When I was working as a fire inspector, and later as an assistant safety officer, I was often met with resistance when conducting safety audits and fire and life safety inspections.
It didn’t matter what I cited: an emergency light not working, impaired exit door, fire extinguishers overdue for service or an uninspected eyewash station. They would all illicit the same response, “The guy who came last year didn’t write me up for that.”
Interactions like this affect the credibility of your safety inspection or auditing team. Since inspections and audits are conducted yearly by different members of your team, it is imperative that they identify the same findings. Consistency adds to your team’s credibility, which in turn helps you obtain buy-in. Therefore, the information your team provides must be consistent from year to year.
Setting standards is imperative to building effective safety or auditing teams. Once qualifications are established, providing supplemental training and education for team members is essential. After all, they cannot find a violation until they know it exists. Part of the standards you set for your safety inspection team must include accuracy of code or standard references your team members cite.
As with any inspection or audit, there will be common code violations, findings and/or deficiencies. Of those issues, certain findings will carry a higher priority or urgency. Your team must have a clear understanding of what those high priority or urgent issues are during an inspection or audit.
An effective means of establishing and documenting that knowledge is to compile a finding library, or a list of common code violations and deficiencies. The library must include accurate code references applicable to the finding or violation. Ensure that all team members have access to the library, and that it is updated regularly as new findings are identified.
Your team should understand and be able to apply the information in the findings library to regular inspections or audits. You can take it one step further by developing and applying a ranking system based on the severity or frequency of the violations found.
As team leader, it is your responsibility to initiate discussions and encourage input from team members. Initial and regular roundtable discussions keep your team well-informed and allow you to adjust the training and/or educational material to improve your team’s effectiveness. Over time, other team members can lead regular meetings; this encourages additional participation and feedback.
Roundtable discussions help you to gauge your team’s proficiency and knowledge. They are also a means of reinforcing learning. For example, while reviewing reports you see that a facility’s battery backed up exit signs and emergency lighting units are not being tested annually for 90 minutes and documented as code requires. So, you sit down with your team and discuss where the issue is found in the code and why it is important to be corrected. By having this discussion with your inspection or auditing team, you are setting a standard of execution and consistency.
Consistent yearly inspections also increase your team’s value. Getting facilities to comply with applicable codes and standards is a measurable indication of how effective your inspection or auditing team is.
You must take a strategic approach to obtaining compliance with the codes and standards you apply during safety audits or inspections. Those strategies will vary depending on your organization, industry, and the facilities your team inspects or audits. Those strategies must first be clearly communicated to and understood by your team.
Consider this scenario: Your company is a municipal fire prevention bureau, building inspection department or government agency. You have the support of the law and the legal system. If a business does not correct identified code violations, you can impose a monetary fine, lock the doors of the business in question or take legal action for noncompliance.
Conversely, if a client pays your company directly, your approach must be more collaborative and less prescriptive. In the private sector, your authority is derived from knowledge, perceived value and necessity. When you do not have the power to enforce codes or standards, you must gain buy-in, meaning you must be able to explain why something is a violation or deficiency. The client must choose to comply, as there is very limited pressure your inspectors or auditors can exert to compel clients to follow the rule of law to avert legal action.
Another essential element in building and maintaining an effective team of safety inspectors or auditors team is what I call the continuity of competence. In simple terms, continuity of competence is making sure the person directly under you in the organizational hierarchy knows how to do your job. This goes for every member of your team. Implementing this practice reinforces your team’s knowledge and skills because it ensures all team members are on the same page with the same level of competence.
The goal for any team tasked with safety inspection or auditing is to obtain compliance. Credibility, consistency, strategic approach, and continuity of competence are the foundation to building and increasing your safety inspection or auditing team’s effectiveness. Ultimately, an effective team helps to increase overall safety at the workplace.
Tunzyaan A. Griffin is a certified fire/building inspector and consultant for HGS Engineering, Inc. in Oxford, Ala. He spent more than 19 years working at Mississippi and Alabama fire departments, where he served as a fire inspector, senior fire prevention specialist/ forensic fire investigator and a building inspector/ fire investigator. He has conducted more than 15,000 fire and life safety inspections, more than 2,000 safety audits and more than 300 acceptance tests of fire protection systems. He also served as a safety officer and construction safety officer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham.