Five tips that will help you get a better return on your safety system audit investment
Before describing the five tips to getting a better return on you safety system audit investment, it is important to distinguish between the term “system audit” and “worksite audit”. There is often confusion between the two audit terms. System audits are used by companies to identify strengths and weaknesses in the health and safety management system. A worksite audit refers to an assessment of worksite conditions such as housekeeping, availability and use of personal protective equipment, guarding of equipment, etc. The term “audit” in this article refers only to system audits.
I spent most of my career of 45 years, as a consultant, assessing company health and safety management systems. The assessment approach most frequently requested by the client was a system audit. Many of these clients were required to audit as a condition of participating in a government or safety association sponsored safety recognition program. Participants that passed the audit were promised recognition or rewards such as a reduced number of disabling incidents, lower Worker’s Compensation premiums, and/or, the opportunity to bid on future projects as a certified company. There were also consequences for failing the audit, such as compensation premiums higher than competitors, inability to bid on certain projects and a very disappointed management group..
For companies auditing their systems there may be significant consequences for passing or failing the audit. Therefore, it is important that every company strive to get the most out of their system audit investment. The purpose of this brief article is to provide you with five tips that can help ensure you get a better return your safety system assessment investment.
- Be aware of Audit Fatigue/Paralysis
Audit fatigue is a condition many companies suffer from when they use the same audit protocol and often the same auditor year in and year out. The audit report says the same thing that it did the year before and offers no new opportunities for improvement. The results of these audits become predictable. Audit fatigue and paralysis set in as the assessment tool offers no further improvement guidance. When this happens, the audit process ceases to be a good investment for the company.
What is the cure for audit fatigue? There may not be one cure for audit fatigue but here are some suggestions. Hire a different auditor to get a different perspective on your system. Use a different audit tool, perhaps one that is more challenging. Use a different assessment system such as a safety perception survey. All of these cures are described in more detail below.
- Review your auditors’ training, qualifications and experience
A good auditor knows how to properly apply the questions in the audit protocol. They have the health safety management system knowledge and experience required to assess a health and safety management system and they can offer good suggestions on how to improve. Their audit report provides good direction for improvements going forward and their findings are appreciated and respected by company management.
Auditor certifications vary significantly depending on the organization administering the audit certification program. Some have stringent auditor certification requirements. For example, auditor pre-requisites may include secondary education in health and safety management, a number of years of experience actually managing health and safety programs and successful completion of training on the audit protocol. To certify, the prospective auditor may then have to undergo mentorship until they are deemed competent to audit.
Other organizations have far less stringent auditor requirements. Perspective auditors may only need to take a short two day course on health and safety basics. There may be no requirement to have prior practical health and safety management experience and they may only have to complete two or three days of audit protocol training. It should be no surprise that with these two extreme differences in auditor certification requirements, there is often significant differences in auditor competency. This may result in differences in scoring and in quality of the written report.
As a former university auditing course instructor, I noted significant differences in scoring workshops between students given identical company audit information primarily due to education and experience. For example, when asked to assess and score whether or not the workshop information confirmed the company had a good contractor safety management system or process in place, students with contractor safety management experience clearly did a much better job of understanding and scoring the question. A competent auditor knows what a good contractor safety management system looks like and therefore can properly assess the question.
If your audit goal is to get the best assessment you can for your dollar, you need to scrutinize your auditor’s credentials and experience before you hire them. Request references and talk to past clients. If the audit process is deemed credible by company management, audit findings will be acted on. For this reason, you need to set the auditor competency bar high.
- Select an assessment tool that offers the best in terms of scoring accuracy
As previously stated, the consequences of failing a system audit or doing poorly can be significant. That is why it is important to know that your audit score is not only influenced by the auditor but also by the audit tool itself. Given the option to select the audit protocol, it is wise to select one, (if this is an option) that offers the most precise system of scoring the questions.
Typically audit protocols employ a combination of two types of scoring, range scoring and all or none. With range scoring the auditor is required to score the question based on the number or percent positives the auditor findings reveal. For example, if the auditor reviewed ten incident investigations concluding six of them did a good job of identifying root cause(s), the score for a question on incident root cause analysis would be 6 out of 10 or 60% positive. With this type of scoring, if you have selected a competent auditor, (i.e. capable of determining root cause), you can be certain the score awarded is accurate.
The other type of scoring is all-or-none scoring and it is far less accurate. First, the auditor has to determine, usually through interview, whether or not the interviewee response to the question is more positive or negative. Interview response is either yes or no – not somewhere in between. If the interviewee response is deemed more positive than negative, full points are awarded for the question. For example, if 10 interviewees responded to a question as more positive than negative, the question would be awarded full points. However, while the score is 100% in this case, given the opportunity many of the interviewees would not score the question at 100% positive. This type of scoring can be significantly misleading resulting in opportunities for improvement that are masked or overlooked.
If the audit pass mark is 80% positive, and there are significant consequences for passing or failing the audit, one should be wary of the potential impact of all or none scoring. Before auditing it is recommended that you review the audit protocol to see if there is all or none scoring. If there is, determine if additional refinements to the scoring instructions have been incorporated into the audit protocol to help improve scoring accuracy. No company should ever be taken off of a bid list or pay a higher workers’ compensation premium because of an unscientific scoring process. Your assessment of the audit protocol will help minimize the chances of erroneous and misleading scores to audit questions.
- Review the audit protocol and scrutinize the content
The content of many audit protocols is based on basic health and safety elements such as emergency response, investigation, inspection, communication, etc. The audit elements, if implemented properly, are thought to result in a good health and safety management system. More recent research indicates that a well functioning safety system contains other safety influencing factors that need to be measured such as management credibility and trust, worker autonomy, work life balance, fairness, satisfaction, etc. These cultural, social and psychological factors are prerequisites to safety success but they are not often measured. If the audit tool you are using offers the same diet of six or eight basic safety elements and ignores the new research, it may be time to search for a better assessment approach.
Also it is important to review the contents of your current audit protocol and ensure it focuses on the health and safety management system rather than on legislation and compliance. If the questions focus on first aid regulations, compliance to safety committee and incident reporting legislation, the tool more properly should be called a “compliance audit” rather than a “system audit”. Also check to ensure the audit protocol is seeking employee information on how well various program elements are working. Many audit protocols focus more on how many safety meetings are being held and how many inspections and safe work observations are conducted (which is important information), but overlook how well they are functioning within the system.
To summarize, your review of the audit protocol content, will influence the extent by which your company will benefit from a system audit.
- Don’t Audit. Explore measurement alternatives
Companies hoping to improve their health and safety system should be open to exploring assessment alternatives. Safety excellent companies are “measurement happy” or are always willing and prepared to measure their system. They don’t have to scurry in the last minute to get everything ready for the auditor because their system is always ready. These companies often employ a variety of different measurement methods to help them identify opportunities for improvement. They recognize that safety management systems need to be assessed from more than the one perspective. The system audit is one important tool and it offers one perspective. Safety perception surveys are another tool and they offer a different perspective. They can be developed to compliment the audit to focus on how well the system is working and on getting unbiased feedback directly from the employee.
Whether your company’s primary motivation for conducting a system audit is to plan for future improvement, reduce workers’ compensation costs or qualify for a bid list, you need to ensure you get the best assessment possible for the investment dollar. Be aware of audit fatigue and paralysis that make conducting another audit a poor investment. Select your auditor based on their training, knowledge, credentials and reputation. Choose an audit protocol that most accurately assesses your health and safety management system. Finally, if you want to join the ranks of the elite companies that have raised the bar of their health and safety management systems, explore other assessment options. If you follow this advice you will get a better return on your assessment dollar.
Dennis Ryan, CRSP
Compass Health & Safety Ltd.
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada