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Safety Audits: Make Sure Your System is Ready

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You've spent countless hours writing and developing your health and safety management system, so isn't it time to find out just how good it is? Isn't it time to get that Self Insurance licence or AS4801 accreditation that the System was designed for? Why wait when I could get a Safety Audit done now and move onto something else?

But wait you must. By design, Safety Audits check performance at a moment in time. Check too early, whilst your system is still being implemented, and you're likely to get a disappointing result that won't reflect the true capabilities of your system. Consider the race between the tortoise and the hare. If we checked to see who won at the half way point we would never have a chance to recognise the tortoise's best attributes: endurance, persistence and resilience. Instead, we would only see that he didn't have enough speed. Sooner or later we would be retraining the tortoise to speed up, when this was something the tortoise was never designed to do.

Disappointing results can also have unintended side effects. Instead of finding ways to improve safety in the workplace, a poor Safety Audit result may cause a loss of momentum. A large number of adverse findings and the effort to correct them can often seem overwhelming to senior management in many organisations, particularly given the resources used to develop and partially implement the system in the first place. Further investment, for what suddenly seems like a futile exercise, can be too hard a pill for some organisations to swallow.

Poor Safety Audit results can also lose the very people that the System was trying to help. Management can lose belief that OHS Management System will support them to be safer or protect them from liability, employees can become sceptical that the additional bureaucracy creates no additional benefit, whilst the Safety Team can be penalised unnecessarily for the poor results. We know that positive change is built on small wins, Audit too early and there will be little to celebrate. It will also impact on the momentum you have gained in positive safety behaviours.

By waiting until the system is ready before you undertake a Safety Audit, you give yourself a better chance to harness the positive momentum which, in turn can lead to even greater organisational support for resources, behaviours and attitudes. Safety Audits performed at the right time, when the System is ready, will provide better insight into the organisational capability and System performance which in turn will lead to more relevant System improvement opportunities.

Finally, Safety Audits don't come cheap. In addition to the cost of the Safety Audit, there is time and significant effort spent in the lead up to and during the audit by a range of organisational stakeholders. These resources are valuable and shouldn't be wasted until you know the system is ready. So how do you know when your system is ready?

Once implemented, let the System find its equilibrium. Like a new engine, a system needs to be broken in before testing its full capabilities. This breaking in process doesn't happen at a single point in time, but rather over a period of time. People might have been trained in new systems or processes, but their competency and leadership will evolve as those processes are used more and more frequently.

If you've embarked on implementing a system you've likely spent some time setting objectives and targets (or at least you should have!). These can be a great way to evaluate if your system has completed the implementation phase (eg. % of training completed vs training plan) or whether your system has properly broken in (consistent indicators from month to month). If you didn't set some objectives and targets early, think about what indicators are going to help you assess where your system is at in its early stages. Examples could include:

  • Management plan actions completed
  • % Training completed against plan
  • Regular OHS committee meeting attendance by management and workers
  • Inspection programs that confirm risk controls in place and functioning

If you've instructed everyone in their new responsibilities and you're confident that the system is implemented and has found its equilibrium, you could complete a self-check before getting someone independent to complete the formal Safety Audit. There are a range of self-checks / cheat sheets available online that can help you complete a basic assessment of where you're System is at.

If you are going to complete an assessment yourself, remember to evaluate using suitable evidence samples from a variety of sources (document reviews, interviews and visual observations). Remember as well to try and stay independent as it can be difficult to remain impartial when you're evaluating your own System.

If you're interested in more ways to improve your Safety Audits, join our community by subscribing and over the coming weeks, we will outline common Safety Audit pitfalls and practical ways to avoid them. Next up: Readying Documentation and Records.

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