The effective safety audit

Use these five simple tips to develop a program that will produce success and increased safety.

By Steve Dukich and Mike Duta

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If you’re going to take the time and effort to do something, you might as well do it correctly. It’s a simple philosophy that applies to a lot of things, but especially to safety auditing. A well-prepared and well-executed safety audit program can make a substantial difference in helping companies prevent accidents and injuries. In fact, most organizations with successful safety records have a well-organized safety audit program.

To be effective, it’s important that organizations understand — and adopt — the key characteristics of a successful audit program. Properly addressing these core areas can help ensure that program will deliver maximum impact with minimal risk, while continuing to add value over time.

Key #1 — Planning and preparation

A good safety audit program doesn’t come easily. The effort requires careful planning and diligent preparation. A good starting point is deciding why you want to do a safety audit. Or, more specifically, asking what is it you want to achieve? Answering this question gives your audit a focus and purpose. It also provides the foundation on which the audit program will be built.

Consider the following questions when planning for a safety audit program:

  • What departments or operations are to be covered in the inspection tour?
  • What items or activities are to be checked?
  • How often are the inspections to be carried out?
  • Who will conduct the tours?
  • How will the inspections be conducted?
  • What follow-up activity will ensure that corrections are, in fact, made?
  • Does management understand that hazards or unsafe work practices need to be corrected and that this requires human resources, management and engineering expertise?

As with any well-functioning management system, an audit program must have guidelines and procedures that describe how the audit should be conducted and what corrective actions should be taken. These procedures should define audit activities, such as planning the audit, on-site activities and follow-up. Without written procedures, audits will be haphazard and inconsistent at best because they will be based on individual skills and preferences.

The audit protocol is an important tool that guides the auditor through the audit process. An effective protocol defines the steps that an auditor needs to take to audit a particular process or machine, and provides guidance on what to look for and where it’s located. Some companies use checklists or questionnaires as protocols, which provide a general framework for the areas and activities under review. It’s up to the auditor to probe deeper into these issues for a thorough evaluation of each area.

Involve key employees in the planning stages to ensure that every safety program, operation and hazard is addressed. This might involve discussions with the safety department, front-line employees and company managers to ensure areas they consider to be high priority are included. While it’s important to overlook nothing, be selective and make strategic decisions about which areas are to be reviewed. The goal is to audit things that have high impact and probability, such as electrical and explosive materials, machine guarding, and the use of personal protective equipment. This helps ensure that audits have the greatest return.

Key #2 — Defining the scope

A successful audit inspects the right things. Clearly, you can’t audit everything. Therefore, it’s important to prioritize the areas of focus. Too often, the audit team is constrained by how long the audit can last or the size of the audit team. This can result in insufficient time being available to dig deep enough to uncover less obvious issues, such as employee training and safety awareness.

Identifying key risk criteria can be helpful in evaluating individual subject areas and assessing their levels of scrutiny. These criteria include:

  • Change — New or changed processes increase risk. This can include changes to materials, processes, facilities, equipment, people and even changes in leadership.
  • Performance indicators — These imply that past performance is a predictor of future performance.
  • Regulation — Evaluate the risks involved if the subject area is regulated by laws, standards or contractual requirements.
  • Time — This considers how much time has elapsed since the subject was last audited.

Most audit programs give prominent attention to hazardous conditions that are easy to understand and simple to inspect. This includes lock-out/tag-out, confined spaces, fall protection and other areas that could cause injury. Too little attention is given to unsafe acts or hazardous employee behavior — even though accidents also can be caused by a bypassed or improperly designed safety system.

Audits typically don’t get to the root of deficiencies. Therefore, it’s important that the inspection program focus on basic items such as new-employee safety orientation, specific training for new jobs and supervisory follow-up. Likewise, because machine and process designers are familiar with many of the risks, they could play a major role in helping to design out hazards through proper selection of safeguards, controls and barriers best suited for the particular operation or process.

Another important question is whether a general inspection or targeted inspection is to be conducted. General inspections are considered comprehensive reviews of safety and industrial health exposures in a given area or complete factory. Targeted (or special) inspections deal with specific exposures in a given unit, section or even plant-wide. Such inspections might focus on electrical hazards in machinery or the hazards that might have generated back injuries as noted during a review of workers’ compensation reports.

A good audit program can include both inspection types. For example, one month, a program might involve a complete plant safety hazard tour; the next month, it could focus on personal protective equipment and how it’s used. In fact, OSHA encourages this mixed approach, believing that a combination of the two types of programs can strengthen a plant’s accident-prevention effort.

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