Health and safety is now a vital part of modern business and something that should be widespread throughout organisations.
Senior managers need to manage health and safety like any other aspect of their business, not just because the law says they should, but because if they don't manage the risks from and to their operations, the dangers are obvious – no one else is going to manage it for them.
Such failures lead not just to the personal traumas of injury and ill health, but to material loss to the business, loss of morale inside the business and customer confidence outside. Firms could quite easily stick their heads in the sand and hope that everything is OK, blindly carrying on.
Or they could test the quality of their risk management and resilience by having a thorough health and safety audit carried out.
By setting up a health and safety system and having it regularly audited, you will be comprehensively managing health and safety across the board – from the boardroom to the shop floor.
It is imperative that larger public and private sector businesses and organisations have procedures in place for the auditing and reporting of health and safety performance as part of their governance duties.
For smaller firms too, the practice is just as vital.
Since the 1992 Management Regulations, organisations are required to put into place formal structures that manage health and safety processes. The Regulations state that proper health and safety management rests on four key principles: planning, delivering, monitoring and reviewing. And all the time we will see how auditing is an integral part of all these requirements.
Why, then, is auditing important? Put simply, because failing to address health and safety is costly.
What's more, UK health and safety regulation is about to undergo significant change, with recently-announced government plans to scale back on inspections by a third and switch regulation focus to high-risk sites. The overall aim, the government says, is to ease the burden of red tape for the majority of UK businesses.
But this does not mean firms with good safety records should suddenly fall complacent – complacency can still cost lives, making health and safety a continued priority.
One way to effectively implement and manage health and safety processes, then, and to keep your eye on the bigger picture, too – is to develop and implement an effective health and safety management process and to regularly audit it.
To carry out an audit is to undertake a systematic, independent and fully-documented evaluation of a business, person, system or process, measuring it back against prepared criteria to ensure good health and safety standards are being maintained.
There are various ways organisations can manage health and safety – such as through legal compliance or through following procedural documents like the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) Successful Health and Safety Management HSG65 or the increasingly popular British Standards' (BS) OHSAS 18001 Health and Safety Management Systems guidance.
OHSAS 18001 and HSG65 and, indeed, every other health and safety management system, require internal monitoring of an organisation's own rules and systems, but they also emphasise the need for the system as a whole to be audited periodically, usually by an outside auditor or at least by someone who is remote from day-to-day operations.
Auditing requires an independent examination and the auditor needs to have the special skills of not only knowing the legal and technical requirements of the work but the practical skills of enquiry and investigation.
In terms of frequency, management system audits should be timed so they correspond with the risks associated with the various elements of an organisation's health and safety management system – this would typically mean in-depth audits being carried out every 1 to 3 years.
So does auditing work?
Case studies suggest it does.
After conducting an external audit, supermarket Sainsbury's changed its approach to health and safety after the audit suggested a more consistent and unified approach across the company was needed.
The re-thought process saw board members given training on health and safety responsibilities, and health and safety now plays a more prominent role in board agendas. In terms of real benefits, there was a 17 per cent reduction in absence, a 28 per cent reduction in reportable incidents and improved morale and pride amongst staff.
"The benefits of auditing are that it is the only real way of judging your own management of risk and legal requirements," says Andrew Couch, a consultant at Aviva.
"You can be too close to dealing with day-to-day problems to be able to see the bigger picture. For smaller organisations the benefits are just as important. Smaller organisations may lack the skills to implement a safety management system or not fully understand how all of the safety activities normally expected fit together."
"Auditing is a very positive activity," Mr Couch adds. "It is not just simply about pointing out where you are going wrong, but shows the opportunities to improve performance and reduce losses both personal and financial."
If health and safety is done properly, its benefits are obvious. Organisations can achieve reduced costs, benefit from less employee absence, improve their relationship among suppliers, have a good corporate responsibility record, and, more importantly, see fewer accidents.