Trust – but Verify

| November 13, 2009

In previous posts, I discussed the relative importance of management system standards and company culture on OH&S performance.  This discussion was based on the paper entitled The Limits of Management Based Regulation by Neil Gunningham and Darren Sinclair.

 One of the conclusions set out in this paper is that the “accountability mechanisms” common to management system standards can have a negative impact on OH&S performance.

The authors suggest that many of the fundamental requirements of management system standards – establishing accountability, performance tracking and internal auditing – are “antithetical to measures that our findings suggested had a positive impact on OHS.”  They go on to discuss social science research that finds that accountability mechanisms can decrease trust and, as a result, negatively impact performance. 

What does this mean for OHSMS internal audit programs?

 First, it is important to recognize that internal audit programs have a purpose.  That purpose is best summed up by the phrase – “Trust – but Verify.” That is why OHSAS 18001 includes an internal audit program requirement.

 As Steve Covey states in his book – The Speed of Trust there is a difference between Judgment – what he calls “Smart Trust” and Gullibility.  Extending trust can bring great dividends; however, it can also create significant risks.  The goal is to find the appropriate balance of trust and scrutiny to manage risk appropriately while avoiding both gullibility and excessive suspicion.

To order this book from Amazon – click here The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything

With that in mind, let’s examine the goal of an internal management system audit. 

 In an effective OH&S management system, the goal of your audits should be to find evidence of conformance – to verify that processes are being done right.  This means that the focus should be on documenting conformance NOT on finding nonconformities. 

It is human to resent being audited – very few people like having their work questioned.  Simply shifting the focus of the audit process away from a negative intent (finding problems) to positive (celebrate what you are doing right) will go a long way to improving the process and increasing trust.  So will treating the identification of any nonconformities as opportunities for improvement rather than occasions to assign blame.

Recognize the negative impact audits can have on “trust” and take steps to mitigate them.

Avoid using internal audits as “buck passing” or “institutional feel good” exercises. Make sure that top management is as invested in providing the resources needed to fix problems as they are in identifying them in the first place.  Here’s a thought – perhaps you can put a positive spin on your audit program by having a set amount of “safety bonus” dollars that are immediately available to fund one or more “opportunities for improvement” identified during the audit.  Every safety program has potential improvements that aren’t being pursued becaue of lack of funding.

© ENLAR® Compliance Services, Inc. (2009)

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Category: OHSMS Auditing

Comments (2)

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  1. Tom says:

    Hi, I’m new to this blog, and thought this might be the best place to pose a question associated with this particular posting relative to audits. I reside in Hong Kong and am dealing with a building property management company who claims that they participate in and/or are certified by OHSAS18001 Occupational Safety and Health Management. There was a recent accident / incident at our building in which this management company was very likely not following the best practices and protocols that are outlined in the OHSAS18001 specifications / guidelines. Does anyone know if there is an accreditation board or other governing body which administrates the OHSAS18001 who would be responsible for auditing conformance with these practices? Or does this system rely solely on internal audits only? As I am unfamiliar with the system itself and its method of administration, any insight would be greatly appreciated! Thank you.

  2. kalikinkar panda says:

    I perfectly understand your confusion..The fact is that OHASAS is a management standard developed for the purpose of improving an orgaisation’s safety and health management system(not performance like no of accidents or injuries directly) by implementing a set of guidelines put forward by a body of safety professionals,industryetc for achiving the broad objective of accident free work environment and ensuring good health of workers in the said organisation(purely a internal developement effort) but certain industries(retail customer based) which are working in a different objective of using the certificate to either instill a false sense of confidence on not so informed customers like you for achiving their short term busiiness goals or for claiming insurance rebate etc without focusing inwardly for real development as such ….i.e strengthening procedures and practices..