Almost two-thirds of ISHN readers audit their workplaces to measure how well they're doing in safety and health, according to our 1999 White Paper survey. But have you ever feared that OSHA might use information you voluntarily collected to cite your company for violations?

It's a topic of discussion in Washington these days. Inspectors' unrestricted access to audit documents scares some companies into taking steps that undercut the usefulness of their audits, according to several industry groups. Their cause was aided earlier this year when a Republican Congressman weighed in with a bill that would limit OSHA's legal ability to use voluntary audits.

Organization Resources Counselors, which provides safety and health consulting services to many Fortune 500 companies, says OSHA's access to audit reports during inspections has led the "most sophisticated companies in America" to use vague report language and place limits on the circulation, discussion, and retention of documents.

"Findings are written in very ambiguous, benign terms-following a great deal of scrutiny and rewrites," said one ORC member company, responding to a survey the group conducted this year.

"We now destroy the audit findings as soon as the corrective action plan is developed," said another.

ORC supports "The Self-Audit Promotion Act of 1999" introduced by Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-NC), which would prohibit OSHA from using voluntary safety and health audit results against a company as the basis for an inspection or citation. The bill does not allow audits to shield companies from OSHA action if hazards are found and there has been no good-faith effort to abate the conditions. Ballenger's legislation is needed to support best practices in audit reporting, says ORC.

OSHA's position

Until recently, OSHA's position was best summarized by former agency chief Joe Dear, who told ORC in 1996 that "barring OSHA access to audit results would gravely impair the agency's ability" to enforce standards and make it difficult to distinguish between employers with good and bad safety and health programs.

But current OSHA chief Charles Jeffress has said the agency will publish a policy this summer detailing how inspectors will use-or not use-voluntary audits. The agency currently has no written policy in place to direct inspectors. Jeffress is opposed to Ballenger's legislation, but he has vaguely indicated that OSHA's forthcoming policy will satisfy some of the concerns of ORC and other groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Labor Policy Association.

"I'm open to some limits on OSHA's use of audits, but I believe it is in the best interest of workers and their employers to permit continued OSHA access to them," he told an audience in June at the 1999 American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exhibition in Toronto.

EPA's position

The Environmental Protection Agency is more explicit in its use of audit reports, having written a policy in 1986. The policy clearly states: "EPA believes that routine agency requests for audit reports could inhibit auditing in the long run, decreasing both the quantity and quality of audits conducted. Therefore, as a matter of policy, EPA will not routinely request environmental audit reports."

EPA says it does have authority to request audit reports that companies must compile under certain laws, regulations or permits, or if the agency is pursuing a criminal investigation. But EPA says it expects such requests to be limited, focusing on particular information and not the entire report.

OSHA could adopt similar language, spelling out its right to obtain audits currently required by a number of existing standards (see sidebar). Stay tuned to see if the agency comes through with a policy that eases employers' fears. Meanwhile, it's probably not a bad time to review your audit procedures.

By Dave Johnson, Editor & Publisher

Current OSHA Requirements

OSHA does not require employers to conduct broad workplace audits, but many individual standards call for assessing specific hazards, including:

  • Confined Spaces
  • Lockout/Tagout
  • Process Safety Management
  • Personal Protective Equipment
  • Respiratory Protection

Many Narrower hazard-specific standards also require employers to assess workplace conditions, such as grain handling, and health standards, such as the one covering lead.

Effective Auditing

Based on the experiences of its consulting member companies, ORC says effective audit reporting depends on:

Extremely blunt and self-critical reporting. Watered-down findings will not always get quick responses from senior managers who regularly weigh competing priorities.

Wide and open distribution and discussion of results. Limiting review to only a few individuals can hinder understanding and acceptance of the need for action.

Retain documents and make them available until findings are fully resolved. Limiting retention or selectively documenting results leads to a lack of accountability and complete follow-up, says ORC.