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Digital transformation of compliance documentation in an industrial setting: How going paperless saves time, prevents errors – and ensures operational and occupational safety

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Goals

  • Completely digitalize a cumbersome, paper-based process for creating and archiving framework agreements, accident prevention plans and the thousands of work permits issued yearly at the client’s industrial facilities across Belgium
  • Save time and effort, reduce errors in creating work permits; ensure that documentation procedures are followed
  • Ensure that accident prevention guidelines and jobsite hazard information from the contractors’ framework agreements are always provided along with the work permits – as originally intended

Approach

  • Start from scratch to provide a fully customized system
  • Proprietary software solution: all rights transferred to customer
  • No licensing or annual renewal fees – transparent cost structure, lower long-term TCO

Benefits

  • Streamlined process saves time and effort, prevents errors
  • Administrative view provides high-level information about the client’s maintenance and repair activities across its facilities
  • Digitalized documents allow for multiple references (links)
  • Work permits issued on the day of labor now include critical risk mitigation and worker safety information
  • Potential workspace conflicts are raised before issuing work permits; when work proceeds despite an alert, permissions process is electronically tracked and documented
  • Contractor web access allows contractors to review agreed documentation and to upload information relative to the employees who will be sent to the jobsite
  • Web access and cloud storage provides new flexibility on the go; offline mode ensures that some basic functions are still available even if internet connectivity goes down

Project overview

Keeping an industrial facility running smoothly and safely requires constant attention to detail. Our client achieves this by retaining – after a comprehensive tendering process – a host of skilled and competent service providers to perform diverse technical tasks in a set of high-risk plants located throughout Belgium.

Although the paper trail pertaining to these work needs was intended to cover most eventualities, the process itself actually aggravated information gaps. The administrative burden associated with retrieving archived agreements and transferring the relevant conditions to a work permit for today’s work meant that critical information often stayed behind in the file cabinet. In the end, neither our client nor its contractors were well served by this manual process, which had become complex over time.

The solution from the Positive Thinking Company is a cloud-based, fully digitalized documentation and archiving system built on a Progressive Web App platform. Well beyond the obvious savings in time, benefits of the new system include information transparency, process simplicity and flexibility. It has also greatly enhanced awareness of critical, legally-binding work requirements on the part of its contractors.

Critical risk and safety information – locked away in a file cabinet

Because the client’s nine facilities across Belgium all have their own risk sensitivities, the work permitting process needs to cover a wide range of eventualities. Over time it had become complex, and because the underlying documents were paper-based, it was difficult to optimize. Whether for critical maintenance on a hazardous goods storage tank or to fix a toilet, the basic process was – and still is – as follows:

  • Tenders are solicited; a service provider is chosen.
  • An overarching framework agreement is written that outlines the work, risks and hazards present at the job site, rules governing the contractor’s activities, and the responsibilities of the client toward the contractor.
  • Individual work permits detailing scope and location of labor are issued for daily work crews; without this critical document, contractors are not allowed on the premises. On average 2,500-3,000 work permits are generated annually.

While the process itself was sensible, it had an inherent flaw while it was still paper-based: Usually, after being signed by the involved parties, the framework agreement would be archived for safekeeping. This literally meant locking critical risk and safety information away in a file cabinet.

 

The framework agreement: much more than just a contract

The document at the heart of the relationship between client and service provider outlines the various hazards and risks (poison, radiation, explosion, etc.) inherent in either the work itself or the job site, and it coordinates the practical measures that must be taken to mitigate these risks and avoid incidents. In short, it entails the accident prevention plan that must be followed by an outside company working within the facility, as well as the client’s responsibilities towards that company.

It also lists other important data, including the certifications required of the workers on the job and any equipment that the client must make available to them during works. The work permits always refer back to these original framework agreements. And since they can be valid for either a discrete work project or for a period of time (e.g. weeks or months), multiple work permits are usually issued against them.

Since the prevention plan contains information about the occupational hazards that workers might encounter while on the job, it’s important to include this knowledge in the daily work permits as well: it ensures information transparency, no matter who is on today’s crew – or whether they were briefed beforehand by their employer. Plus, as a legally-binding document signed by both client and contractor, it protects both parties in the eye of the law.

But let’s imagine the actual day of work: laborers have just arrived at the client’s administrative office, and the clerk on duty has to prepare the permits for them to sign before they can even enter the premises. Needless to say: it has to go quickly. So, when the form has empty fields where the prevention plan should be, and the framework agreement is filed away – and five contractors are all impatiently waiting to get started – this crucial information doesn’t always get transferred over. If ever.

 

Positively rethinking the process from the ground up

What was needed was a completely new approach to archiving and producing this documentation: a new digitalized system that would not only save time and reduce administrative overhead but would stop the information gaps promoted by the old, cumbersome documentation process.

The Positive Thinking Company developed a paperless system, hosted in the cloud, with a clean and user-friendly web interface that ensures that all the right information is supplied when forms are created and signed. Now all documents are created and managed online: framework agreements, supplemental documentation, work permits, everything. And since digital documents can be linked to without limit, it’s also possible to write framework agreements that cover multiple facilities.

 

Saving time preventing errors

When an administrator creates a work permit, it is necessarily linked to a specific framework agreement. The relevant information (e.g. from the prevention plan) then automatically populates the corresponding form fields in the work permit. That not only saves the client’s staff time and effort: It means that, on the day of work, the contractor’s employees sign – also electronically – and receive a copy of a work permit that actually contains all the relevant content from the prevention plan, as well as any other relevant documents (e.g. evacuation plans, checklists, etc.) pertaining to the job or the job site.

 

While issuing the work permit, the system also checks whether, for example, two different contractors are scheduled to do work in the same physical space at the same time. If such a potential conflict is detected, it raises an alert while the work permit is being drawn up – but this can be overridden if the overlap causes no true problem. In other cases, special permissions must be acquired. Whereas previously, this was a manual process that involved checking an area map and placing a phone call to the supervisor on duty, now it’s formalized with an electronic paper trail.

Easy information transparency

Responding to the customer’s desire to take a measured approach, the Positive Thinking The contractors are provided with password-protected web access to a portal where they can manage the documentation for their own projects. Through this account they enter the personal data (name, contact data, skills, special qualifications, etc.) for the employees assigned to these projects – they  can even upload scans of certificates.

 

Ad hoc changes or entries are possible. Workers not yet entered into the system by their employer can be quickly added by the client on the day. Work permits can be issued on short notice (e.g. for emergency repairs), even if a co-signer is on vacation: the system automatically contacts him/her by text or email for quick turnaround.

 

An offline mode ensures that work doesn’t come to a standstill if internet connectivity is temporarily lost; functions such as basic input and standard templates are still active. Once internet connectivity is restored, the new information is automatically uploaded to the cloud.

And the client’s web interface provides a system administrator with access to KPIs such as the number of framework agreements created over a certain time period, which site(s) they pertain to and a breakdown by type. An overview of work permits is also available, including information on the hazard level of the work or whether it had to be performed outside of normal work hours.

Respecting the long-term cost of ownership

Because the Positive Thinking Company felt the client needed for a solution with a long horizon, the decision was taken to propose a custom system created new from scratch – not to modify a commercially available package. While this approach came with slightly higher upfront costs, because the client now owns the software and all the rights to it, there are no future licensing or renewal fees. A prototype convinced the client that it was feasible. In the end, the system was proposed, developed and delivered in just under a year.

 

Today’s system is a cloud-hosted progressive web application that makes use of a video game framework for one of its functions. Although the interface was kept as simple and as intuitive as possible, the PTC also ran several training sessions for the client’s employees – after all, until recently, they had been working with paper!