The Only Way To Do a Safety Audit Properly

by Dave Collins on April 15, 2015 · 18 comments

in Workplace Safety

I wrote this one a while ago and it encouraged some great comments. I was reminded of it by a recent comment on another article so I thought I would dust it off and put it out there again.

Safety Auditor

The Only Way To Do a Safety Audit Properly

The term “safety audit” conjures up some pretty strong feelings in most people. Many say that their perception is that a safety audit is all about finding something that they are doing wrong. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The most important key to a successful safety audit is the attitude of the auditor. In my early days I sat and watched, with disgust, a lead auditor sit there in his suit, with his laptop and fire questions, very condescendingly at the auditees. They would start to answer and if they went a little off track he would put out his hand, look down his nose over his bifocals and say “STOP that is not the question I asked” He got bugger all out of those people and he missed some really good comments because they didn’t follow his script. The next day he wasn’t there so I apologised for him and we did it properly. A lot of the auditees said they went home feeling sick and even cried to their partners because they were made to feel stupid or like failures. The end score was actually one of the best I have seen. That knobhead (I’ll call him a Spud Head now and that isn’t him in the photo but a very good likeness) would surely have failed them because he thought they were unco-operative! Derrrr! This guy stopped only just short of saying “ah hah busted” if he found a non-conformance!

I refuse to work anymore with auditors who rub their hands together and get more pleasure and satisfaction out of finding non-conformances and their own perceived self importance and power than they do about finding good things and supporting the auditee. People have no problem with you finding non-conformances if it is done in a constructive way and perhaps you provide them with a solution – plenty of times they will even volunteer info about things that they aren’t doing properly – stuff they could easily hide from a Spud Head!

I don’t use a checklist anymore, nor a laptop and rarely even a pen and paper. Those things just put the auditee off. I cringe when I hear an auditor say “hang on just give me a moment to type that in or write that down”. My best advice is to just go in and let them talk to you about their system and get them to show you stuff. Let them talk, let them run off on tangents, it’s all good info. So what if they aren’t following your numbering system, you should know the audit tool like the back of your hand and can direct them back on track when necessary. Write it all up later, if you forget something they are more than happy to get a phone call later. You’ll be on your way home straight after a nice lunch/debrief with some new friends, with all the info you need, while at 5pm Spud Head is still sitting in a room of pissed off people typing in the response to Q

The end result is always better for all parties than the formal policeman/judge/authoritarian approach – and you get invited back again! I get a big thrill out of getting phone calls or emails from auditees long after the audit to tell me how they are going or about the latest thing they have developed and wanting an opinion or, most or the time, some praise.

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  • Sheri Suckling

    If an auditor can put themselves into a mindset of open and honest curiosity, it doesn’t matter quite so much what their level of experience in that workplace is. It can be like a subset of mindfulness to be so present and so interested that the questions naturally form. If you’re away in your head thinking instead of being present, you’ll always miss the opportunity to ask really probing and original questions.

    There is nothing quite like genuine curiosity and an enquiring mind.

    As for the ‘naive’ question, it might be an opportunity to ask some questions about why they think it has always been done that way…and what might happen if…..they did it some other way….. Sometimes those kinds of questions can do double-duty as a bit of coaching to get people to think a little more deeply about what they are doing and why,.

  • Dave Collins

    Agreed – I’d be interested in your thoughts on whether an auditor should be experienced with the systems/industry they are auditing or somewhat naive? I’ve always been a big fan of the term “naivety breeds creativity” – I love asking what seems like a dumb naive question like “why do you do that” to then get an equally perplexed response like “dunno, just always done it that way”

  • Sheri Suckling

    I think the best audits are an open two-way conversation with an open mind and open eyes. I like to ask open questions and listen carefully. I also ask what they think is working well and what is not working. Often the areas of concern are actually not within the discrete processes but more likely to be at the interfaces between processes, which a standard questionnaire can often miss.

    The auditor’s perspective can make a big difference. One place I worked used to assign audits to the lowest on the totem pole to get the boxes ticked with the least imposition on business activities. Having people who are not blinkered by their own everyday work activities and who can bring a larger, broader and more holistic perspective can add so much value to auditing activities – it allows a business to really keep its finger on the pulse in the workplace!

  • Dave Collins

    Great point about the language Peter! Your approach shows why audits, risk assessments and other safety activities can never be considered objective – maybe unless they are totally devoid of any human elements. Perhaps we even need to rephrase the answer to ensure we got the right question?

  • Peter

    I always commence an audit with the intention of finding out what the organisation is doing well not just looking for non-conformance, it makes a huge difference. The language used is also extremely important, not all auditees understand “Safety Speak” or “Audit Speak” so often you need to rephrase a question to get the right answer.

  • Dave Collins

    Thanks mate – knobhead is now a spudhead!

  • Rob Sams

    I’ll go with your approach any day Dave, much more real

  • Nimal

    To say somthing not copliance in a audit, You must have a knoledge to say why it so and help to resolve it!

  • Kirk Rayner

    Just to touch base on Doug’s comment. I have not only worked with,for and beside Knobhead. I have had Knobhead audit my company years ago. I now audit schools and teachers here in Canada and if at any time I pulled a Knobhead I would get the teacher look. Their brain shuts down and their mouth won’t close. Now if you work with them ( within the law/rules) ( have to say that so no more Knobhead comments) they will share all information and not even realize they are doing it. Also like Dave said learn what their job is and live outside the box. Me personally I have to take notes but take very few pics. (just enough for the report.) The only time to scold is if they are being a Knobhead. It is our jobs to guide and inform not to be the judge, jury and executioner.

    A few words to live by. If you feed a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a life time.

  • Dave Collins

    Thanks Jane :-) Oh yeah forgot to mention the photos – great idea. I think we need to respect the time of the auditee as much as possible. I usually send a list of documents a few days before and ask them to send if possible. Then your don’t spend hours seeing and learning their system for the first time in front of them and can prepare your questions. Great feeling when you finish and they say “wow that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be”!

  • Jane Puncher

    Great article Dave! I’ve always thought the best way of getting information is to talk to them and let them lead you through their processes, but today just learnt not to write notes thank you! I use photo’s during inspections and hardly any notes at the time as I find it takes too long and the ‘client’ can get edgy just because of the length of time it takes – yet more time in the office or car completes the note taking process without taking up business time – now I can see auditing can take the same process!

  • Dave Collins

    Totally agree Doug. But as you would know there are ways to do those audits and there are ways, same if not better mutual outcome, but less pain for all. Personally, I will never be the type who could concentrate for long enough to those type of audits, takes a special kind. Perhaps one with more focus and seriousness than personality or empathy – outta here……….

  • Doug Wakefield


    Horses for courses, folks!!

    I sure would not want to fly in an airline audited with some of the methods you espouse!!!

    Sure, a good auditor must use well-honed communication skills in any number of ways to dig-up the ‘truth’, but for the industry – or part of an industry – requiring high reliability outcomes, the minutiae – painstaking as it is – has to be waded through, item by item.

    Enjoy this life!


  • Brian Gallacher

    Dave: I think we have all been there! aaaaagh. Darrell: I wish I had thought of saying just that, would love to have been in the room when you delivered that bomb. Les: could not agree more Auditing is more of a teaching role than a policeman/judge especially on a work site, it is very easy to lose the audience and get no cooperation from a site manager.
    It is great to go back to a site and be welcomed because the work you done was helpful in changing things for the better, people don’t want to work in a non compliant workplace.
    So good riddance to “Mr Knobhead”

  • Darrell Bassett

    I’ve been there, as I guess most people charged with looking after safety, have been. At one stage the tension became so drawn that I simply stood up and proclaimed “Objection your Honour! The Persecution is leading the Witless.” It didn’t go down so well with my boss until he realised a little later that the auditors were having a good laugh about it. After that the process went along in more or less the manner that it should do, cooperatively. The worst audit I have ever fronted was from a major retailer auditing our business for “compliance” as one of their suppliers. Their lead auditor became exceedingly unprofessional after a major non-conformance was demonstrated to have originated from his own company’s lack of compliance. Unfortunately the fool had already boxed himself in by his own attitude. After a phone call we never saw him again. After that the retailer engaged a third party auditor and we have not suffered from Safety Nazi Syndrome since.

  • Les Henley

    Hi Dave,

    Nice post. I’ve had similar experiences on the receiving end from ‘knobhead’.
    And when I did some auditing under WorkCover NSW premium Discount scheme some years ago I used the approach you described and found it fascinating. Sometimes I had to ask aquestion in different ways to find out that the audtiess had what they needed – just called it different things because worksites don’t always use the same language, anymore than a lot of WHS professionals.

    I currently do internal audits and have found a much better response and ownership by site managers when I praise up (positively reinforce) the good standards and provide advice as necessary on the things that are quite there yet.

    So I agree wholeheartedly with you.

  • Riskex

    For that you would have to but the standard! there are plenty of checklists available on this site that come pretty close and that is all I have

  • eva


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