Ellaline Davies is the president of Safety Works Consulting Inc., an Ontario-based firm. She is a consultant with more than 20 years of health and safety management system development and implementation over numerous sectors.
Davies is an Exemplar Global-certified ISO 45001 lead auditor specializing in injury management and OHS management systems audits. In addition to consulting, she works with businesses as a provider for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) Health and Safety Excellence Program. She was a judge for Canada’s Safest Employer Awards in 2021.
In this conversation, we discuss what drew her to auditing, how to locate the key vectors of risk in an organization, and why the technological changes in training and auditing will challenge professionals as never before.
EXEMPLAR GLOBAL: How did you get started in this portion of your career?
ELLALINE DAVIES: It was a baptism by fire. The employer I’d been with for more than 20 years suddenly found themselves in a very precarious position with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, the WSIB, here in Ontario, Canada. It’s the equivalent of worker’s comp in the United States. This particular issue arose, and management said, ‘Somebody has to do this.’ I ridiculously volunteered without knowing what I was getting myself in for.
The WSIB had something called the Safety Groups Program, which helped incentivize employers regarding safety. For example, the law says that you must do A, B, and C, but many businesses aren’t even aware that they must do A, B, and C. The idea for the Safety Groups Program when it was launched back in 2000 was to help employers understand the importance of systematic safety programs, and then offered a financial incentive to help them achieve it. So, we joined the Safety Groups Program, and I managed it. After a short period of time a local construction association said, ‘Can we use your work for a national award?’ And I said, ‘Are you crazy? I don’t even know what I’m doing!’ (laughs)
Well, I didn’t win the award, but that was my start. It was somebody from WSIB who said to me, ‘You really need to open up your own business.’ Then two people from different construction associations also said, ‘You know, you really should open up your own business.’ I proceeded to take lots and lots of courses, and as it turned out, I did start my own business in 2005. When I did, I had one account with one big project, and they were federally regulated. I took the contract and I bid farewell to the employer I had been at for more than 20 years. I’ve been in business for 16 years and I haven’t looked back since.
EG: It sounds like you found auditing somewhat by chance but once you came across it, you really took to it and made your own way.
ED: I did, because I had such an interest in it. For instance, one of the things we have in Canada is the Gold Seal designation, which is for the professional side of the construction industry. The Red Seal designation, on the other hand, is for people that do the physical work. You may hear people say, ‘I’m a Red Seal carpenter,’ or, ‘I’m a Red Seal electrician.’ This means they’ve met certain criteria to attain the Red Seal. I decided that I would go for my Gold Seal in health and safety several years ago.
As part of going for my Gold Seal, I came to realize that auditing was where the rubber meets the road, and that fascinated me. I signed up for a course on OHSAS 18001, which was the health and safety standard precursor to ISO 45001. After completing it, I realized how much I enjoyed this kind of work. I also enjoyed preparing people for that type of certification. Although I am now a provider in Ontario for the WSIB Health and Safety Excellence Program (the replacement for the Safety Groups Program) I spend every day doing some level of auditing. That leads me to ask questions like, ‘Are my clients meeting the criteria for the work they have done?’ and, ‘Are they developing a management system to confirm that the rubber does meet the road in their processes?’
I deal mostly with small business, and for them, managing their management system is a challenge and a half. You have people wearing 50,000 different hats, so how do they make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing? Granted, now we have these software programs available that assist people in getting the work done—if you have people who are willing to work with technology.
So long story short, I fell into auditing, and I love it. I will say this, however: When you mention that you work in health and safety auditing, it is an absolute conversation killer at social events. But I’ve always found it to be interesting because with auditing, you get to see things come to life in people’s workplaces. You see some fabulous things that people are doing or are trying to do. They may not completely hit the mark, but at least you know that people are trying. And I think the big balance as an auditor is to make sure that you have a way of presenting your findings in such a way where you don’t discourage whatever path or business is on, provided it conforms with the standard. It may not be your path, it may not be exemplary, but at the end of the day, we just need to determine if there is structure and passion involved with their outcomes.
EG: That’s a great way to think about it because it’s easy to get into clauses and strict compliance to a given standard and forget that people are doing the work. It’s important work, too, especially in health and safety, where you are auditing issues that directly affect life-and-death outcomes.
ED: As an auditor, it’s important to understand the organization and locate the highest level of risk. Who is the group that will be most directly, personally, and immediately affected by health and safety issues? It’s not somebody sitting in an office, it’s the person out on the plant floor, the person handling tools and machinery. I am constantly amazed at how management will see things one way and the workers will see the same things but with a completely different point of view. At the end of the day, I’m interested in what the workforce tells me that can support what management says they’re doing.
EG: That’s exactly right. It’s about whether the organization has a common culture and language that everybody shares in and understands.
ED: I used to have conversations about safety culture with our former Chief Prevention Officer here in Ontario, Ron Kelusky. In Australia and the U.K., you are vilified if you don’t show up to work wearing your safety vest, your hard hat, and your safety boots. But here in Canada, we have to work on building safety cultures. Just because the owner of a business says, ‘Thou shall do A, B, and C,’ it does not automatically equate to action and improved safety cultures. It requires buy-in from senior management and then a focused, consistent effort to make those changes happen for good. It’s a trickle-down effect.
EG: You mentioned risk a few moments ago. Risk was not a term that auditors necessarily talked about or considered much in a formal way until recently, but risk-based thinking was made explicit in ISO management system standards beginning with ISO 9001:2015. Given that, has your approach changed in looking at an auditee’s processes and how they address risk?
ED: Yes. I’m starting to see a switch-over in some management programs, where they’re starting to look more deeply at risk before anything else. The problem is, first of all, you have to determine where your hazards are coming from. That really is quite simple, but somehow or another we’ve made risk into this big boogeyman—it’s something that slides underneath the bed, and you have to decide if you want to peek underneath the bed to see if it’s there. But understanding risk is quite achievable. It should always be at the level of the operator that the identification takes place. Unfortunately for a lot of organizations, they think of hazards and risk in the sense of impact to the business, but they won’t necessarily tie that in with health and safety.
EG: Certainly, for executives, it always goes back to financial effects. When you talk about the risks to an organization, the ones that are communicated in such a way to make it about dollars and cents are usually the ones that tend to land on the desks of top management.
ED: In the last 10 years here in Ontario, there has been a huge shift in responsibility (from a legal perspective) of health and safety outcomes to those in supervisory roles and eventually to those that run the organization.
EG: And much of what you need to consider can go beyond the bounds of standards like ISO 45001 or ISO 9001. For instance, there are regulatory bodies and legal frameworks that apply within provinces, states, and nations, and those local regulations are critically important for an auditor to understand.
ED: We certainly must know the municipal, provincial, and federal guidelines, so you will have three different levels of regulations or guidelines that could be supported through a punitive system if you don’t follow them. It does behoove the auditor to consider the different pieces of legislation that will certainly affect the outcomes that they’re looking at.
EG: And when you connect that back to ISO’s high-level structure, would those legal requirements come in through the language relating to context of the organization?
ED: Yes, it should, and there’s also a legislation piece as well. You raise a good point that if you are auditing in different provinces and even different countries, then you will see variations in how auditees will meet certain requirements based upon local legislation. Of course, if they don’t know the legislation, then that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Here in Canada, we have slight variations from province to province, but at the end of the day, we have a Joint Health and Safety Committee, which meets every three months. But there will be variations on a theme provincially.
We also must remember that legislation is usually based on the fact that there have been X number of injuries that have taken place, which is the reason why the legislation in question even came to the forefront in the first place. Also with legislation, those could just be the minimum requirements. If you’re going for a registration to ISO 45001, my expectation would be that you want to exceed those minimums. You want to show me your very best practice level, which will depend upon the organization. For me, the big thing about being an auditor is to be consistent and fair, and to have a good understanding of the business and how it operates.
EG: Further to the attributes that auditors need to embody, what advice would you give to people who are new in this field?
ED: The first thing I would recommend is to align yourself with an organization like Exemplar Global. There are thousands of people out there who have passed an auditing course, but if you want to be seen as credible, that alignment with Exemplar Global is very important. The digital badges that Exemplar Global provides, for example, offer a lot of value because they demonstrate an alignment with an organization that has an international standing.
For somebody who is new, I would advise to work your way up; as you do, you’ll gain new and different badges. Nothing is more important than for your clients to see that you’re growing in your auditing career, and gaining badges is a great way to show that. For instance, if you want to achieve a new auditing certification, you’ll get a new badge to demonstrate that competency. I really think that it cements your integrity and your intent to be the very best that you can be when you align yourself with an organization like this.
Another thing that I would tell people who are new to auditing is to take your time, be patient, and learn from every single audit. I can tell you, at the age of 63, I learn something new from every company that I deal with. And I also, at the age of 63, continue to take courses. Always continue taking courses, that’s another important piece of advice I’d offer.
EG: Have you found that online training is just as efficient as attending in-person courses?
ED: Absolutely, and if I can do it, anybody can. The whole world has changed because of Covid, of course, so everybody has moved over to online training. It’s one of those things that lurked in the background before and everybody dipped their toes into it, but now it’s here.
Now, when it comes to auditing, we all have to—potentially, at least—adjust to doing online audits. That has been quite challenging for some auditors. But with platforms like Zoom, we can interview people and be just as efficient. There will be people that will continue to say no to remote audits, but again the world has changed, and if we don’t change as well, then we can’t be effective as auditors.
EG: The technology continues to advance so quickly. In five years, we’re not even going to recognize how auditing is being done.
ED: We have to stay on top of these changes, and it really helps when you align with Exemplar Global. It’s nine years that I’ve have had this relationship, and I value it because it’s all about sharing. If you’re a new auditor, you’ll find that this is really a great community to help you and answer questions. After all, those of us who have been doing this work aren’t going to be around forever. Somebody needs to take up the mantle!