Purpose and value of safety and health audits
The word 'audit' puts many people off because it makes them think of problems with the IRS. But audits are actually organized examinations of how something measures up to standards. Often they're financial, as with tax returns. Another example is corporate financial reports, which are audited by outside accounting firms.
You can audit anything that has set standards, not just numbers. One non-financial example is audits of workplace safety and health, which provide a clear picture of how you're doing and where you can improve.
Safety and health audits are internal checks of safety and health performance and compliance with safety and health regulations and policies. The company conducts them to help identify what we're doing right and what we can do better. When we study and use the information revealed by an audit, we're able to:
• See the positive results of safety and health programs and policies.
• Identify and correct safety and health hazards before they cause accidents or illnesses.
• Have confidence that the company will receive good marks when there's an OSHA inspection.
Safety and health audits have the greatest benefits when they're conducted on a regular basis by people who understand their purpose and procedures. And it's not only the company that benefits. Each of us benefits, too. After all, it's our safety and health that the audits are looking into. By spotting hazards before they cause serious problems, audits lower the risks we face on the job.
Audits can be conducted on a variety of scales. You can look at safety, health, or both. You can audit the whole workplace, a particular department or operation, a specific safety issue such as hazard communication, or an individual workstation.
You conduct an audit by using a specially developed checklist that helps you investigate every aspect of what you're auditing. This in-depth, step-by-step approach allows the auditor to look at a particular area or process objectively, as an OSHA inspector or other outside observer would. Generally, an audit looks both at equipment and procedures—at what is done, how it's done, and what you use to do it. This helps isolate any problems and identifies exactly where to make the necessary changes to prevent accidents.
Today, we're going to look at how we decide what to audit, who conducts the audits, and what they look for. You'll learn how the process works, including the follow-up that gives an audit its real value. And you'll learn how to conduct your own audits so that you can measure and improve the safety of your own workstation and work area—and play an active role in reducing risks and protecting yourself on the job.
OSHA doesn't have any regulations that specifically require safety and health audits. But the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), that created OSHA states that the Act's purpose is '... to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women....' And you can't do that just by passing laws and rules. Employers—and employees—have to be actively engaged in promoting health and safety on a day-to-day basis.
To make sure that employees' working conditions are safe and healthful, the Act states that workplaces must be 'periodically evaluated' and authorizes OSHA to conduct inspections for that purpose.
If an OSHA inspector finds violations of any of OSHA's volumes of regulations, the agency requires the employer to fix the problem. Companies may also be fined for violations. For some willful or serious violations—especially cases in which someone died—managers can even go to jail.
Our company is, of course, anxious to avoid OSHA fines. But we're even more interested in avoiding the problems that could lead to those penalties. By conducting safety and health audits on a regular basis, we believe that we're living up to the rules as well as the spirit of the OSH Act. Audits also help us to run our business in a way that minimizes risk to any of our employees or the people in our community.
The purpose of safety and health audits is to identify—and correct—workplace hazards. But since there are seemingly endless things you can audit, companies usually establish an order of priority that determines where audits are most necessary.
One way to determine audit priorities is to review the OSHA 200 log and the first-aid log. Those logs highlight safety and health problems that need attention. The logs may reveal that audits are needed for particular:
• Departments, work areas, or processes
• Employee categories (new or inexperienced employees, people in a specific job like machine operators, or warehouse workers)
• Parts of the body that seem injury-prone (eyes, back, etc.)
In addition to the logs, we have other information sources that can identify what needs auditing. We can, for instance, review workers' compensation information for injury trends and work areas that seem to have the most injuries or illnesses. Another good tip-off that an audit is needed is the 'near-miss' incident. Things like electrical shorts or slips and falls should be followed up, even if no one was hurt.
Still another source of audit topics is employee complaints. I know you're aware that it's important to report any safety problems, such as electrical equipment that smokes or sparks or PPE that's torn or worn. We also want you to tell us if you are concerned about safety gaps in particular procedures or processes. When there are several complaints on the same subject, we probably have something that should be audited.
But these 'red flag' situations aren't the only ones we audit. After all, the purpose of an audit is to identify and correct a problem before there's an incident. The best way to ensure that we don't miss any hazards is to involve people on all levels in the company in the process. It makes sense to have broad participation in determining what to audit and in developing the questions for the audit checklists themselves. When you get input from, for instance, company management, plant management, engineers, supervisors, and employee safety committee members, you get an audit program that really reflects and reveals the company's safety and health performance.
Once we have a list of audit topics, whether general or specific, we turn our attention to creating audit checklists. Again, you need input from people with varied experience and expertise to make sure your questions will really identify any hazards. And to make doubly sure the checklists are clear and cover all important bases, we usually ask knowledgeable people to 'field test' them. The testers may suggest additions or changes to the checklist before the actual audits take place.
The people who conduct audits aren't chosen randomly. Because it's such an important activity, we select and train auditors carefully. We do, however, look for people who have in-depth knowledge of the operations we're studying and who are familiar with and respect safety rules. Auditors may be supervisors or employees or a team made up of both. Sometimes plant managers get involved. If we're auditing a highly technical operation, we make sure to have people with the right expertise.
Audits can be announced or unannounced, depending on circumstances. Suppose we're auditing an operation with a history of accidents or near-misses. The purpose of the audit is to find out why we're having these incidents. So we're more likely not to announce the audit because we want to be sure that people and equipment are functioning normally so we can identify where problems lie.
These issues apply to both general facilitywide audits or to audits that focus on specific areas or operations. In addition, the hazards identified in general audits often help us decide where we need more detailed, specific audits.
As I mentioned, audits are not casual affairs. The checklists are developed carefully, with input from many people with knowledge of the facility, the operation, and safety regulations. In addition, we believe it's important that the auditors—and everyone in the facility—know what the auditors are doing and why.
Auditors have to learn how to use the checklists and buy into the importance of taking every single point on the checklist seriously. There's no value to audits if the people conducting them make subjective judgments about what's important and what is okay to overlook.
Auditors may also get some training on 'people' skills, because some employees will mistakenly think the auditors are judging their performance. Auditors have to be able to explain what they're doing and why and encourage employees in audited areas to cooperate. If some people give them a hard time, auditors have to be able to handle such situations without getting into arguments.
That's one reason it's so important that everyone—not just the auditors—understand the purpose and procedures for safety and health audits. In order for audits to be useful, everyone—from top management to the newest employee—has to cooperate in conducting the audit and following up on what it finds.
Protection Against Hazards
No matter how much time and effort goes into planning and preparing for audits, they're only as good as our follow-up on the problems identified.
A general facility audit may identify specific hazards we need to correct immediately. For instance, if the audit finds that we have a lot of burned-out lightbulbs, someone would be assigned to replace those bulbs immediately so people don't trip and fall. That person would probably also be asked to do a periodic facilitywide check to make sure that bulbs are always replaced promptly.
Often, a general audit may lead to one or more specific audits. It may uncover a number of varied hazards in one particular department or operation. Or the general audit may identify housekeeping hazards throughout the plant or evidence that machine guards are routinely missing or disabled. In such cases, we would then develop audit checklists that zero in on those areas. The general audit may identify the hazard, and the specific audits will help us figure out whether we need better equipment maintenance, additional training, or some other remedy to eliminate the hazards.
When an audit identifies problems, we again involve as many relevant people as possible in fixing them. If an audit of a specific department comes up with half a dozen things that need correcting, the auditor and the department supervisor might get together with the plant safety manager to agree on solutions and the order in which problems should be tackled.
Obviously, you go for the most serious problems—those most likely to cause injury or illness—first. But you do have to fix all problems.
Some problems aren't very hard to fix. If, for example, the auditor sees that people are not using safety glasses when they should, he would ask them why. If the employees explained that all the safety glasses available have scratched lenses or stretched-out headbands, we would know it's time to get in a new supply. We might also decide to have a training session on eye protection.
I think you can see that supervisors and managers can't fix problems alone. If there is an audit in our department, I'd have to work with some or all of you to figure out why problems are occurring or the best way to fix them, or both. I might assign people to carry out particular steps we need to take to eliminate hazards.
The point is that correcting problems is a key part of the audit process. The auditor is responsible for identifying the problems as specifically as he or she can, including solutions wherever possible. Once the audit is completed and reviewed, problems are tackled in their order of importance. Someone is made responsible for seeing they get fixed—and someone else is responsible for following up and making sure that the problems are indeed fixed.
An audit isn't just about fixing problems, either. Suppose an auditor finds that an operation's equipment and work area are safe and that the workers are all following proper safety procedures. Obviously, we'd be pleased by that. But we would also try to learn from it. We might, for instance, want to use that operation's maintenance schedule or safety meeting program as a model for other areas that aren't doing as well.
So far I've been discussing the kinds of audits that the company performs. I hope I've helped you understand the process and recognize how your input and cooperation can improve our health and safety on the job.
But, as I indicated earlier, you don't have to wait for the company to audit how your work area or workstation measures up in terms of safety and health. You can conduct audits yourself on a regular basis. Let's look at what types of audits you might conduct, how often, what you might look for, and how to handle hazards you uncover.
One possibility is to conduct brief daily or weekly audits of your workstation. You could develop a checklist to go over in the morning before you start work to make sure that there are no hazards that could cause injuries or illness. Pretend you're an OSHA inspector looking at your workstation for the first time. Here are a few things that could go on your checklist:
Housekeeping. Are the aisles clear? Are floors free of oil or grease or liquids? Is all trash placed in proper containers? Are materials stored in their proper places, where they don't stick out and can't fall?
Machinery and equipment. Are machines clean and well-lubricated? Are machine guards in place? Are electrical cords unfrayed? Do electrical plugs match the available outlets? Is ventilation operating properly?
Hazardous substances. Do all containers of hazardous substances have proper and legible labels? Are MSDSs available for your review? Are liquids in closed containers? Are absorbent materials available to use in case there's a spill? Have you kept food, beverages, etc., out of areas containing hazardous substances?
Personal protective clothing and equipment. Is PPE readily available? Is PPE in good condition?
Personal preparation. Are you wearing sturdy shoes with nonslip soles? Have you removed jewelry that could get caught in machines? Are your clothes adequate to cover you, but not so loose they could get caught in machinery or cause you to trip? Do you know what you're going to do and how you're going to do it? Have you assembled the tools and equipment you'll need?
If you identify any hazards in these audits, you must, of course, correct them before going further. Many times, you can do this yourself. If there's something blocking the aisle, put it away. If your protective gloves are torn, get another pair. If a tool has a frayed cord, turn it in.
You may also identify problems you can't fix yourself. If, for instance, you notice that a chemical container is missing a label, report it to me immediately. Then it's up to me to remedy the situation.
You might also get together as a group to conduct brief weekly or monthly audits of your work area. You could develop an overall checklist for the area or choose to focus on something different in each audit—housekeeping, hazardous substances, etc. Work area audits can be conducted at the beginning or end of the day or even while equipment is running and people are working.
There are different ways to develop a group work area audit checklist. You could have each person create his or her own checklist, then combine them. Or you could choose several people to gather suggestions from all those in the area and then develop a checklist from that input.
As far as conducting such an audit, the best approach is probably to rotate responsibility for conducting the audit itself and for correcting or reporting any problems you uncover. This doesn't have to be a major project. Your audits may, in fact, be more effective if you limit what you're auditing and the number of questions you ask.
Let's look at what some of the kinds of questions you might include in a work area audit.
Housekeeping. Are the aisles clear and at least three feet wide? Are floors free of oil or grease or liquids? Do floors have any uneven or defective spots needing repair? Are nails or other sharp objects sticking out? Are no-smoking policies obeyed? Is all trash placed in proper containers? Are materials stored in their proper places, where they don't stick out and can't fall? Are stairs in good condition and well lit?
Machinery and equipment. Are machines clean and well lubricated? Are machine guards in place and in use? Are electrical cords unfrayed? Do electrical plugs match the available outlets? Is ventilation operating properly? Is lighting adequate for close work? Are lockout/tagout procedures followed for equipment maintenance and repair? Are ladders in good condition and appropriate for the job—e.g., no metal ladders around electricity?
Hazardous substances. Do all containers of hazardous substances have complete and legible labels? Are MSDSs available for all hazardous substances used? Are liquids in closed containers? Are absorbent materials available for use in case there's a spill? Is the work area free of any food, beverages, etc.?
Personal protective clothing and equipment. Is PPE readily available that provides protection against tasks and hazards in the work area? Is PPE in good condition? Are all workers using appropriate PPE?
Emergency protection. Are fire extinguishers easily available? Have fire extinguishers been inspected? Is the alarm system working? Are fire exits unobstructed and identified? Are non-exit doors identified? Are sprinklers unblocked? Is an evacuation route posted? Are first-aid supplies readily available?
Safety and health practices. Do people wash thoroughly after working with hazardous substances? Is PPE properly removed and decontaminated? Is electrical work performed only by qualified employees? Do forklift drivers follow traffic and safety rules? Do other workers keep away from moving forklifts? Do people use safe lifting techniques and avoid carrying or pushing loads that block their vision? Is all trash disposed of properly?
You can quickly fix many of the hazards identified in these work area audits. When you can't fix them, talk with me. We may need to get mechanics to fix equipment or notify plant management that our fire extinguishers haven't been inspected. Or you may find a lot of little problems that indicate we haven't been as attentive to training and safety procedures as we should be.
I want to emphasize here that the audits are not intended to point fingers or fix blame. We certainly want people to stop unsafe acts, such as leaving flammable scrap around or failing to use PPE. But our approach to 'fixing' that problem will most often be to review our rules and policies with the whole group, rather than singling people out. If rules aren't being followed, it probably means that we haven't done training recently enough or haven't made the reasons for following particular rules clear. After all, safety rules do have a purpose. They exist to protect you—and your co-workers—from harm.
If someone knows the rules and the reasons for them and is still acting unsafely, it's my responsibility to follow up with that person and make sure that none of us is endangered.