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Once a year, companies with a BC SAFE Companies certification or an Alberta Certificate of Recognition from the PIR I program must complete an audit. In most cases, particularly in larger companies, this involves a specially trained auditor touring the operations, visiting with workers, and ensuring that key health and safety systems are in place and followed.

There are different kinds of safety audits, including internal audits, in which a company employee reviews the health and safety company program, and external audits, in which an outside auditor visits the company. Larger companies (including those over 20 employees in BC) must complete an external audit at least once every three years. Some large companies complete external audits every year. This article explains how external safety auditors are trained, what rules apply to their activities, and what their audits typically involve.

External auditors include industry experts trained by safety associations such as the BC Forest Safety Council or the Alberta Forest Practices Association to conduct safety audits according to specific standards and audit tools. External auditors are not permitted to conduct other paid work for the companies they audit to avoid conflicts of interest. They must follow a strict code of ethics in reporting honestly and objectively on what they observe during their audits. Auditors are not employees of WorkSafeBC and do not have the powers of an officer, such as writing tickets, issuing fines, or shutting workplaces down. Auditors also do not report health and safety infractions directly to WorkSafe or other external enforcement agencies unless they identify an issue that involves imminent risk of serious harm that the company does not promptly correct. Instead, they provide an accurate and objective evaluation of a company’s health and safety program.

The company chooses auditors or may be assigned an auditor by the forestry safety associations in cases where companies have experienced problems with their health and safety programs. Auditors use specific audit protocols to conduct their evaluations. These audit protocols examine various aspects of the company’s health and safety programs, including policies and safe work procedures, education and training systems, licensing and certifications, inspections and maintenance systems, incident and injury reporting systems and investigation outcomes, knowledgeability of workers and key staff, conditions of facilities and equipment, provision of first aid resources, communication systems, completion of emergency drills, and systems for collecting worker input and improving the health and safety program such as the use of health and safety committees or worker safety representatives.

Audits require the collection of observation, document, and interview data to determine if a company has a satisfactory health and safety program and to ensure it is being implemented and followed in the field. An audit typically unfolds over one to five days, depending on the company's size, and requires that the auditor visit a minimal number of worksites and interview a select sample of workers to ensure all positions and levels of experience in the company are included. An audit is not an exhaustive evaluation of a company but is instead based on a reasonable sample of the company’s operations and workers at a specific point in time.

Auditors are required to avoid including personal or identifying information in their audits as far as possible. There are some limits to privacy, as a problem identified with the operation of a certain piece of equipment may lead back to an individual if only one person operates that equipment. However, auditors do not quote or identify workers by name and generally “pool their data” to avoid singling people out, using statements such as “12 of 14 workers were able to identify the emergency muster point”.

A key part of any safety audit includes interviews with workers. Audit interviews help verify that workers have been properly educated and trained, understand their rights, know emergency procedures, and have the appropriate knowledge to guide their activities. The interviews also help gain workers’ perspectives on whether the company is fulfilling its duty to protect their health and safety, consult workers to assess their concerns, and correct safety issues promptly.

It is important for workers to know that the audit interview is not a pass-fail test of their knowledge. Suppose a worker does not know the answer to a question related to safety, such as where to find a first aid kit. In that case, the audit generally identifies this as a failure in the company training program, not a problem with the worker. Also, when workers inform auditors of safety issues or examples of unsafe behaviour during the audit interview, this does not necessarily result in the company “failing the audit” or getting in trouble. Instead, it helps the auditor identify areas where the company can improve its health and safety program. It is almost always better for an auditor to be able to tell a company what it needs to do better before the problem results in an injury to a worker or enforcement action from a WorkSafe officer. A worker cannot be penalized for reporting safety problems to an auditor. Auditors are expected not to identify workers in their reports or share individual interview responses with the employer.

Audit reports are submitted to the safety association (e.g. BC Forest Safety Council or Alberta Forest Products Association) for quality review to verify that the audits cover the appropriate level of detail and scope of activity and to ensure companies are audited similarly. While audit reports are not used for conducting enforcement activities and do not include workers' personal information, they are not subject to legal privilege. They could be reviewed in the future (such as after a serious incident) to determine if certain problems had been identified in the past and if the employer knew or should have known about the problem.

In summary, safety audits are a tool companies use to evaluate their safety program and improve the steps they take to protect workers.


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