Auditing for the Benefit of Your Company

Taking a proactive approach with in-house safety inspections is positive for everyone

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Ed Koch was the amiable mayor of New York City for 12 years. During his tenure, he was known for greeting his constituents on the street and asking them, “How’m I doing?”

Municipal utilities should develop a similar habit and openly solicit feedback from employees about whether safety programs are actually keeping them safe.

One mechanism for doing this is a safety audit. In an audit, a qualified person systematically examines an organization’s declared safety rules and regulations as well as its day-to-day practices and determines if the two are in sync.

For example, if employees are required to wear hard hats in certain areas of a plant or work site but the examiner discovers the hats generally are not worn, the discrepancy between theory and practice is red-flagged. Red flags signal changes need to be made.


Ethical leadership will always prioritize employee safety.

“I like to tell people that a safety management plan should be part of your overall management system. If management is committed to doing the right thing, employees are going to do things the right way. It becomes a common culture,” says Kyle Irwin, founder of Irwin’s Safety. The Calgary, Canada, firm teaches best safety practices in Western Canada and occasionally in the U.S.

While “doing the right thing” works the same on either side of the border, Irwin says the consequences of ignoring workplace safety often are more severe in the states. “We’re more regulated in Canada. We have more government agencies looking into it. The day-to-day standards are higher. However, the risk of litigation is much higher in the U.S. If you are a company in the U.S. and make some bad decision in respect to safety, you’re more likely to be litigated by the people affected by that decision.”

Neither of these two scenarios — more rigorous day-to-day regulation or greater legal risk — are typically welcomed by utility managers. The happy alternative is to self-regulate at a responsible level and thereby create a culture of safety as a first line of defense against unsafe behavior and work conditions. Internal audits are the way to develop that culture.

Usually conducted by a safety manager, ongoing internal audits sometimes are informal, undertaken on the spur of the moment while passing through a workplace or visiting a job site. Or they are formal, with an inspection occurring on a day purposely set aside for it with a checklist as the inspection tool.

The list can be as long and detailed as your company wishes. Small companies that are just developing a health and safety program sometimes get by with a one-page checklist with a comments section at the bottom. The completed listing is filed for follow-up and future reference.

More rigorous internal inspections are longer and more nuanced. An informal short-form inspection might ask, “Is there a standby employee positioned outside the confined space to provide emergency assistance?” Whereas a more thorough inspection checklist might ask an additional question: “Is the standby employee trained and equipped to render assistance in case of an emergency?”

These internal audits sometimes catch dangerous situations and correct them. However, the hope is that they will discover few serious defects in safety, but find areas where reasonably safe behavior can be made safer. The frequency of the internal audits and the fact they are being conducted without coercion from outside entities makes them nonthreatening to a company and its employees. Therefore, they are less likely to cover up something unsafe. 


Irwin notes that the attitude of the person doing an audit goes a long way to determining how effective it will be. “I really think the No. 1 requirement for being an effective safety manager is to know your workplace and to understand the different roles in the company and the hazards of each role.”

He gives the example of an engineer leaving his office two or three times a year to walk around a work site. “You wouldn’t go up to him during his walkaround and talk to him about the need to wear a hard hat.” Such a “gotcha” move would be officious. Rather, a safety manager should prioritize time to deal with bigger workplace hazards.

Irwin recommends that safety leaders engage with employees rather than confront them. To effectively communicate the need for safety, a safety manager must first have a relationship. Failure to connect with people means the chance of influencing them is slim, he says.

“The attitude of the safety manager should not be, ‘I am here and I’m going to change things.’ It should be, ‘I am here and we’re going to learn things together.’ It’s the difference between being a safety cop and a safety adviser. If you’re a cop, you ask, ‘Where is your hat?’ An adviser asks, ‘Is there a reason you’re not wearing your hat?’ The attitude should be that the adviser is learning from the employees.”

Seasoned employees might be expected to be most responsive to safety counsel, having been around long enough to witness the consequences of unsafe behavior. Unfortunately, longtime employees can be the least coachable. “A lot of people in the older generation, when you say, ‘Hey, we need to do this and this,’ they become defensive. They feel like you’re suggesting they weren’t doing something right.”

Once again, Irwin counsels engaging with the old hands so they understand their experience is respected. “You might say, ‘We know what you’re doing is working really well and you’re not injuring yourself. But someone newer on the job might not be as capable and could be hurt. We’d like to try a more systematic approach to doing this.’”

A safety manager needs to be something of a diplomat, in other words. However, diplomacy won’t always work. Irwin laughs about the time he confronted a longtime employee of a company working a railway project. “He was in a machine and I walked up and said, ‘You need to wear that safety belt because some government inspector is going to come along and see you not wearing it and throw you off the work site.’ He looked at me, said, ‘Back off!’ and closed the door.”

You can’t win them all, even when you’re president of a safety management company. The larger lesson, though, is that rules apply to everyone.


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