By Cameron Clark
Everyone likes getting a “good” result from their safety audit. If executed well, a good result from a safety audit can give a measure of comfort that people aren’t being exposed to unnecessary risks and are well protected against injury and illness. For some it can also mean that new markets or industries are accessible with a new, or continuing, certification. For others it can provide affirmation of a job well done, and confirmation that expended resources were well spent without additional effort or costs to implement corrective actions.
Unfortunately, these same reasons can motivate some people or organizations to suppress or conceal audit evidence that doesn’t support the audit outcome they were hoping for. While the benefits of doing so might be access to new industries, lower cost or fewer corrective actions, that benefit won’t outweigh the impact to you or your business’ reputation, or most importantly the impact to your people if they are involved in a serious incident.
Let’s first consider what a “good” audit result is. A good audit result isn’t a result that tells you everything is fine when it’s not. That doesn’t support the audited organization or those who are making governance decisions. A good audit result is one that discovers what is being done well and, if relevant, where improvements can be made. Only then can those entrusted with making decisions make the right decisions.
Keep these ideas in mind going into a safety audit and try not to turn the safety audit into a contest. A good safety auditor should convey a collaborative approach with those that are being audited and auditees should respond accordingly. Try not to see your audit as a competition between auditor and auditee, one where points are scored by the auditor for finding issues and by the auditee for hiding them successfully.
A good safety auditor is also going to notice overt attempts to conceal or suppress evidence and is likely going to adjust their auditing technique accordingly to ensure that the evidence they use is representative and objective. Attempts to suppress or conceal evidence appear like red flags and include:
- Limiting site inspections to only some parts of the workplace
- Limiting discussion to only some members of the workforce
- Not allowing employees to be interviewed in private
- Using folders of prepared evidence and encouraging the auditor to only select from records that would appear to have already been vetted
- Discouraging the auditor from selecting records randomly from hardcopy or electronic files
- Hiding electronic folder structures and files from the auditor’s view
- Suites of evidence that appear after the audit has concluded that address identified nonconformances
Any such efforts are ultimately self-defeating if detected. If your safety auditor suspects that there is a deliberate attempt to suppress or conceal evidence then they are likely to be less trusting about all of the evidence presented, including what is provided verbally. They will start to look for multiple or additional sources of evidence to confirm findings and will likely review supplied evidence with greater scrutiny, increasing the likelihood of any issues being detected. Concealing or suppressing evidence might also have a subconscious impact on your safety auditor and their evaluation, tipping you from a minor non-conformance into a major one.
Most importantly, concealing or suppressing evidence only sabotages the original objective of the audit, which is to examine whether you achieved what you planned to achieve. In a safety audit context this is about protecting people from injury and illness. Think about it. Would you rather avoid the cost or effort of corrective actions, or avoid one of your people, and their family, having their life destroyed by a career or life ending incident?
Some might argue that safety audits are an unnecessary compliance obligation, that the standards required to be met are overly onerous or that safety audits do nothing to improve safety outcomes. While there is certainly an onus on your safety auditor to provide meaningful information, this onus can only be fulfilled if the auditee meets their obligation to be honest and transparent.
About the author
Cameron Clark is a health and safety professional with more than 17 years’ experience providing OHS consulting and auditing services to a range of large multinational organizations. He is currently a founder and Managing Director of Verus Australia and an Exemplar Global-certified Lead OHS Management Systems Auditor. Cameron can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org or via www.verus.com.au.