How to Conduct the “Ideal” Safety Audit

How to Conduct the “Ideal” Safety Audit

A safety audit is like peeling back the roof of your facility and peering down at the maze of activity – everything from lifting practices, forklift driving, wearing PPE, confined space entry, locking out or tagging energy sources before maintenance, housekeeping, chemical exposure controls, chemical storage, use of safety data sheets, working at heights, working on assembly lines, on conveyor belts, on machinery, use of machine guards – a myriad of interconnected jobs.

Except you need more than one pair of eyes to audit your facility and track all of these activities.

You can’t audit like some “eye in the sky.” You need to be where the action is. You need to hold one-on-one conversations with a number of workers who know the jobs and the dangers better than anyone. Ask them, among other questions: “When is the next accident going to occur here and why will it happen?”

Technology has presented auditors with several new tools. Video cameras are smaller than ever for filming areas of operation. Smartphones can snap hundreds if not thousands of photographs, and also produce videos. Tablet devices can be used for note-taking and be pre-loaded with auditing checklists. Software allows you to compare audit results of the same department taken at different times, and make cross-comparisons of different departments, to help determine where you operations are strong and weak in safety.

But technology cannot replace experience. Audit teams should consist of workers who know first-hand the jobs and processes being evaluated. These individuals know the “tricks’ of the job; short cuts and time-savers that can be hazardous, and that inexperienced workers would miss.

Any formal safety program is in effect a safety management system. These programs or systems are all based on the principle of Plan, Do, Check, and Act.

Audit Your Plan

First you plan how your work system will operate safely. This includes training, meeting compliance requirements, installing safety controls, machine guards, access sensors, conveyor enclosures and noise enclosures, instructional signage, traffic signs and markings, use of personal protective equipment, emergency equipment readily available, job hazard analyses (JHAs) or job safety analyses (JSAs) conducted for critical and potentially dangerous tasks, employees observing coworkers and giving immediate positive or corrective feedback based on what they see, housekeeping practices, maintenance practices.

The list goes on and on, and the specifics depend on the nature of the business. Auditing a shipyard is a very different animal than auditing a coal mine, auditing a construction site, or auditing an automotive plant, a poultry processing plant or a pharmaceutical plant.

Audit Execution of Your Plan

Still, all of these varied operations follow the same basic management system principles of Plan, Do, Check, Act. After the planning stage, you do what your plan says you are going to do. This is where you execute your plan. Work processes come to life. In some cases, noise levels crank up, chemical exposure levels increase, the pace of work accelerates. Your protective controls must be in place. PPE must be worn when necessary. All required training must be completed. Procedures for confined space entry and lockout-tagout must be followed. Jobs are performed per instructions derived from the job analyses.

Your Most Intense Auditing

Your operating system is humming along. Now comes the “Check” part of the safety cycle. This is where your most intense on-site auditing comes into play.

Audits should be conducted at a pre-determined frequency – every month, quarter, etc. Wall-to-wall, plant-wide audits are less frequent than “micro” audits of individual departments, processes, and work cells. Naturally, wall-to-wall audits call for a larger team of auditors – more eyes scanning and assessing – than micro audits, which may be accomplished by only the safety and health manager along with several employees connected to the more narrow scope of activities.

Audit frequency can also be based on risk assessments. Carried out by environmental safety and health (EHS) professionals, risk assessments prioritize the severity of hazards, the potential for calamitous consequences if things go wrong, and give direction to what work processes or departments require closer attention.

Periodically, members of your organization’s senior leadership team should participate in walk-around audits. This gives senior leaders the chance to get the “real” safety scoop from front-line troops – provided you have a safety culture that encourages open and frank speaking up about safety issues. If you don’t, workers will tell senior leaders only what they want to hear.

Almost all senior executives have no safety education in their background. Participating in audits, having hazards pointed out to them, seeing examples of work being done safely and at risk, and seeing how safety control measures and equipment operate can give execs a “real world” safety education. Plus, “the troops” should be impressed that senior leaders are taking time from their busy schedules to patiently ask questions about safety and learn about safety. This reinforces the credibility of your safety culture.

Using a Point System

A popular form of auditing is to identify in advance safety-critical operations, risks, behaviors, decision-making, hazard controls, and other issues depending on the nature of operations, and assign a point system for judging the safety, or lack of safety, of this inventory of activities. At the conclusion of the audit you total up the points for a final score. You can set goals for audit scores, and for improving audit scores. You can also compare audit scores of similar operations worldwide to target where your safety and health resources need to be deployed. Operations with the highest positive scores can be held up as best practices facilities, with safety pros from other facilities invited to come in and see what is being done to achieve such high scores.

Another type of auditing is to bring in outside consultants, perhaps annually, to give you a neutral party assessment. You can compare their findings to the findings of internal audits, and perhaps discover weaknesses in your own auditing practices.

Act on Your Audit Findings

Back to Plan-Do-Check-Act. After the “checking” is done, the audits completed, in addition to scores there will be recommendations to remedy problems found during the audits. Perhaps stairwells are not well lit, leading to potential slips and falls. Some machine guards are old, faulty, and need to be replaced. Workers complain they do not have enough styles of safety eye wear to select from. In observation processes, workers hesitate in giving corrective feedback to coworkers, allowing risky work to continue.

This is where “Act” comes into play. An organization must take remedial action on areas of the audit process that indicate safety shortcomings. There should not be lengthy delays in following up and fixing hazards that have been found or issues that need to be addressed.

Something as simple as burned-out light bulbs not being replaced in stairwells, or observation and feedback programs that everyone knows are weak on feedback but are allowed to continue, sends the message that senior leadership is not truly interested in protecting employees. You could argue it is better not to conduct audits I the first place than conduct audits and not follow through and correct problems that have been uncovered. That lack of follow-through, that apathy or lethargy, will quickly undermine your safety culture.

Learn more about workplace safety training.

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