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Five Tips to Get a Better Return from Your Safety System Audit Investment

April 20, 2020
The consequences of failing a system audit or doing poorly can be significant.

Before describing the five tips to getting a better return on your safety system audit investment, it is important to distinguish between the term “system audit” and “worksite audit.” There often is confusion between the two audit terms. System audits are used by companies to identify strengths and weaknesses in the health and safety management system, such as the inspection and investigation processes. Worksite audits are used to assess conditions such as housekeeping, availability and use of personal protective equipment (PPE), guarding of equipment, etc. The term “audit” in this article refers only to system audits.

System audits are a very popular approach to assessing safety management systems. Many governments, safety associations and workers insurance companies have adopted the system audit as a key indicator in their safety recognition programs. For example, program participants that can pass a standard audit may benefit through recognition and rewards such as lower workers’ compensation premiums and the opportunity to bid on future projects as an audit-certified company. On the other hand, there also are consequences to these participants for failing an audit, such as no reduction in compensation premiums, inability to bid on certain projects and a very disappointed management group.

Whether you are participating in one of these programs or auditing outside a recognition program, there are significant consequences for passing or failing an audit. Therefore, it is important that every auditing company strive to get the most value and benefit from their system audit investment. The purpose of this article is to provide you with five tips that can help ensure you get a better return on your safety system assessment investment.

1. Be Aware of Audit Fatigue/Paralysis

Audit fatigue is a condition many companies suffer from when they use the same protocol and often the same auditor year in and year out. Often the audit report says the same thing this year than it did the year before and offers no new improvement insights. The results of these audits become predictable. Audit fatigue and paralysis set in as the assessment tool offers nothing new. At this stage, the audit process ceases to be a good investment.

What is the cure for audit fatigue? 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.

2. Review Your Auditor’s Training, Qualifications and Experience

A good auditor knows how to properly score the questions contained in the audit protocol. They possess 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 it. Their audit report provides good direction for improvements going forward and their findings are appreciated and respected by recipient company management.

There are significant differences in auditor certification processes among the various organizations administering audit certification programs. Some have stringent auditor certification requirements. For example, auditor prerequisites 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. A mentorship process may also be included to finally certify the auditor as competent. Other organizations have far less stringent auditor competency requirements. These differences in auditor certification requirements result in significant differences in the auditor’s ability to score some questions properly and in writing a high-quality report.

As a former university auditing course instructor, I noted many differences in the scoring of some workshop questions between the students given identical company audit information. It was noted that students with practical experience and training in contractor safety management were able to more accurately score questions on the contractor safety management process. Those lacking the experience and training were not able to assess the process as complete or not complete.

If your 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. It is important that your company management deem the auditor and audit process as credible. For this reason, you need to set the competency bar high.

3. Select an Assessment Tool that Offers the Best 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 auditor competency but by the content of the audit tool. Given the option to select the audit protocol, it is wise to select one that offers the most precise system of question scoring.

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 reveals in samples (generally documents and observations) taken. If the auditor reviewed a sample of 10 incident investigations and concluded that six of them did a good job of identifying root cause(s), the score for a question on incident root cause analysis would be six out of 10 or 60% positive. With this type of scoring, a competent auditor will score the questions accurately.

The other type of scoring is all-or-none scoring and it is far less accurate. With this type of scoring, the auditor has to determine, usually through interview, whether or not the interviewee response to a question is more positive than negative. If they determine the answer is more negative than positive, the score is 0% positive. If they determine the score is more positive than negative, the score is 100% positive. Few interview responses are ever 0% or 100% positive. Most often they are somewhere in between. This type of scoring forces the auditor to select one of the two possible scores. In the end, when all interviewee responses are factored together, the collective score represents an estimate that may not reflect reality. Future actions for improvement are misguided.

If there are significant consequences for passing or failing an audit, one should be wary of the potential impact of all-or-none scoring. Before auditing, review the protocol to see if there is all-or-none scoring. If there is, look for additional refinements to the scoring instructions that improve scoring accuracy. No company should ever fail an audit or be removed from a bid list due to an inaccurate scoring process.

4. 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, were once thought to result in a good health and safety management system. Current research indicates that a well functioning safety system contains other safety influencing factors/elements, 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 that are rarely incorporated into audit protocols.

If the audit protocol you are using offers the same diet of six or eight basic safety elements and ignores the latest safety management research, it may be time to search for a better assessment tool or system assessment approach.

It also is important to review the contents of your current audit protocol to ensure it focuses on the health and safety management system rather than on legislation and compliance. If the audit questions focus on first aid regulations, compliance to safety committee and incident reporting legislation, the audit protocol 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 heavily on how many safety meetings, observations and inspections are being carried out (which is important information), but overlook how well the elements are functioning within the system.

Your review of the audit protocol content will determine how much your company will benefit from the audit.

5. Don’t Audit—Explore Measurement Alternatives

Safety-excellent companies are “measurement happy” or are always willing and prepared to measure their system. They don’t have to scurry around last minute to get everything ready for the auditor. These companies often employ a variety of different measurement methods to help identify additional opportunities for improvement. They recognize that safety management systems need to be assessed from more than one perspective. The system audit is one important assessment tool that offers one perspective. Other assessment processes such as safety perception surveys can offer more and different insights. Explore other measurement alternatives.

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. Audits can be very expensive. 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. Raise the assessment bar and explore other assessment options. If you follow this advice you will get a better return on your assessment dollar. 

About the Author

Dennis Ryan | President

Dennis Ryan is the president of Compass Health & Safety Ltd. Dennis is a graduate of Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Biological Sciences and the University of Alberta (UofA) Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) diploma and certificate programs. During his 45-year career in health and safety he obtained certifications in safety (CRSP) and occupational hygiene (OHST). Over the last 30 years, he instructed various (OHS) courses at the UofA and at other secondary institutions. Dennis has written numerous articles that have been published in various health and safety publications in North America.

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