What is an audit, and will it be effective for my company? An audit is a systematic, objective tool to assess regulatory compliance in the workplace. An audit usually involves a survey of the workplace to:
- Identify what regulations apply to a company or facility.
- Determine whether environmental and workplace safety requirements, and corporate policies and procedures regarding compliance are being followed.
- Assess management systems currently in place to ensure compliance. An audit may also look at and evaluate the methods used to achieve compliance.
Audits may be voluntary, or they may be required. In a voluntary audit, your facility management decides on its own that it would be advantageous to conduct an audit, whether to evaluate compliance status, or to identify any suspected problems. Audits can be mandatory, however, if they are part of the settlement of an enforcement action between a governmental agency and your company. EPA and OSHA regularly include an audit requirement in their settlement agreements with companies that have violated environmental or safety regulations.
There are numerous benefits to an audit if it is properly conducted and acted upon. An audit can:
- Help to identify and correct regulatory problems, which can improve workplace safety, and help reduce company and personal liability.
- Serve as an educational tool. It can increase employee awareness and understanding of environmental and safety regulations, and the audit process can also be an opportunity to demonstrate your company's commitment to compliance.
- Potentially identify ways to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the compliance program.
- Be viewed favorably by regulatory agencies and criminal prosecutors. A thoroughly completed audit with proper follow-up can signal that your company is making a good-faith effort to comply with applicable regulatory requirements.
Although audits provide definite benefits, there are some potential negatives as well. Before conducting an audit, be aware of the following potential drawbacks:
- An audit may uncover previously unknown problems, and the solution may not always be simple. If a violation of a regulation or law is discovered, what will be done? Should it be disclosed to the regulatory agency?
- Failure to correct problems identified in an audit can potentially lead to many more problems. Implementing corrective actions in a timely manner is an important part of conducting an audit. If problems are identified in an audit and nothing is done to correct the situation, this information may be used against your company in future enforcement proceedings.
- Consult with legal counsel to obtain further information about whether audit information must be disclosed to OSHA or EPA. OSHA and EPA do not, as a general rule, require disclosure of audit reports because these agencies do not want to discourage companies from self-auditing to improve environmental and/or safety compliance. However, there have been instances when the agencies have subpoenaed audit information during an investigation, using it against the company.
Of course, the benefits of workplace safety audits outweigh the negatives, and in no way should the previously listed drawbacks discourage you from performing them. Keep the following important points in mind to help make safety audits a consistent benefit to your company:
Research Areas for Inspection
The inspectors should know the jobsites that will be inspected, the types of tasks being conducted, and the accident experience of the work area(s). This will entail a little up-front research, but with those details, the auditor will have a better knowledge of the potential problem areas within the work area.
Gather Necessary Equipment
Depending upon the area to be inspected, auditors should typically have the following items: relevant personal protective equipment, any necessary sampling devices, camera, flashlight, any necessary electrical testing equipment, and paper and pen.
Ensure adequate training of the inspector
Unless the individuals to conduct the inspection have a well-rounded background in the safety field, they may need training or education on safety knowledge or regulations pertinent to the areas to be inspected. Reviewing the regulations will increase the inspectors’ knowledge base, and will probably enable them to observe more unsafe conditions or procedures.
Set an appropriate time for the inspection, do not rush it: Although spot audits of equipment and procedures are useful, it is helpful to arrange schedules where most of the equipment will be operating, and when most employees will be in the immediate area. On the other hand, the inspection should be performed at a time and in a way that it does not interfere with the production process.
Use checklists effectively
Using a checklist during your audit will give you some indication of where you should begin to make your business safer and more healthful for all of your employees. But, remember that checklists are by no means all-inclusive, and you may wish to add to them, or delete portions that do not apply to your business.
After the audit, ensure your recommendations and implementation of solutions are shared with all managers, line supervisors, and employees. Be sure that they understand what they are required to do, and the reasons for any changes in job procedures. Organize team meetings, or meet with each affected employee individually to explain any new information. Bottom Line: always look for hazards that threaten the health and safety of your workers; then find the most efficient way to prioritize and control them.