Permit to Work in a Confined Space – an Explanation

Permit to Work in a Confined Space – an Explanation

What is a permit-to-work?

We often associate the word ‘permit’ with official permission, a document that gives us permission to do something. Examples of this type of permit would be a parking permit, a fishing permit and a development permit. While good health and safety setup in a business will include the issuance of a ‘permit to work’ where deemed appropriate, the overarching meaning of the term is often misconstrued, misunderstood and misinterpreted.

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE): A permit-to-work is not simply permission to carry out a dangerous job. It is an essential part of a system which determines how that job can be carried out safely, and helps communicate this to those doing the job. It should not be regarded as an easy way to eliminate hazard or reduce risk. The issue of a permit does not, by itself, make a job safe - that can only be achieved by those preparing for the work, those supervising the work and those carrying it out.


The HSE also states that a “permit is a detailed document which authorises certain people to carry out specific work at a specific site at a certain time, and which sets out the main precautions needed to complete the job safely.”


What is a confined space?

Before we continue on in the exploration of a permit-to-work, it is also important to understand what a confined space is. A confined space is not the same as a restricted space, a space where there is little room to move and manoeuvre. A confined space can be substantial, but what makes the space ‘confined’ is a restricted means of access in relation to the size of the space. According to the HSE “A confined space is one which is both enclosed, or largely enclosed, and which also has a reasonably foreseeable risk to workers of fire, explosion, loss of consciousness, asphyxiation or drowning.”   

If you have more questions about confined spaces, consider reading our detailed article: Confined Spaces - commonly asked questions.

The reasons why a permit-to-work is needed

It is the responsibility of each and every employer to ensure that the environment that their employees have to work in is safe. The easiest way to ensure this is to carry out risk assessments for every task performed by individual members of staff. Certain tasks will only require a risk assessment as the risk of harm is negligeable, such as using an electric staple gun to tack upholstery to a chair.

By dint of the fact that a designated confined space is already identified as a potentially dangerous environment in which to work, beyond any risk assessment, a permit-to-work will be required as a means of an extra level of safety measures. 

A permit-to-work should not become a process whereby it is provided simply to be able to demonstrate that health and safety procedures at work have been followed. Providing a permit-to-work should be part of a natural process and a key part of ‘workplace culture’ that focuses on the wellbeing of all workers.

A permit-to-work in a confined space does not automatically make a job safe to do

According to the HSE: “The issue of a permit does not, by itself, make a job safe - that can only be achieved by those preparing for the work, those supervising the work and those carrying it out.” It is critical to employer safety that this statement is fully understood. In simple terms, a permit to work simply confirms that risks have been identified and, where possible mitigated. However, the permit-to-work doesn’t mean the job has been made ‘totally safe’. 

A simple example of a permit-to-work would in a confined space would be one issued where the task was to enter into an air duct in an office building and cut away some binding tape over a joint and replace it with new tape. 

The permit to work would confirm that the risk of getting stuck in the vent had been identified, the risk of the worker overheating in a confined space identified, the sharpness of the knife and having to use it in a confined space identified, and the danger of anyone located below the duct. However, just because the knife has been identified as being sharp doesn’t stop it from being sharp, so it remains a dangerous tool to use. You will find further examples of working in confined spaces in our article Understanding how accidents can be caused when working in confined spaces.


The difference between a risk assessment and a permit-to-work in a confined space

The easiest way to describe the difference between a risk assessment and a permit-to-work lies in the fact that you can have a risk assessment without a permit-to-work, but you can’t have a permit-to-work without a risk assessment. According to the HSA: “The permit-to-work is a documented procedure that authorises certain people to carry out specific work within a specified time frame. It sets out the precautions required to complete the work safely, based on a risk assessment.”

A system must be in place for the issuance of a permit-to-work

Perhaps the best way to help you understand why there needs to be a company-wide policy and system in place for the issuing of permits to work is to ask the question “Who is responsible for issuing a permit-to-work” or “Who can tell me whether or not the task I am about to perform will need a permit-to-work.

Ten reasons why a permit-to-work system for confined spaces is necessary

The following ten points will help you understand how and why a system for permits-to-work is essential:

  1. It will clearly identify who can authorise the carrying out of specific tasks in the workplace and who is responsible for identifying any precautions that need to be taken.
  2. It will provide training in the issue, use and closing of any permits-to-work.
  3. It will self-monitor and audit the system to ensure it is ‘fit for purpose’.
  4. It will clearly identify, in advance, many of the types of work carried out in confined spaces that would be considered as dangerous
  5. It will provide a clear and standard identification of tasks, risk assessments, permitted task duration and supplemental or simultaneous activity and control measures.
  6. It will establish what paperwork is required each time a permit-to-work is issued.
  7. It will include ancillary people, plant and buildings that could be adversely affected if there was an accident while performing a specific task. 
  8. A permit-to-work system will enable better communication between parties where a transfer of work or responsibilities are involved.
  9. A permit to work system will identify who can authorise the use of a permit-to-work, who can issue a permit to work, and who will be responsible for supervising the implementation of specific elements within the permit-to-work.
  10. Training is an essential part of a permit-to-work system. Effective training is essential to achieve quality and consistency in the use of the permit-to-work system. There should be successive levels of training for those involved. Training provides the foundation for effective implementation of a permit-to-work system and supports user competence. Training is the first step for permit-to-work users.

What does a permit-to-work look like?

There is no hard-and-fast rule for what a permit to work looks like. This is primarily because the types of permit to work required may vary depending on the size of the business and nature of the work to be done. For a small business, one simple permit to work may be sufficient, while for larger companies, it may even prove beneficial to have a colour-coding system for permits to work that are each specifically geared towards specific types of task with similar risks.

The following is a useful style guide for creating your own permit-to-work:

  • Keep sentences short and simple;
  • Clearly state who does what and when;
  • Use colour-coding (e.g., to illustrate individual roles);
  • Use the present tense and the active voice;
  • Do not use text fonts smaller than 8 points;
  • Place items on the permit in the order they are performed;
  • Make cross-referencing easy – keep related information together;
  • Make use of open space in the text – avoid ‘clutter’;
  • Use UPPER CASE sparingly for emphasis;
  • Leave enough room for descriptions (e.g., to list area involved, hazards and precautions), specifying the level of detail required;
  • Provide actual quantitative values and limits (e.g., don’t just say ‘must not exceed a critical level’).


    What should a permit-to-work contain?

    The following is a useful content guide for creating your own permits-to-work, reproduced courtesy of HSE:

    1. Permit title 
    2. Permit reference number Reference to other relevant permits or isolation certificates
    3. Job location
    4. Plant identification
    5. Description of work to be done and its limitations
    6. Hazard identification – including residual hazards and hazards associated with the work
    7. Precautions necessary and actions in the event of an emergency – people who carried out precautions, e.g., isolating authority, should sign that precautions have been taken
    8. Protective equipment (including PPE)
    9. Issue – signature (issuing authority) confirming that isolations have been made and precautions taken, except where these can only be taken during the work. Date and time duration of permit. In the case of high hazard work, a further signature from the permit authoriser will be needed
    10. Acceptance – signature confirming understanding of work to be done, hazards involved and precautions required. Also confirming permit information has been explained to all permit users
    11. Extension/shift handover procedures – signatures confirming checks made that plant remains safe to be worked upon, and new performing authorities and permit users made fully aware of hazards/precautions. New expiry time given
    12. Hand-back – signed by performing authority certifying work completed. Signed by issuing authority certifying work completed and plant ready for testing and decommissioning
    13.  Cancellation – certifying work tested and plant satisfactorily recommissioned

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