Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Who Is Auditing Your Safety Auditors? Thanks in Part to Sarbanes-Oxley, a Growing Number of Companies Rely on Safety Audits to Ensure Regulatory Compliance and Prevent Injuries. but Are These Audits Actually Improving Safety Performance?

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Who Is Auditing Your Safety Auditors? Thanks in Part to Sarbanes-Oxley, a Growing Number of Companies Rely on Safety Audits to Ensure Regulatory Compliance and Prevent Injuries. but Are These Audits Actually Improving Safety Performance?

Article excerpt

Business success for Boston-based insurance provider Liberty Mutual depends, to some extent, on effective safety audits. John Neil, the practice leader for Liberty's national loss prevention department, says his group performs audits to determine "if we want a client." In addition, Liberty's underwriting department looks at existing clients' own safety audits to determine risk.

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Neil says up to 95 percent of Fortune 2000 companies now perform safety audits. How many does he think are doing them correctly and achieving continuous safety improvement?

"I would say just over a third would be in that category."

DO AUDITS IMPROVE SAFETY?

While Neil's experience casts doubt on the quality of most audit practices, Dan Petersen's recent book Measurement of Safety Performance, published by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), raises a more fundamental question about the validity of the audit concept itself. He refers in his book to studies dating back to the 1970s that attempted to correlate audit results with accident statistics. "The results usually show little or no correlation," writes Petersen. "In light of today's management thinking and research, the audit concept has become suspect."

Petersen cites a number of factors to explain the problems with many safety audits:

* Audit systems give equal weight to all elements--having the right books on the library shelf counted as much as holding supervisors accountable for safety;

* The use of packaged audit systems, rather than developing a program suited to the risks of the operation;

* Little effort to correlate audit results to the accident record.

"The audit can be an effective metric," Petersen concludes, "once an organization is sure that the audit elements will lead to real results."

AUDIT THE AUDIT

Neither OSHA nor any American voluntary consensus organization has produced a standard for the performance of safety audits, but other standards and guidance do exist on how to conduct an audit (see sidebar).

The key to success, according to the experts we interviewed, is ensuring that auditors understand the audit objectives. Conversely, the absence of clear goals is the most common reason audits fail to improve safety.

"You need to make sure people conducting the audit really know the criteria you are auditing against, and enough about the industry to evaluate competently if they are in compliance," says Barbara Jo Ruble, president of the Auditing Roundtable Inc., a non-profit organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz. Ruble also is the principal at Specialty Technical Consultants, a national consulting firm based in Baltimore.

"The audit needs to tie back to the goal of safety performance measurement, or it's not worth doing and you're wasting your time," asserts Neil.

The audit program should be assessed against "generally accepted standards of practice and the extent to which it is fulfilling the objectives of senior management," according to the guidance document issued by the Auditing Roundtable. The organization recommends having a party independent of the audit team perform this validation, in effect an "audit of the audit."

COMPLIANCE OR MANAGEMENT SYSTEM?

Two basic goals underlying most EHS audits are to determine compliance with the applicable regulations and to measure conformity with an organization's own management system. This distinction explains why audit experts often speak of two different types of EHS audits: compliance audits and management system audits.

Edwin "Brownie" Petersen, safety engineer at ATK Thiokol Inc. and a vice chair of ASSE, explains the difference. "If you find 98 percent compliance with the wearing of PPE (personal protective equipment) you go the compliance route for corrective action. If your compliance is 70 percent, you know the [management] system is broken. …

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