF are quite different from the conditions that tend to result in less severe outcomes. These conditions are called SIF precursors – situations involving high-risk work where a severe or fatal outcome is likely to occur because control measures necessary to protect individuals from those outcomes are either absent, ineffective, or not followed.   

Think about an individual working at height. An individual working 20-30 feet above the ground without proper fall protection would be considered a SIF precursor since, if they were to fall, the absence of the control (fall arrest) means the outcome would almost certainly be catastrophic. In contrast, while a worker might slip and fall at ground-level, the potential outcome is not the same.  By this rationale, addressing the causes of slips and falls wouldn’t necessarily help the business reduce the risk of someone dying from a fall from height. 

Preventing SIFs with Permit to Work 

Interestingly, if we were to create a list of high-risk situations that could contribute to a SIF precursor, we’d likely find that many of these tasks are also governed by permit to work regulations. Tasks such as working at heights, hot work, electrical work or confined space entry.

Permit to work (PTW) is a management system process used to review, authorize, and control the performance of high-risk work. Workers intending to perform specific high-risk tasks must request a permit that grants them permission to conduct the activity. PTW programs also define the control measures that must be followed before, during, and after the work to reduce the risk of serious harm. The sad truth is that these requirements have developed over time, largely as a result of fatalities linked to these tasks.   

It’s clear that PTW programs incorporate many of the same principles needed to successfully prevent SIFs. As a result, we can argue that building a more robust PTW program can be an effective step toward reducing the risk of severe or fatal events in our workplaces. But how do we do that? 

Top Permit to Work Challenges

When well-designed and consistently followed, PTW programs are extremely effective at preventing SIFs. However, many PTW programs are plagued with operational constraints that undermine their effectiveness at controlling high-risk work.   

Let’s consider a few of the most common permit to work challenges:

  • High administrative effort  – Paper-based permitting systems often create heavy administrative burdens that compromise operational efficiency and worker compliance. As paperwork demands increase, so does ‘pencil-whipping’ behavior that can undermine the value of PTW as a robust task planning & risk management exercise. 
  • Process bottlenecks – Even when paper permits are completed efficiently, front-line workers often face long wait-times for permits to be authorized. This is particularly relevant at workplaces where supervisors manage multiple PTW tasks over a large operating footprint. Waiting for supervisors to arrive and authorize tasks increases the chances that workers start without authorization and raises the risk of something bad happening. 
  • Lack of PTW oversight – Organizations using paper-based permits also struggle to monitor the status of permitted tasks in real-time, making it difficult to proactively detect where missing or ineffective controls could increase the risk of SIFs, and where they need to intervene. Moreover, supervisors often lack the tools to validate potential conflicts between two permitted tasks in proximity. This, in turn, raises the chances that a hazard from one task could impact individuals at the other. 
  • Program visibility – Finally, heavy reliance on paper-based PTW programs means difficulty in aggregating and analyzing PTW data at scale. This minimizes leaders’ visibility into overall program performance and makes it difficult to pinpoint ‘hot spots’ that may require additional resources.

Solving Permit to Work Challenges with Software

Fortunately, by digitizing PTW programs, organizations can begin to counteract many of these common challenges. Digitization allows for more reliable processes, employee engagement, and peace of mind that critical controls are in place and operating effectively.

Some of the ways in which digital PTW applications can help include: 

  • Workflow optimization & automation – Digital tools enable organizations to tailor PTW workflows to their specific needs. This helps to streamline data collection needed for PTW requests while reducing redundant paperwork. Thus, encouraging a more efficient permit request & approval process and fully engaging workers in task planning and risk management. 
  • Mobile accessibility – With mobile accessibility, workers will have anywhere, anytime access to the tools and information they need to complete permit requests efficiently. This allows them to handoff requests to permit approvers wherever they are, reducing downtime and unsafe workarounds. 
  • Enhanced real-time status visibility – Many PTW solutions enable users to monitor multiple permits on digital map layouts, enabling real-time monitoring of work-in-progress, and giving permit issuers better visibility to evaluate the potential conflicts between tasks when granting permit approvals. This real-time data helps supervisors prioritize important tasks and ensure work is performed to expectations. 
  • Data visualization – With integrated advanced business intelligence and analytics features, PTW software applications make it easier for organizations to:
    • Monitor the overall health of their PTW programs
    • Help them easily reveal insights to guide decisions on EHS strategy and resourcing
    • Provide appropriate attention to SIF exposure that is not effectively controlled

Businesses that outsource their high-risk tasks to external third parties will see added value from integrating a digital PTW solution. PTW solutions can be integrated with contractor prequalification, training management, risk assessment and incident reporting and investigation, in a single, comprehensive cloud-based EHS enterprise platform.

Final Thoughts 

While occupational injury rates have been steadily falling for over two decades, the rate of SIFs has remained stubbornly stagnant. Thus, forcing a new approach to help organizations reach world-class EHS performance. That begins by optimizing the critical processes specifically designed to reduce SIFs. 

Interested in reducing SIF potential? Then digitizing your Permit to Work program might be the next best place to start!