The Health & Safety Audit

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When is an audit really an inspection? Do we really understand these terms? Both audits and inspections are proactive methods of monitoring health and safety performance.

Audits and standards

They offer us ways of checking standards before things go wrong, thus avoiding loss, and maximizing productivity. The reality is however that audits and inspections are quite different from each other, yet people often confuse them. We at the Institute of Health and Safety often see this confusion in clients, and this article therefore aims to clarify what these terms really mean so that people may better understand their needs, and obtain the most cost-effective forms of health and safety monitoring.

Monitoring standards

Monitoring standards is an essential activity for any business or organisation. These standards may relate to production, services provided to clients, purchasing, or indeed health and safety. Without monitoring it is impossible to verify whether or not the organisation’s aims and objectives are being achieved. Data obtained from monitoring helps us to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and set targets for the future. In health and safety for example, we might discover through monitoring (checking) that machinery and equipment is not being maintained as regularly as it should. This could have implications for health and safety, but it may also affect the efficiency of the equipment and therefore productivity. Armed with this information we can take steps to improve things, perhaps by introducing a new maintenance regime, or by entering into a service agreement with an external provider. Failure to monitor our activities means that we are operating in ignorance, and in business, ignorance is definitely not bliss.

In general terms, audits examine the system by which health and safety is managed, whilst inspections scrutinize the physical aspects of the work environment. There is obviously a certain amount of overlap, but this broadly describes the difference between the two activities. In fact, both of these types of monitoring are required in order to obtain an accurate measure of performance. Typically, an audit might be undertaken annually, whilst inspections should be more frequent, depending upon the level of risk present in the business.

The health and safety audit is therefore quite a highly structured examination of our management system. It should measure our performance against a given standard so that we can make objective judgements about our organization. Two standards that are often used are ISO: 18001, and the UK’s HS(G)65. These standards set out the elements that should be present in an effective health and safety management system. HS(G)65 for example, identifies five elements;

  • policy,
  • organisation,
  • planning and implementing,
  • monitoring,
  • review and audit.

In an audit each one of these would be examined in turn. The examination would take the form of a series of pre-determined questions to which the auditor would seek to obtain answers, supported by evidence. If we take the first element “policy” for example, questions might include, “does the organization have an up to date, written health and safety policy?”, “is the policy signed by the most senior director?”, “does the policy include a statement from the Board, and does it detail the organization of, and arrangements for health and safety?”, and “is the policy properly communicated to all staff?”.

Each question would normally be assigned a maximum “score” that it is possible to obtain, and the auditor would make a judgement about what score to actually give depending upon the quality of the answer and evidence obtained. Thus a maximum and an actual score are revealed for each section or group of questions, and strengths and weaknesses quickly become obvious. In this way we might for example achieve an overall audit score of say, 72%. We could then make a commitment to achieve a rating of not less than 80% in the next audit.

Audit results

The audit results will show us where we can make the improvements to our system that will help us to achieve this. In this way the audit is not only a tool for monitoring performance, but a method by which organizations can clearly identify what is required in the coming period. Audits also provide senior managers and directors with accurate information about the effectiveness with which they delegate operational responsibility, and of course, about their ultimate liabilities.

The health and safety inspection

The health and safety inspection is a much more operationally focused activity, based upon straightforward observation. The inspector will visit an area and carry out an essentially visual examination of conditions there. The findings will be noted down and a report produced detailing the inspector’s views, and his or her recommendations for any necessary improvements. These inspections are a good way to help in the maintenance of workplace standards and of course, ongoing legal compliance. They also help to identify any deterioration before harm occurs, provided that they are carried out with sufficient frequency. Organisations should therefore identify and train their own staff to do this, with an independent external inspection being carried out for verification purposes, perhaps only once a year.

Inspections tend to work better if they are carried out using a checklist of issues to be examined. In this way the inspector can be sure not to miss things, and we can make a true comparison of inspections carried out at different times. Thus the results of an inspection carried out one month for example, can be genuinely compared with the results of subsequent inspections, and progress or deterioration can quickly be identified.

Inspection quality

The quality of an inspection depends a great deal on the competence of the inspector, but the format in which it is presented and the reasonability of the recommendations made in it, also have a bearing on its effectiveness. Managers usually require an accurate account of the findings in a concise form, together with a simple to follow, realistic list of remedial actions to be taken. Reports therefore need to be comprehensive, clear and easy to read, persuasive, and provide reasonable solutions to any problems identified.

In summary, audits and inspections provide different types of information and data. The audit examines how we are managing health and safety, and the inspection looks at things from ground level. Both of these activities are required if we are really to gain insights into our true performance and work towards achieving higher standards. This will not only help with legal compliance, but help us to develop a safer, healthier workplace, which is more productive and where losses are minimized. In short, the use of audits and inspections is something that all businesses and organizations must adopt if they are to survive in an increasingly competitive world.

Article prepared by Mr Chris Hudson. Chris is a senior lecturer in occupational health and safety management at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. 

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