There’s a New Sheriff in Town: Are You Prepared for a Different OSHA?

Worker in a warehouse completing a safety audit on a device

As the United States prepares to turn over a new leaf with the incoming Biden administration, businesses are being cautioned to prepare for a much more aggressive enforcement approach from the federal agencies tasked to oversee workplace safety standards. This could mean more regulatory inspections, and as a result, now may be a good time to revamp and digitize your safety audit program.

To be honest, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. For the past 4 years, organized labor and workplace safety experts have levied considerable criticism against OSHA concerning its lax enforcement policy and successive rollbacks of worker protections. It was reported recently that the number of OSHA inspectors dropped from 875 in 2018 to only 761 in 2020, the lowest level in the agency’s history. For some perspective, OSHA employed nearly 1,500 inspectors in 1980, who covered nearly 3.5 million fewer workplaces than today. And we’ve since learned that OSHA inspected fewer workplaces in the first 3 years of the Trump term than during the 3 years prior, even while the US workforce grew by 16%. 

And the results of this diminished enforcement approach don’t look good. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported last month that the rate of workplace fatalities rose nearly 2% year-over-year in 2019 to more than 5,300 deaths, the highest level in 12 years. While we cannot attribute these worsening results solely to the effect of fewer regulatory inspections, it could be argued that inspections that compel employers to meet stronger health & safety standards are a key lever toward reducing the risk of injuries and deaths on the job.

To be fair, President-elect Biden has continually expressed, rather clearly, his support for a stronger enforcement approach to improve compliance to federal safety standards and drive greater employer accountability for keeping their people safe at work. During the campaign, then-candidate Biden stated his intention to “substantially expand [OSHA] enforcement efforts, increase the number of inspectors and direct agencies to develop comprehensive strategies to address the most dangerous work hazards.” His recent selection of Boston mayor and former union leader Marty Walsh as Labor Secretary appears to signal his intention to chart a different, more hard-nosed approach to safety enforcement in the years ahead. 

What that will exactly look like is not yet known, but it’s a good bet that we’ll see more regulations and rule-making, more inspections, and more citations and fines. And those businesses unprepared for this more stringent enforcement approach risk suffering considerable harm to their productivity, reputation, and bottom line.

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Compliance Management Starts with Better Safety Audits

Keeping your business in compliance starts with creating a mechanism that allows you to easily assess how well you’re following applicable requirements, readily identify what gaps exist in meeting those rules, and then quickly resolve those issues before they may result in harm. That mechanism is your audit program.

But many employers struggle with numerous barriers that prevent them from maximizing the value of proactive health & safety audits. Safety Audits aren’t easily assigned across the workforce, resulting in a group of individuals bearing a heavier burden to complete audits, amongst their other duties. Many audits are missed or forgotten in the whirlwind of other daily responsibilities, creating the potential of hazards going unnoticed until they result in harm or are captured in an inspector’s citation. And even when deficiencies are identified, the absence of tools to assign corrective actions and readily track them to completion can expose employers to the risk of a willful citation – carrying with it a considerable monetary penalty.

While concerning, these challenges can be resolved, particularly if your organization commits to a digital transformation of its health & safety audit programLet’s quickly walk through 3 ways digitizing safety audits can lessen the burden of compliance management:

1. Simplify Safety Audit Assignments

We mentioned that safety audits help you reliably detect the issues that need to be resolved to keep your business in compliance with its applicable requirements. But you can’t resolve those issues if audits aren’t being done in the first place. Many organizations struggle to create an audit program that is not only manageable, but one in which ownership is shared across the workforce – where every individual bears some degree of accountability to ensure audits are completed, and their corresponding findings addressed in a timely manner.  Practically speaking, this involves breaking up safety audits into smaller activities, and assigning those tasks to multiple individuals. 

Yet determining audit schedules and assignments can be arduous if not planned correctly. One the first benefits of adopting an audits and inspections software solution is that it allows you to easily structure your audit program in a manner that best reflects your business structure. With software, administrators can easily create ad-hoc and recurring audits, with features to automatically assign associated tasks to specific individuals at a set frequency. Consequently, the administrator no longer needs to search for colleagues with availability to complete safety audits at a moment’s notice – they’re automatically in that person’s weekly task queue, letting them know what, where, and when to audit. 

Let’s be honest: everyone is busy. It’s easy for an audit to get lost in your daily to-do list. But staying in compliance requires that audits are performed regularly and thoroughly. As many EHS software solutions now offer powerful business rules engines, organizations can easily configure automated reminders to alert individuals when an audit has been assigned, or when it’s coming due, directly on their desktop or mobile device. Additionally, these engines enable businesses to create escalation workflows, alerting leaders up the chain-of-command when audit assignments are missed, enabling reallocation of tasks and resources and helping to drive accountability required for operational excellence. 

2. Driving Audit Consistency

It’s worthwhile noting that every person has a different perspective on risk, influenced by their culture, education and experience. What’s risky to some is tolerable to others. Yet the effectiveness of an audit program is determined, to some extent, by the consistency in which issues are identified, assessed and corrected. Compliance requires that every individual perceives risk, and acts upon it, in the same way.  And it starts with equipping auditors with tools that help create a consistent organizational risk viewpoint.

Software solutions offer the chance to improve safety audit consistency by enabling employers to standardize and streamline the checklists used to guide auditors and collect data. With tools that enable administrators to effortlessly create and share standardized checklists, EHS leaders can design these tools to reflect the specific requirements applicable to their operations, and reduce overall variability in audit performance. 

Secondly, audits can create another considerable headache: Documentation. With paper-based systems, there are few controls to ensure that employees are always using the most recent audit templates, especially when your business extends across a large operating footprint. By digitizing safety audit checklists, and making them accessible to auditors anywhere, at any time from a mobile device, administrators have greater confidence that people across multiples sites are using the same templates, driving greater audit consistency and improving subsequent data analysis and benchmarking. 

Use of mobile-enabled templates also reduces the lag-time between when issues are discovered and when they can be addressed. Think of it this way: with a paper-based audit program, you not only need to ensure the correct templates are sent out to the field, but you need to figure out how to reliably and efficiently collect those documents, so their findings can be aggregated, analyzed and corrective actions assigned and communicated. Depending on the scale of your business, that could mean a lot of inefficient, wasteful paper-chasing. And chasing paper to find out what’s wrong only delays taking actions to address risk, increasing the chances of harm befalling someone within your walls.

Mobile-enabled checklists allow auditors to submit documentation directly from the field, reducing the need to hand-deliver audit forms to administrators while simultaneously eliminating secondary data entry – improving the efficiency of data analysis and speeding up the corrective action process. Many mobile audit solutions even enable users to immediately create and assign corrective actions directly from their device when they’re found, offering the ability to append annotated photos or other documents to the audit record thereby empowering more immediate risk mitigation.

3. Improved Accountability and Oversight

It’s always said that knowing that something’s amiss and failing to act is worse than not being aware of an issue in the first place. In fact, it’s this idea that forms the basis of willful citations issued by OSHA inspectors – that you knew (or ought to have known) that a hazard existed, but you failed to act in a duly-diligent manner to address it.  

In this respect, those organizations unable to systematically track corrective actions issued to resolve audit deficiencies risk opening themselves up to a willful citation during a regulatory visit. Unfortunately, when using paper-based audit programs, it’s often difficult to monitor that status of corrective actions with a degree of certainty and speed needed to protect the business from possible liability.

Access to advanced business intelligence tools is one of the clearest benefits of digitally transforming your safety audit program. With both configurable and out-of-the box reporting tools, organizations have a more expansive toolkit to monitor the status of audit follow-up in real-time, enabling them to drive accountability for action closure and plug potential cracks in their legal exposure barriers.

With powerful dashboard indicators, organizations can easily visualize key indicators enabling them to benchmark performance at a glance, identify unmitigated risk, drive accountability and make better investment decisions to maximize the ROI of the safety audit program. 

And as EHS software platforms expand into the realms of artificial intelligence and machine learning, organizations are starting to realize the benefits of not only tracking performance with greater precision, but using their collected data to shift from a reactive to predictive approach to risk management. By leveraging predictive analytics tools, we can now use our extensive datasets to build intuitive models to help predict where the next incident may occur, or where and what the next audit non-conformance may be, helping organizations prioritize their efforts and finite resources to help them best mitigate risk and improve overall compliance. 

If COVID-19 taught us anything, it revealed that waiting to respond to emerging threats is a losing strategy. Digitally transforming your audit program increases your access to actionable insights, enables you to more proactively address risk, ensures compliance, supports business continuity, and most importantly – ensures your people go home safely each and every day.

Looking Ahead

We don’t know for certain what issues we’ll face in 2021. But with a resurging pandemic and a new government vowing to hold employers more accountable to protect their people from harm, businesses will likely face a much more challenging compliance environment than they’ve seen in recent years. 

Keeping your business on the right side of the law will require coordination, skill, and extensive cooperation across your key stakeholder groups. And it will also require a strong safety audit program that will help leaders quickly and reliably identify compliance gaps and take steps to address them before they harm your people, or your financial and reputational security. And companies on the leading edge of the 21st century EHS technology wave will be best positioned to emerge unscathed when the new sheriff rides into your town.

Learn How to Digitally Transform Your Safety Audit Program

To learn more about why safety audits are so essential to a successful compliance strategy and best practices for digitizing your audit program, register for our upcoming webinar, A New Sheriff in Town: Digitally Transforming Your Audit Program to Meet a New Compliance View:

Learn how to digitize your safety audit program to prepare for enhanced OSHA enforcement under the new Biden administration