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Audit Program Best Practices: Part 1

09 Aug
Audit program best practices

BY: Stacey Pisani

Environment / Food Safety / Quality / Safety

Comments: 1 Comment

Audits provide an essential tool for improving and verifying compliance performance. Audits may be used to capture regulatory compliance status, management system conformance, adequacy of internal controls, potential risks, and best practices. An audit is typically part of a broader compliance assurance program and can cover some or all of the company’s legal obligations, policies, programs, and objectives.

Companies come in a variety of sizes with a range of different needs, so auditing standards remain fairly flexible. There are, however, a number of audit program elements and best practices that can help ensure a comprehensive audit program:

  1. Goals. Establishing goals enables recognition of broader issues and can lead to long-term preventive programs. This process allows the organization to get at the causes and focus on important systemic issues. It pushes and guides toward continuous improvement. Goal-setting further addresses the responsibilities and obligations of the Board of Directors for audit and oversight and elicits support from stakeholders.
  2. Scope. The scope of the audit should be limited initially (e.g., compliance and risk) to what is manageable and to what can be done very well, thereby producing performance improvement and a wider understanding and acceptance of objectives. As the program is developed and matures (e.g., Management Systems, company policy, operational integration), it can be expanded and, eventually, shift over time toward systems in place, prevention, efficiency, and best practices.
  3. Committed resources. Sufficient resources must be provided for staffing and training and then applied, as needed, to encourage a robust auditing program. Resources also should be applied to EHSMS design and continuous improvement. It is important to track the costs/benefits to compare the impacts and results of program improvements.
  4. Operational focus. All facilities need to be covered at the appropriate level, with emphasis based on potential EHS and business risks. The operational units/practices with the greatest risk should receive the greatest attention (e.g., the 80/20 Rule). Vendors/contractors and related operations that pose risks must be included as part of the program. For smaller, less complex and/or lower risk facilities, lower intensity focus can be justified. For example, relying more heavily on self-assessment and reporting of compliance and less on independent audits may provide better return on investment of assessment resources.
  5. Audit team. A significant portion of the audit program should be conducted by knowledgeable auditors (independent insiders, third parties, or a combination thereof) with clear independence from the operations being audited and from the direct chain of command. For organizational learning and to leverage compliance standards across facilities, it is good practice to vary at least one audit team member for each audit. Companies often enlist personnel from different facilities and with different expertise to audit other facilities. Periodic third-party audits further bring outside perspective and reduce tendencies toward “home-blindness”.
  6. Audit frequency. There are several levels of audit frequency, depending on the type of audit:
    • Frequent: Operational (e.g., inspections, housekeeping, maintenance) – done as part of routine EHSMS day-to-day operational responsibilities
    • Periodic: Compliance, systems, actions/projects – conducted annually/semi-annually
    • As needed: For issue follow-up
    • Infrequent: Comprehensive, independent – conducted every three to four years
  1. Differentiation methods. Differentiating identifies and distinguishes issues of greatest importance in terms of risk reduction and business performance improvement. The process for differentiating should be as clear and simple as possible; a system of priority rating and ranking is widely understood and agreed. The rating system can address severity levels, as well as probability levels, in addition to complexity/difficulty and length of time required for corrective actions.
  2. Legal protection. Attorney privilege for audit processes and reports is advisable where risk/liability are deemed significant, especially for third-party independent audits. To the extent possible, make the audit process and reports become management tools that guide continuous improvement. Organizations should follow due diligence elements of the USEPA audit policy.
  3. Procedures. Describe and document the audit process for consistent, efficient, effective, and reliable application. The best way to do this is to involve both auditors and those being audited in the procedure design. Audit procedures should be tailored to the specific facility/operation being audited. Documented procedures should be used to train both auditors and those accountable for operations being audited. Procedures can be launched using a pilot facility approach to allow for initial testing and fine-tuning. Keep procedures current and continually improve them based on practical application. Audits include document and record review (corporate and facility), interviews, and observations.
  4. Protocols & tools. Develop specific and targeted protocols that are tailored to operational characteristics and based on applicable regulations and requirements for the facility. Use “widely accepted or standard practice” as go-by tools to aid in developing protocols (e.g., ASTM site assessment standards; ISO 14010 audit guidance; audit protocols based on EPA, OSHA, MSHA, Canadian regulatory requirements; GEMI self-assessment tools; proprietary audit protocol/tools). As protocols are updated, the ability to evaluate continuous improvement trends must be maintained (i.e., trend analysis).
  5. Information management & analysis. Procedures should be well-defined, clear, and consistent to enable the organization to analyze trends, identify systemic causes, and pinpoint recurring problem areas. Analysis should prompt communication of issues and differentiation among findings based on significance. Audit reports should be issued in a predictable and timely manner. It is desirable to orient the audit program toward organizational learning and continual improvement, rather than a “gotcha” philosophy. “Open book” approaches help learning by letting facility managers know in advance what the audit protocols are and how the audits will be conducted.
  6. Verification & corrective action. Corrective actions require corporate review, top management-level attention and management accountability for timely completion. A robust root cause analysis helps to ensure not just correction/containment of the existing issue, but also preventive action to assure controls are in place to prevent the event from recurring. For example, if a drum is labeled incorrectly, the corrective action is to relabel that drum. A robust plan should also look for other drums than might be labeled incorrectly and to add and communicate an effective preventive action (e.g., training or posting signs showing a correctly labeled drum).

Read the part 2 audit program best practices

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