Safety audits have become central to safety management and governance. However, many organisations have noted that safety audits may have limited usefulness and some problematic consequences. People I’ve spoken with have raised concerns that:
- audits may not get a ‘true picture’ of what is going on
- some projects suffer from audit overload
- audits may damage cultures of trust
- audits may drive a commitment to creating acceptable images of work, rather than improving the primary process that the audits are supposed to assess
- well audited projects still have a seemingly unaudited performance (incidents and injuries occur despite audits showing well compliant systems).
The way I see it, is that some of these problems stem from the belief that productive, efficient and safe work comes from the precise application of standards, best practices, and approved systems of work that have been systematically analysed and tested elsewhere. The assumption seems to be that if we fail to follow a limited set of rules, we will have substandard, inefficient and disorganised performance. Or, what can go wrong when every part has been checked for its compliance with agreed standards?
From this point of view, it makes sense to have regular safety audits and observations – formal, independent, and rational follow-ups of whether a project’s internal workings align with standards and expectations.
Put differently, safety audits focus primarily on the programmatic elements of organisational practice – the plans/the work as imagined/the normative/what should happen. It is this programmatic level which is connected to regulatory demands, international standards, best practices and other requirements. The technological elements (the operational reality/what actually happens/work as done/work as found) tend to be assessed only to the degree that they can support conclusions about the programmatic elements (Power, 1999).
The focus on the programmatic level makes it possible for audits to be disconnected from the very process that gave rise to its need in the first place. This is to say that in its most extreme form, a safety audit does not need to be concerned with safety performance, the meaning of safety to the project, if the processes actually assist work, or otherwise generate information about what actually goes on.
Another aspect driving the focus on the programmatic level is that audits require a certain type of information or proof. To enable comparison of findings across sites, projects, and organisations a standardised scale is needed. However, the messy details of work at the sharp end are local, contextual, and unique. As such, the audit will require abstraction of the answers, or a disregard for the local specifics. Furthermore, while such a scale or measurement should preferably be external and independent to what is being audited, the introduction of an external measure brings about a risk that audits become a dominant reference point for organisations and projects. Audits burden the audited to focus on what is an accepted way of showing and fixing compliance, rather than on improving performance of what actually gets done. This way, audits may impact the contexts in which they are deployed, without creating new knowledge about what happens. Things get confused into clarity (Law, 2004).
Standardisation may be a powerful tool to set limits and govern from afar. But, what if the selective gaze from afar can’t capture and detect what trouble grows locally, outside, and in between standards and procedures? What if many or most of the problems that people face are diffuse, ephemeral, unspecific, fuzzy, emotional, elusive, indistinct, or not yet fully understood? What good is then a blunt view from afar with a yes/no answer? What if workplace risks and capacities to handle these cannot be captured or even adequately mapped out using standardised templates for what should happen?
And even worse, what if enforcing and auditing a ‘one best way’ may prevent us from creating new understanding of what could be going on and simply rehash solutions of what has previously been found acceptable? Audits are based on and wedded with ideas and practices developed for yesterday’s needs, and essentially ask organisations to embrace the future by organising according to the ideas of the past. Can it be that one-sidedly enforcing standardised requirements, simultaneously makes it more difficult to have a culture of innovation?
Furthermore, one may ask what would happen if organisations did not have safety audits. Would systems degenerate? Would performance decrease? Would people lose sight of what should get done? If the people doing the daily work cannot be trusted to achieve reliable, safe and effective performance, but need policing, then what does it say about expectations and respect for the people involved? Audits may further emphasise that trust is supposedly with the experts that perform the audits, and/or with the document standards and evidence used to show compliance. Again, this may undermine, and distrust, the local custodians of a system. As such, audits may work to drive accountability, but not necessarily responsibility.
In summary, safety audits may:
- fail to pick up what is actually going on,
- hold back innovation
- undermine local trust.
In effect, the current audit format may not be helpful in conveying an idea of how well a system actually functions over time, how it supports (or constrains) the performance of people, nor contribute to fostering local ownership.
Steps toward a different kind of safety audit
Most people would probably prefer if audits facilitated organisational learning and improvements, rather than being little more than a compliance check. This is not to say that we should do away with safety audits. This may, however, suggest that we need to open up for new ways of knowing about what goes on in organisations.
There is opportunity to design mechanisms that give a richer and more meaningful image and information dissemination of what goes on across projects and sites. To achieve this we may also need to change how we think about accountability. To stand a better chance to have a constructive audit process, we may ultimately need to change how we understand audits, how audits are communicated, and how audits are carried out.
- an audit was something that auditors and auditees looked forward to?
- finding sources for effectiveness and success in an audit was just as likely as finding nonconformances?
- the audit process contributed to build trust and respect between the auditor and the audited?
- the audit process itself started a cycle of continuous improvement (not deficit fixing)?
I don’t have the answers for how to accomplish all this. But in relation to the first potential, I’d like to suggest a more experiential approach – an audit through reflection on doing. Instead of asking ‘do you have a procedure in place for X’ ask the audited to talk about one time/event when something worked really well in and around using a particular procedure. Or one time when work was really difficult or challenging. People enjoy talking about what they do, their achievements and success, the daily dramas of how things come together (and not), and about what works and what could work. When sharing experiences of what actually has happened, people involve themselves in the process. It is their experiences that brought about the desired outcomes, and not someone else’s solution or best practice. The audit becomes an opportunity to get an outsiders perspective of what goes on. Sharing the joys and difficulties of managing complex systems are more likely to drive an engaging conversation, and a more insightful one.
Second, in a more experiential audit, the task for the auditor is to listen and seek to understand what helped performance and what made it difficult, ie examine the factors surrounding a procedure, rather than the mere existence of the procedure itself and evidence that it has been used. This is a more inviting way to bring out information that highlights where local system custodians may have the need, not to ‘non-conform’, but to find a way that can better reconcile complex situations. It may of course be categorised as a non-conformance, if that is helpful. However, as the auditor and audited build a richer understanding of the tools, resources, information and strategies that are available to deal with the demands and constraints, calling something a non-conformance is unnecessarily reductionistic.
Three, as organisations tap into the accumulated wisdom, experience and creativity of employees who are closest to the issues, organisations are more likely to get a better understanding of their workplace. People are more likely to feel listened to and respected, resulting in a more engaged and purposeful conversation, cutting through layers of bureaucracy and possibly having an effect that lingers long after the auditors have left. But, appreciating of the experiences of local stewards, are also more likely to have an impact on the auditor. The realisation of how non-conformances can make sense, is more likely to produce a mutual respect of how difficult and messy operational life can be, and produce a compassionate and more holistic response – helping the auditor to learn something about the system as well.
Four, people are more interested to work towards positive outcomes, as opposed to avoiding negative outcomes. Or so it seems anyway. Applying a more appreciative approach in questioning, allows audits to turn into an opportunity to reconnect with the purpose of a project or site, rather than producing yet another distracting deficit focus. So by focusing on what works and what could be done to achieve success, audits have a better chance to leave people with ideas and inspiration for actions that can deliver on the goals, rather than producing fear or threat that only fuel actions for as long there is a problem (van de Wetering, 2010).
What is at stake here is simply not just about safety audits. It is also about what kind of safety governance an organisation would like to exercise, and what kind of workplaces they would like to contribute toward.
Sources of inspiration:
Auret, D., & Barrientos, S. (2004). Participatory social auditing. Institute of development studies: Brighton, UK.
Healy, S. (2003). Epistemological pluralism and the ‘politics of choice’. Futures, 35, 689–701.
Humphrey, C., & Owen, D. (2000). Debating the ‘power’ of audit. International Journal of Auditing, 4, 29–50.
Law, J. (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. Routledge, Oxon, UK.
Power, M. (1999). The audit society: Rituals of verifications. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
van de Wetering, A. (2010). Appreciative Auditing. AI practitioner, 12, 3.
Wynne, B. (1988). Unruly technology: Practical rules, impractical discourses and public understanding. Social Studies of Science, 18, 147–167.