How health & safety officers should prepare for external audits

by David Strydom — Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of some health and safety officers as much as the possibility of an external audit. No matter how much they’ve done to ensure everything runs smoothly on their premises, there’s always the chance that something — anything — could go unexpectedly wrong.

PFM approached several authorities in the industry to find out what they suggest health and safety officers should do to ensure an external audit runs as flawlessly as possible.

Chris Dark, head of HSE for Sodexo UK & Ireland, says that to gain value out of any audit, the health and safety officer’s aim should be to achieve a state of ‘audit readiness’ at all times, so that when the operation is audited it is assessed ‘as is’.

“An audit is a snap-shot measurement of management processes, it’s not the management solution. An established audit reporting process allows trends and themes to be identified. Audits are proactive and should be used in that way. Consideration should be given to what happens with the results of an audit and how any non conformances will be addressed.

“We always recommend everyone is open-minded when receiving the results and to ensure the results are shared across an organisation to gain maximum value in terms of sharing best practices as well as identifying areas in need of attention.”

Lanes Group is a national drainage and facilities maintenance specialist with 23 depots across the UK. Its group health safety and environmental manager, Paul McParland, says external audits should be approached with a mind open to possibilities. “They’re important opportunities to test your systems and behaviours, to learn new ideas and continue the process of embedding good practices. As such, if you treat external audits as a chore you miss the point.”

In recent months, Lanes Group has been audited for Chas, Achilles Verify and FORS, and Link-up, and is in the process of being audited for Achilles Building Confidence, McParland points out, adding ‘that’s just a selection’.

“One of the best ways to prepare is to have an effective system of internal audit. In the past 12 months, Lanes Group has invested in the SHE health and safety reporting and audit system. It’s already helping us with external audits by ensuring our internal audit data and evidence is easily available from one source. We carry out several different internal audits. We can now more easily match those to key requirements of external audits, so our systems are aligned.”

It’s important to understand the aims and requirements of external auditors, says McParland. “Look on their websites or information portals. Most give plenty of advice about the auditing process, changes since the last audit, and evidence needed. We carry out a series of pre-audit checks. This may involve confirming documentation and evidence is in place, selected visits to our 23 depots and work site visits and inspections.”

Health and safety officers should ensure they have plenty of time and resources in place to gather evidence. “For Achilles Building Confidence, we’ve submitted more than 127 separate files on 30 e-mails. Also, have the right people ready to participate in the audit. External auditors are impressed if the process goes smoothly.”

McParland points out that it’s vital management of health and safety and the environment isn’t a tick box exercise. “Preparing for external audits is one of many opportunities we have to continue the process of embedding a positive health and safety and environmental culture. Learning from the advice and insights provided by auditors is invaluable. Reporting back findings to participants, directors and the wider workforce is essential. Putting in place actions to improve performance is also vital, and is the best preparation for the next external audit.”

Nikki Singh-Barmi, the MD of GRITIT, a UK provider of winter gritting and maintenance services, says when it comes to preparing for an external audit, he gives clients the same advice as his company follows: You should never need to prepare for an external health and safety audit.

“Your winter maintenance plan should be embedded in your organisation’s health and safety policy with a clear process with allocated overall responsibility for overseeing the winter maintenance plan and specific tasks assigned to individuals,” says Singh-Barmi. “In addition, there should be continual monitoring of the plan and performance measurement against defined KPIs; a detailed site specification with identified hazardous areas and bespoke clearance and gritting instructions; regularly maintained vehicles and equipment; adequate supplies of clearance equipment, salt and grit bins. And, if you need to rush around frantically preparing for the audit, you’re essentially failing the standards from the outset.”

As soon as your organisation has been through an audit process, you should action any recommendations immediately, Singh-Barmi says. “Then, you should continuously ensure you’re in a confident position regarding compliance through consistent monitoring, strategies, and tactics. Whatever health and safety compliance badge you wish to wear, from the top down, this must be nurtured as a core part of the organisation’s culture.”

Achieving and maintaining a health and safety accreditation and participating in an audit requires a great deal of company resource, he says. “It’s therefore wise to look at this as an opportunity to benefit from that investment. Look for positive advice and demonstrate a desire for ongoing improvement. View it as a partnership, taking a dynamic and proactive approach.”

Alan Brock, group technical support manager at Servest Group, says that taking a step back, it’s important first to have a health and safety culture in place and good management and monitoring of the right systems. If you truly have the culture and systems in place, there should be little need to have to undertake significant preparation before an audit.

“Saying that, an audit is a very valuable event and so should be welcomed rather than feared. Issues may be brought to light by an audit, be it an external assessment by an accreditation assessor or a company audit by the internal auditors and this can be beneficial as a tool for improvement and progression. It also demonstrates where things are going well, which can help to really assure the team of their sound work to date and further motivate them.”

Brock says Servest is currently making significant changes to the way management systems are structured. “The ongoing fast growth of the Servest Group has required us to work on integrating our core business management systems to support our one integrated brand approach. The business management arrangements are therefore being pulled together into one system.”

The system is also being extended to include policies and procedures for business support services, such as customer service, procurement, assets, IT etc, and to encompass further factors that affect the business such as information security, energy and asset management, sustainability and business continuity, to ensure a holistic approach.

“Three parts of our revamped system are UKAS accredited through our certification partner, BSI, namely the sections covering health and safety, quality and environmental arrangements. This means we’ve gone through the BSI’s rigorous external audit processes and met their standards. Other parts of the system aren’t currently externally accredited, although they’re still held to demanding internal standards.”

The second area of system change at Servest relates to updating its systems to reflect the impending revision of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) standards to the new Annex SL /PAS99:2012 format.

“For us this begins with the ISO 9001 Quality Management and the ISO 14001 Environmental Management, the new standards for which are expected to be issued in September 2015,” says Brock. “By updating our system now, we will be well ahead of the three-year window for compliance. We’ll also be updating our system to reflect the introduction of the ISO 45001 occupational health and safety management standard which is expected to be released during 2016.”

In essence, these system updates enable the senior management teams to consider the relevant external and internal factors that impact on the business, as well as the interested parties involved, and to evaluate the risks and opportunities that may emanate from them.

“The updates also enable Servest to proactively progress and embed the principles of the ISO standards into our business structure and core values,” says Brock. “Should an audit be announced, we might have to get the odd bit of paperwork in order. But there won’t be a big song and dance around an auditor turning up on site because we have an effective system in place, which we are constantly refining as necessary, and a confident and positive culture.”

Rodents and other pests sometimes create a problem in premises — a sure concern for any health and safety officer facing an external audit. David Cross, head of technical training at Rentokil Pest Control says rodents, in particular rats, can cause health issues if they’re allowed to breed and thrive. “While infestations can be eliminated, it is of course preferable to prevent rodents entering the premises in the first place. You can do this by going back to basics and ensuring you don’t provide these creatures with the ideal conditions in which to thrive.”

But how exactly do you ‘rodent-proof’ your premises? FMs need to be constantly diligent about looking out for rodent activity on their property, Cross says — whether or not an external audit is expected in the near future. He says there are three simple steps FMs can take to rodent-proof their premises.

The first is early detection. “Pest control firms now offer non-toxic monitoring blocks. These ensure early stage detection of a rodent infestation, while keeping undesirable toxic substances off-site.”

The second is to remove sources of food. “Simple things such as ensuring food waste is properly sealed and stored can make a big difference. Make sure any refuse onsite is kept in closed bins.”

Finally, there’s cleanliness. “Move storage away from walls where possible and remember that less clutter means fewer places to hide. Seal holes in the exterior of the property with wire wool, caulk, metal kick plates or cement. Rodents are also known to enter buildings through damaged drains, so it’s important to ensure these are well maintained and are checked regularly,” says Cross.

How to tell if you have a rodent infestation problem

“If you think you can spot the tell-tale signs of a rodent infestation but are unsure if you’re playing host to these pests, there are five signs that might help identify the problem.” These are:

  • Smell and sound: Rats and mice have a very strong ammonia smell. On top of this, rodents are often very noisy, making audible scrabbling noises in the premises.

  • Droppings: Rats excrete dark, pellet-shaped droppings up to 14mm. Mice droppings are typically 5mm and spindle shaped.
  • Smears: Rodents use established routes along skirting boards and walls owing to poor eyesight. You may notice grease marks where rodents brush up against your walls and surfaces.
  • Footprints: Rats can leave foot and tail marks in dusty, less-used areas of your building such as the basement. Shining a strong flashlight at a low angle should reveal tracks clearly. To establish if an infestation is active, sprinkle fine flour or talc along a small stretch of floor near the footprints and check for fresh tracks the next day.
  • Damage: Rodents can chew through electric cables, which is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of an infestation as it causes a fire hazard, while also being very difficult to spot. Gnaw marks, shredded paper and damage to food storage containers are also common signs of rodent activity.

“Whether you’re dealing with a pest problem or are simply looking to prevent one, it’s important you know who to contact. It’s the role of external contractors to be fully up-to-date on the latest legislation changes in their area of expertise. Pest controllers are no different, so if you’re in any doubt as to what methods to use, it’s always best to check with the experts.”

Greg Davies, head of service development at Assurity Consulting, says that as far back as 2001 the HSE in ‘A guide to measuring health and safety performance’ said there are key questions senior managers should ask themselves such as: “What information is available to assure me that throughout the organisation arrangements to control health and safety risks, are in place, comply with the law as a minimum, and operate effectively?”

This is no different for external auditors, who in most cases will be reporting this back to those senior managers anyway, Davies says. Having canvassed the opinion of his team, and so based on the collective experience of 1000s of audits, Davis’s top tips are:

  • Know your position: Where you can, take time to understand what the audit’s purpose audit is and why it’s being carried out? By understanding this you’re already better prepared to make the process run smoothly.

  • Be honest: External auditors are there to help as well as audit, but by being frugal with the truth, trying to bluff or misdirect just makes us suspicious and so more likely to dig deeper. Confrontation rather than collaboration is never helpful.
  • Gather the information: Most visits are booked weeks in advance, so unless it’s a spot or deliberately unannounced audit, you have time to gather all the information requested. In advance of the audit, if you haven’t been told about the information your auditor wants to see, proactively ask them.
  • Schedule: Check who else you need to support you on the day of the audit, make sure they’re available and allot time for meetings. For site walk rounds do the same. Many auditors are familiar with time-wasting techniques, and key people not present (or their absence not covered) often just confirms poor management.
  • Work together: Particularly with health and safety, risk appetite is a key performance driver in most organisations. Helping your auditor understand where your business is going and/or the issues it/you are facing, allows them to make recommendations more pertinent and meaningful.

“I have always found the best audits result from a provided room, all documentation easily accessible, people happy and ready to talk, and the kettle on!”

As the UK’s leading FM title, PFM has been reporting on facilities management in the UK from its beginnings, and highlighting best practice in Europe and the USA.