Workplace audits are often perceived to be a huge inconvenience and a pure compliance exercise by those who do not understand their purpose and potential benefits. A recent workplace prosecution (R v Talleys Group  Nelson District Court), where a worker was fatally injured while working on a fishing vessel, highlighted the need for a robust auditing program.
The findings outlined that the safety management system on the vessel provided good guidelines for managing a known risk related to ropes used on board the vessel. However, neither the crew nor shore based management took steps to ensure the safety management system was being effectively implemented and followed.
One of the steps recommended by the commission related to vessel operators improving their internal auditing procedures on board. This case demonstrates the need for all employers to reconsider their opinions in respect of the validity of auditing as a business process.
Audits and assessments can take many forms and are usually simple tools that if used correctly can highlight latent risks and identify whether systems, processes and procedures are effective and being implemented.
A regular audit program should be undertaken by internal and independent external providers. Internal auditors, if appropriately trained and competent, can provide excellent value in being able to assess and mitigate risks in our workplaces. Being one of the team, internal auditors have good knowledge and familiarity with workplace systems and processes as well as the workers themselves, including their capacity and capability. An additional benefit is these people can also be integral in effecting any change necessary, as they will know how to influence key members of the workforce.
Contrary to these benefits, is the potential for creeping entropy and normalisation to the working environment and its risks. Similarly, not all who are capable of auditing, also have credibility and respect amongst colleagues and thus the ability to obtain good information and influence change is diminished. Auditors are human and there is extensive literature outlining the complexity of human factors relative to a variety of scenarios.
The use of external auditors can provide some balance and validation for small, medium and larger organisations and their value should not be under estimated. Internal systems, standards, processes and procedures are in place for a reason, and that is they have been deemed to be practicable steps that if followed will mitigate organisational risk. However, simply having those on a shelf, as demonstrated in the R v Talleys Group case is not sufficient as they are only effective if they are well known, well understood, commonly used and reinforced by supervisors and managers. One way of reinforcing these is to have an audit program in place.
An external auditor comes with the benefit of having no preconceived ideas and without bias. Their fresh perspective can help identify latent or hidden risks and help to develop a plan designed to address these gaps. Audits and assessments if used correctly will continue to be extremely useful tools.
Unfortunately, through busyness, normalisation and work pressures, those who have the potential to influence and encourage good health and safety practice can become managers of mediocrity. If individuals and organisations are prepared to accept just that then audits, assessments and observations will continue to be considered compliance activity that gets in the way of productivity and simply a box ticking exercise.