Audit/Survey Hybrid – A Greater Return on Your Investment

Perception Survey Image

The purpose of this article is to examine some positive and negative aspects of two commonly used health and safety system assessment tools; system audits and safety perception surveys.  Both assessment methods offer different improvement information and are therefore, complimentary.  To benefit from both, at least in one year, it would be cost prohibitive for most companies. An alternative approach is offered in this article that I call an Audit/Survey Hybrid – A Greater Return on Your Investment. The hybrid not only promises to yield better assessment information, but do so at lower cost. 

In 1992, just a few weeks before the Westray coal mine won the John T. Ryan Safety Award for safety excellence, the company had a serious incident.  The result was twenty-six employee fatalities.  In depth investigation revealed some significant cultural deficiencies in the company.  Senior management was charged with twenty-three criminal charges.  What is it about how the safety profession measures success that caused the presenters of this award to be so far off the mark?  How is it the company was so blindsided by this horrible event?

In 2010 at British Petroleum (BP), an explosion took the lives of eleven workers.  Many more were injured.  In depth investigation revealed the working environment had eroded over the years to one characterized by resistance to change, lack of trust, motivation, etc.  Why were these cultural deterioration’s not identified and acted upon before the incident?  Like many other companies, BP spent a great deal of money annually auditing their safety systems in hopes of preventing such an event.  Why was this company so blindsided by such a horrible serious incident?

Health and safety management system audits have gained wide-spread use over the years.  Employers generally rely on them to reveal the preventive information needed to prevent such surprise incidents as described above.  Health and safety management system audits are assessment tools that are often promoted by Governments, Safety Associations and Insurance companies to help companies determine what they need to do to improve their health and safety programs.  Companies participating in these sponsored improvement programs employ the audit protocols as well as the certified auditors needed to the conduct the assessments.  Participating employers receive a PASS when they meet or exceed the audit standards.  There is often some significant monetary reward for passing the audit.  During my consulting career I have personally been certified to use eight of these audit protocols.  This may sound like quite an achievement but most of these audit protocols are very close in content and application.  This consistency would be a good thing if these protocols provided the information needed to prevent significant incidents from happening – but they do not.

Many of the audit protocols employed in the sponsored programs are guided by basic safety program elements that were first proposed by W.H. Heinrich over 80 years ago.  Current research into what factors contribute to best in class safety, suggests these audits have not kept up with their safety system billing by incorporating new research leading to safety excellence.  In fact, many of the audit protocols focus on compliance at the expense of other key excellence prevention indicators.  As designed, audits do an excellent job of assessing compliance to First aid Regulations, Codes of Practices, Safety Committee Regulations, determining if Government incident reporting requirement are met, compliance to inspecting various materials and equipment, compliance to legislated training such as WHMIS, etc.  The information audits provide is relevant and useful but generally the assessments do not reveal the more ambiguous factors that really influence employee safe behavior and lead to incidents.

The degree of success a company will have in implementing basic safety elements is contingent upon the foundation in which the program is built.  For example, if health and safety is reluctantly supported by the management, or if workers feel management is not credible, program success will be significantly diminished.  Most audits are built to assess compliance to traditional safety basic elements and legislation.  This has caused leading organizations to look for measurement alternative that can assess the foundation of their program.  This quest gave rise to safety perceptions surveys that are typically not tethered to audits and therefore have been free to check the foundation on which the programs are built

Safety perceptions surveys seek to identify WHY employees disregard safety legislation such as working in an unshored trench or short cut a procedure.  They seek answers to effectiveness of the program rather than just if the program pieces are in place.  For example, the audit may ask if the meetings are being held while the survey may ask if the meetings are effective.  The audit may ask if hazard assessments or job safety analysis is being conducted and the survey may ask employees if they truly get value out of the process.  Where the audit focuses on whether the program building blocks are in place, the safety perception survey often focuses on if the program is working and if not, why not.  The information obtained from both methods of assessment is valuable and complimentary.  The information collected by both measurement approaches together provides a much more complete picture of a company’s program.

We Need Better Employee Information

Auditors spend a great deal of their time on site reading documents in filing cabinets, in binders and on computer drives.  They follow up with observations to verify interview and document findings.  But, the majority of their onsite time is spent interviewing employees.  The interview process can be a very costly, especially to companies with many employees.  An audit/survey hybrid approach would significantly reduce audit cost. In addition, the audit/survey hybrid uses a more accurate scoring process that the Yes/No process used in audit interviews.

Here are ten typical audit interview questions taken from current active audit protocols:

  • Are employees aware of the health and safety policy?
  • Are employees familiar with the legislation that is applicable to their work?
  • Does senior management tour the work site to reinforce health and safety practices and behaviours every 6 months or annually?
  • Do frontline supervisors tour the work site to reinforce health and safety practices and behaviours at least weekly?
  • Have health and safety hazards been evaluated according to risk by a system (e.g. consequence, probability, frequency)?
  • Are safety data sheets made available to employees?
  • Are workers made aware of their right to refuse unsafe work?
  • Do employees receive or have available all PPE that is required by legislation?
  • Is refresher training provided as appropriate?
  • Do first aid supplies and facilities meet legislated requirements?

A first glance one would think this was really a compliance audit rather than a system audit.  Auditors are often required to ask employees the above questions but all of them could easily be verified by documentation review and/or site observations.

You will note a difference in focus with these ten statements that employees are required to respond to.  These are taken from current safety perception surveys.

  • Employee health and safety does not take a back seat to service or productivity.
  • When it comes to safety our leaders practice what they preach.
  • Hazard assessments are effective in identifying and correcting unsafe work behaviours and conditions.
  • You are confident in your ability to respond properly to an emergency situation.
  • The company is receptive to hearing employee problems, ideas and suggestions.
  • Risk taking is NOT encouraged or rewarded here.
  • Workplace hazards, unsafe behaviours and near miss incidents are reported.
  • There is a good balance between my work and personal life.
  • Employees are adequately trained to perform their work safely.
  • The time taken to participate in safety meetings is time well spent.

One can immediately see how the answers to the above statements could add significant value to the health and safety assessment process.  When the survey process is not bound by the constraints of the traditional program audit protocols, they are free to query other key determinants that affect health and safety.  The answers to the above statements yield different but more useful information that can be acted on to improve.

Audit/Survey Hybrid

For most companies it would hard to justify conducting both a system audit and a safety perception survey all in one year.  For most, it would be cost prohibitive to do so.  However, combining the two assessment processes into an audit/survey hybrid would give companies the opportunity to reap the benefit of two different assessment approaches.  Currently, the time spent interviewing employees in the audit is somewhat squandered because employees are required to answer interview questions that can easily be validated by documents or through observation.  Collecting the employee interview information by survey would significantly reduce the costs associated with gathering employee perceptions and would do so more effectively.

Here are some advantages of a hybrid approach that make it a compelling measurement alternative to consider:

  • Audit protocols would be purged of redundant interview questions that can be verified using other validation methods.  In their place, complimentary questions could be introduced that gather new improvement information.
  • As indicated previously, generally the most costly part of the audit process is the cost to retain an auditor to conduct employee interviews.  Capturing employee perceptions by survey would significantly reduce the time needed to have an auditor on site making the dual measurement approach cost effective.  The collection of employee information using a web-based survey database allows for employees to complete the survey from anywhere thus further reducing the costs associated with either an auditor or employee having to travel.
  • Collection of employee perceptions by survey quantifies employee responses on a more precise scale such as a 1 – 5 Likert scale.  Current audit protocols require auditors to quantified interviewee perceptions on a “yes/no” scale which is very imprecise and can lead to misleading findings.
  • Collection of the employee perceptions is unbiased.  The data tells the story.
  • A good database can precisely pinpoint areas of strengths and weaknesses.  It can readily sort employee information and target opportunities for improvement by location, position, etc.
  • A proper database will allow for comments to each survey question or statement.  This helps to validate the already more precise scores to each question/statement.


The Audit/Survey Hybrid approach has the potential to deliver an assessment that is both meaningful and yields a better return on investment.  Employee fatality statistics indicate our current approaches are not working well.  Time and money is spent on patching up old audit protocols.  Redundant questions are reworded.  Expensive and obsolete methods of collecting employee information are employed at a time when technology is being embraced in other professions.  The audit/survey hybrid approach to health and safety assessment offers employers the opportunity to obtain the information they really need to achieve a best in class status at less cost than traditional methods.  Most important, it promises to help ensure their workplaces are safe and they are not blindsided by a serious incident in the future.

Dennis Ryan, CRSP is President of Compass Health & Safety Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  Dennis has more than 45 years experience in health and safety including working as an occupational hygiene technologist for the provincial government in Alberta, and as a safety a health manager for a large municipality and natural gas company.  Over the last 20 years his consultancy has focused on evaluating corporate health and safety performance by conducting audits and safety perception surveys.  Dennis has served as a part time instructor in several universities and colleges.  He is semi-retired.