When it comes to improving the safety and efficiency of maintenance activities, few digital investments beat a well-implemented 'electronic control of work' solution. These tools can be much more efficient than paper-based systems and offer the key benefit of reducing human errors. But… they come with challenges, too—and 'switching' over to one of them can be tricky. So how can executives prepare and how can they demonstrate value in their business case?

By James Brown, Pete Lempriere, and David Parry, Accenture

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Real time, field access to supporting documentation to allow field workers to make better, safer and faster decisions is just one benefit of electronical systems. | Image: Accenture

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It has been 32 years since the Piper Alpha oil production facility exploded in the North Sea, tragically killing 167 people. Financial losses reached almost £2b ($5b in today's money). A major cause was an inadequate control of work system; the process and procedures used to ensure maintenance activities are risk assessed, conducted, and handed over safely with hazards isolated. Similar deficiencies have led to submarines sinking, overhead powerline accidents, fires, and explosions involving acid tanks, polyethylene reactors, and a gas pipeline, to name a few.

Since Piper Alpha, things have changed. New digital work control systems promise to bring increased efficiency and improved operational safety. But are these promises realistic? And, if so—how can executives realize them? How should you go about selecting the right tool, what obstacles might you face, and how can you overcome them? Electronic systems bring many benefits (and some disadvantages) but are they worth the investment?


Electronic system adoption rates

Adoption of digital control of work systems has accelerated in recent years as businesses recognize the benefits as part of broader digital transformations. While uptake has been strong in the oil, gas and chemical industries, others have been slower to invest. Pharmaceuticals, mining, metals, aerospace, and utilities companies are starting to see the benefits. However, there is little evidence that food and beverage, construction and manufacturing companies are making the change, hindered (perhaps) by concerns over costs, connectivity, data security, safety or employee and middle management buy-in.


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The hidden cost of paper-based systems

  1. Prone to human error: Paper-based systems can be ineligible or lost and run the risk of finding old superseded versions of documents causing incorrect isolations, false repairs, or wrong procedures. Mistakes or poor handover of permits between shifts and discipline teams contribute to accidents such as Piper Alpha. Plus, paper-based processes rely on individuals' knowledge and attention to detail and have a hard time capturing and reflecting past incidents and "lessons learned."
  2. Inefficient and repetitive: Paper systems cannot be viewed, approved, issued, or audited remotely. The time it takes to access supporting paper documents, drawings, and procedures is almost always a waste. Plus: Schedulers and supervisors often have to wait until the end of the shift to get a detailed view of progress, making it challenging to deal with unplanned events. Permit signatories travel between the permit-issuing office and the worksite throughout the day, impacting time on tools and requiring specific individuals to be present. These delays can lead to workers taking shortcuts or making errors, particularly in high pressure working environments.
  3. Inflexible: They have a fixed format and are difficult to store. Plus, paper makes things like the central capture of histories or data sharing (think: lock-out, tag-out, work orders, or asset registers) hard or even impossible. Cross-referencing of permits to the baseline plan is also tricky and cumbersome during complex work (e.g., during turnarounds).

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What are the benefits of electronic systems? 

Electronic systems aim to address all the above limitations while also giving users:

  • The ability to view, alter and audit permits, work packs, risk assessments, isolation plans (lock-out/tag-out), and schedules while from wherever they work, improving safety and productivity;
  • Real time, field access to supporting documentation allowing field workers to make better, safer, and faster decisions:;
  • An electronic map of the permits on a site plot plan to quickly see conflicting scopes of work and respond decisively during incidents. More recent innovations also allow the integration of real-time people, equipment, and tool location-tracking systems;
  • Links to computerized maintenance management systems, work orders, risk assessments, QA/QC completions systems, shift handovers and past incidents, creating a simplified, shared, and accessible ledger, propelling sharing and learning across the enterprise and during toolbox talks;
  • Onsite connectivity infrastructure which can enable other IoT solutions, including over-the-shoulder support technologies, COVID-19 track and trace services, social distancing, and location tagging of people and equipment further to improve productivity and mustering during emergencies or scenario drills;
  • Hazardous area compliant mobile devices which can also enhance the paperless way of working by deploying digital with operating procedures, schedules, work-packs, drawings, checklists, etc.;
  • A rich source of data which can drive analytics, improving safety initiatives, and identifying inefficiencies for the benefit of the site operator/owner and contract teams alike.


How to select the right tool?

Clients regularly ask us to help them screen and select HSE software tools based on their specific needs and existing digital ecosystem. There are numerous providers to choose from, each with their origins, strengths, and limitations. Niche providers focus on tried and tested control of work solutions based on their in-depth expertise and operational experience. On the other hand, generic providers don't have the same niche expertise but offer well-known brands and broader solutions that incorporate environment, health, asset management, and other functionalities such as turnaround planning, helping reduce integration costs.

We would always recommend seeking support from experienced independent practitioners who have worked with the prominent vendors, have implemented various systems, and can match your needs with available solutions, helping you to navigate vendor sales pitches. They can help you decide whether to focus on a single vendor to provide most of the functionality you need or choose "Best of Breed" tools for each process.


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To select the best solution, you should consider the following:

  1. Capability and configurability: What functional capabilities (i.e., risk assessment, permit to work, isolations, planning and handover management) and technical capabilities (i.e., integration, architecture, licensing, etc.) do you need. How compatible will the solution be with the existing and future IT landscape? How much reconfigurability is necessary to manage desired processes while keeping set-up and maintenance costs reasonable?
  2. Usability and reporting: The purpose of control of work processes is to help people work safely and productively; hence the tool you implement needs to be 'human-centred,' using simple, intuitive visuals and interfaces that enable swift and informative audits and reporting.
  3. Mobility: Solutions should be mobile so they can enable remote work while ensuring that face-to-face touchpoints are maintained where needed. You should ask vendors what hardware and connectivity technologies (e.g., LoRa WAN, WiFi, Bluetooth, 4G/5G, etc.) suggest you should use and whether these are suitable for hazardous areas. Also, ask them which other use cases the technology could enable, and which functionalities remain in areas where there is no connectivity.

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Key pitfalls and how can you overcome them

Of course, not all new ways of working deliver the value expected, particularly those that are so human-centric. Here are some obstacles and some tips for success.


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The business case for change

Recent research has shown that a mid to sizeable onshore facility can significantly improve safety and save around $500,000 each year through better work packaging, conflict identification, auditing, incident avoidance, reduced plant downtime, and reduced time to plan, reuse and issue risk assessments, isolations and permits. We have seen a chemicals client cut permit waiting time by 45 minutes, and an oil and gas company increases operational efficiency by up to 50 percent. We also helped a nuclear power plant save two hours per preventive maintenance work order, reducing time for work package related activities by 75 percent.


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savings per year realized through a reduction in contractor spend.


production increase generated through reduced planned and unplanned shutdown duration.

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The business case sounds strong, right? However, many buyers struggle to demonstrate that they'll drive savings whenever they can't prove there will be a direct reduction in costs or workforce numbers. A recent client undertook a broader drive to 'go paperless,' implementing digital control of work as well as digital access to operating procedures, manuals, and drawings while onsite. The cost for a site with 60 end-users was around €2 million for things like industrial tablets, connectivity, process development, and change management support. This cost will likely be much lower for future sites (50 percent or less). Savings of €1.5 million per year were realized through a 15-20 percent reduction in contractor spend, a 5-10 percent reduction in employee overtime and a 2-3 percent production increase generated through reduced planned and unplanned shutdown duration.

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Save time, money, and improve safety. | Image: Accenture

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About the authors

James Brown, Peter Lempriere, and David Parry

James is an Industry Senior Principal at Accenture within the Industry X Digital Manufacturing and Operations practice based in the UK. He is an HSE and Process Safety specialist, helping organizations improve HSE and Operations performance using digital technologies. James has over 22 years of experience in operations, engineering, and consulting. Please get in touch with James via LinkedIn.

Peter is an Industry Senior Principal within Accenture's Digital Manufacturing and Operations practice based in the UK. Peter is a Chartered Manager and Engineer having 30+ years of experience in upstream and downstream assets within the oil and gas industries. With Accenture, he has delivered multiple digital workforce deployments, industry tracking, and analytics solutions. Please get in touch via LinkedIn.

David is an Industry Principal Director within Accenture's Digital Manufacturing and Operations practice based in the USA and leads our Mobile Workforce Practice. David has 30+ years in both industry and technology, delivering information solutions that digitally transform office and fieldwork execution. Please get in touch via LinkedIn

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