The Jenga effect: the importance of a strong foundation in Control of Work

Owen Chappell is a Technical Director of Cresent, Control of Work (CoW) specialists based in Westhill, Aberdeen. Having gained a significant amount of experience in the industry and specifically in the oil and gas sector as an authority in risk management and CoW, Owen gives his expert opinion on why operators should ensure that CoW systems and processes are developed with strong foundations from the outset.

The importance of an effective and durable CoW system cannot be underestimated – it should focus on the management of risk associated with tasks at all levels of risk.  Essentially, a sound CoW system provides a safe place to work.


To those not familiar with CoW, a simplistic way of looking at it is to compare the system to the popular game, Jenga.  In order to win, the players must first create a solid base on which to build and grow their structure through training and development in a bid to increase efficiency. More and more pieces of the puzzle – in this case, CoW features ie permits, isolations and competency procedures – can be added to the structure, but the tower only remains intact as long as the foundations remain robust.

However, when the core of the tower is compromised or becomes unstable, the whole structure falls down. The same can be said of CoW: without a strong, stable and systematic foundation created by competent people, there is a risk that the whole operation will be impaired.

CoW has changed significantly over the last 25 years in particular, and so too has the outlook within the oil and gas industry, as operators are truly beginning to realise the importance of CoW systems. However a large percentage of incidents continue to be associated with CoW and the industry is now placing more emphasis on CoW systems in a bid to avoid any kind of occurrence which could impact on the safety or risk to personnel or the asset.

No matter the trade or discipline, risk assessment must be the heartbeat of CoW. Poor or inadequate risk assessment impairs the CoW system and processes, therefore increasing risk. Operators have a responsibility to ensure a structure is in place whereby all fully comprehend the CoW system; the application and processes. Many operators fail to understand that it can be a major adjustment for staff which requires both a cultural and behavioural change within the leadership and organisation.

A change of this magnitude takes time to embed through the structured implementation of existing or new CoW systems and its processes, whether paper or electronic.  Improved CoW planning processes and implementation of hazard identification and risk assessment processes must be supported by training and competency assessment.  These factors will combine to create a seamless CoW system where hazards are identified and understood, and the risks are managed and controlled.  CoW touches everything associated with an operating asset, and so a change on this kind of level cannot be brought about in days or even weeks. Too often the timescale is underestimated and cut short, consequently impacting on the sustainability of the CoW foundations.

The ultimate goal of a CoW system is to develop a culture of safety within the workplace. By putting the system at the core of operations – and building the tower on strong foundations – operators will see significantly reduced number of safety-related incidents in the workplace.