Will remote audits become the “new normal”
Remote audits are becoming more prevalent. Do you know the advantages to remote audits? What can you do to help your team navigate this “new normal”?
For EHS managers, onsite audits have always been a necessary evil. Whether for International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification, internal verification, risk-based, legally mandated or self-assessments, onsite audits are traditionally a large part of companies’ compliance programs.
However, as many EHS professionals understand, onsite audits can be a stressful endeavor. For sites, personnel need to clear their schedules to be available to meet the needs of the audit team. For audit teams, there is a lot of preparation work to be done before the auditors even set foot on site, such as travel and logistics planning, and developing/familiarizing themselves with the audit protocol or checklist to be used. Onsite audits are a large investment of both time and money for all parties involved.
The pandemic affects onsite audits
The global pandemic is changing the way companies work and approach audits. COVID-19 halts travel, makes companies think twice about allowing visitors onsite and drastically changes how people interact with one another. As a result, auditors of private companies and enforcement agencies alike, are developing a new process for checking compliance: namely remote audits.
EHS professionals have mixed feelings when it comes to remote audits, appreciating the flexibility but questioning the thoroughness and efficacy. Regardless of which camp you fall into, remote audits may be here to stay, and this is why it is in your best interest to understand how to conduct a successful remote audit.
Even prior to 2020, internal audit programs were already in a precarious spot as companies tried to do “more with less”. Long past were the days of multi-or even full week onsite audits with a large audit team. Companies opted for onsite EHS audits with 2 auditors (1 ENV, 1 H&S) for 2-3 days or a risk-based audit that focused solely on big ticket items. Now, companies face a challenge regarding how to maintain visibility into facility compliance while forgoing site audits.
There are advantages to remote audits
Remote auditing allows for more creativity in the audit process. It provides opportunities for getting more people in the company involved in the audit, and the flexibility in scheduling remote audits relieves pressure to make sure that required individuals are available to the audit team.
Consider the following:
- Instead of being confined to a few days on site, auditors can schedule multiple sessions to cover the various topics being audited. Remote auditing allows for a true deep dive into specific topics, whether these are the biggest risk areas or just the opposite, the low-hanging fruit that often gets overlooked.
- Another positive result of switching to remote audits is that there is more time for document review. Oftentimes, important permits and programs receive a cursory look during an onsite audit because the audit team wants to maximize time for observations and interviews. By separating document review from the interview portion of the audit, the auditors can spend more time verifying that the site’s programs and records meet regulatory requirements.
- Remote audits are not limited by financial pressures and this provides the opportunity for more company involvement and collaboration. Because travel time and expenses are not a consideration, more people within the company can be included in the audit process and outcome. Many companies are viewing remote audits as a way to train junior EHS professionals within the company and get other departments involved in EHS.
COVID has highlighted the importance of collaboration among different teams and the importance of open communication. By allowing other departments, such as Human Resources, Facilities Management and Risk and Compliance teams to participate in audit teleconference sessions, companies are reinforcing the internal bonds that COVID forced companies to create and strengthen.
What can you do to prepare for remote audits?
- Leverage your site EHS leads/teams. Many companies are choosing a ground-up approach, where they empower their site EHS leads to perform a self-assessment. This allows site leads to be the first ones to check compliance. These companies recognize the opportunity to relieve Regional and Corporate teams of some of the internal audit pressures while building the knowledge of onsite EHS professionals. Once the self-assessments are complete, results can be shared with Regional and Corporate teams for review and comment. To be successful in this approach, sites need to be provided with the regulatory content and tools necessary to carry out the task.
- Use technology. The same technology that allows friends and families to remain connected in these difficult times can be leveraged to allow audit teams to assess site compliance. Some companies are choosing to continue with their usual audit schedules and to do all observations and interviews via teleconference. These companies typically employ wearables, drones and GoPros. Other companies ask site personnel to walk around the facility with phones and computers. While it can be argued that technology does not provide the same level of assessment as physically inspection, remote audits are arguably a long-term reality for auditors.
- Look beyond your industry and sector for examples. It is not just private companies employing remote audits. At the height of COVID-19 in April and May in the United States, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) began using remote audits to assess essential operations where they deemed it unsafe to visit the site in person. Companies should look to what others, both private and public entities, are doing in the EHS world to conduct thorough and effective remote audits.
As the world tries to figure out and adapt to the “new normal,” remote audits will continue to be employed. Some EHS professionals are proponents of in-person auditing and others are embracing the remote possibilities – in either case, the most successful audit programs will be those that leverage people and technology.