EHS Auditors: Anonymous Heroes (and She-roes)

Sep 26th, 2015 | By | Category: Auditing, Featured Articles

EHS Journal - Dome by Bonvivant

We are reminded of the poet Maya Angelou’s quote, “How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes.” Notwithstanding this politically correct reminder, in this paper I will use the more conventional term, heroes.

Environmental, health, and safety (EHS) auditors have many different skill sets and expertise. Some focus on environmental media issues while others may evaluate compliance with health and safety regulations or perhaps process safety requirements. Management system effectiveness, product stewardship, and sustainability are other areas where auditors are routinely engaged to assess conformance with accepted performance standards.

It is an impossible task to try to determine how many of these different audits have been conducted over say the last 10 years by industrial and commercial companies in the United States alone.

Just looking at the Fortune 500 companies as a modest sample and estimating that each company likely conducted an average of ten audits a year results in an astonishing 50,000 audits performed over the last ten years.

This admittedly is just a small sample of the thousands more that have been done when other companies and businesses not in the Fortune 500, government agencies, and international locations are considered.

The number of audits that have been conducted over time is not the point of this paper however.

Environmental auditors have identified findings in many of these audits where water pollution, natural resource damages, or hazardous waste releases to name a few would have occurred if not for the auditors’ due diligence in recognizing improper environmental controls. Health and safety auditors, by discovering at their company’s manufacturing plants, that lock-out tag-out programs, personal protective equipment, and chemical storage practices were inadequate prevented many employees from losing a hand in a press or losing an eye from flying chips when grinding, or suffering electrical shocks, or being exposed to carcinogenic chemicals.

The process safety management auditors who identified errors in the hazard analysis calculations and insufficient accidental release procedures at the facilities they audited may have prevented a catastrophic release of chlorine or other highly hazardous chemicals from causing respiratory health problems in the nearby community. These are only a few examples of auditors doing their job uncovering risks and exposures that if not found and corrected would have resulted in environmental degradation, property damage, injury and illness, and yes, even death to employees and people in the local community.

The data compiled by U.S. federal and state agencies on incidents like these are in the thousands across the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest data on fatalities from workplace injuries approached 5,000 deaths in 2014; in 2013, three million non-fatal workplace injuries were reported.[i]

The National Response Center’s latest data shows almost 30,000 environmental incident calls were made in the U.S. in 2014. Even if half of these calls were trivial incidents with minor impacts, it is noteworthy that perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 incidents were more serious where toxic chemicals and oil were released to the land and waters of the country. From the worst of these environmental incidents on average 1,200 people were killed every year for the last ten years.[ii] As staggering as these numbers sound it could have been much worse.

We often praise members of our military services as “heroes” when they are wounded or are killed in battle in service of the country. We rightfully refer to fire and rescue men and women, initial responders, and other emergency response personnel as “heroes” when they are injured or perhaps killed when responding to emergency events. All are of course well deserved of our admiration.

But there is another group of unsung heroes that deserve recognition. They are the auditors who found problems with facilities’ EHS compliance programs that ultimately prevented many more releases to the environment, more property damage, devastating explosions, life-changing injuries, illnesses, and death from happening in the first place. The dilemma here is of course that we can never know how, when, and where these events didn’t happen. It is arguably impossible to link those auditors’ observations and findings on a given audit and the associated corrective action that was taken with the fact that an accident or injury, major oil spill, toxic release to the environment, or employee death was later prevented.

Because we will never be able to identify who those auditors were, in a very real sense those auditors are anonymous heroes. Referring back to the very modest sample of 50,000 audits that have been conducted over the last ten years, auditors should be recognized and appreciated because of the significant number of environmental releases, workplace injuries and illnesses, and local community exposures to toxic chemicals that they have prevented, as well as the many lives they have saved by simply doing their jobs. Yes, it would have been immeasurably worse than the 5,000 workplace fatalities and 15,000 releases to land and waters of this country and the 1,200 deaths a year from these incidents noted previously.

This is an exemplary contribution not only to the auditors’ employers but to society at large. Auditors of every ilk whether internal or outside consultants should be proud of their service. In a job that is sometimes challenging, difficult, and tedious, and often unwelcomed by auditees, auditors should stay the course and continue to do their jobs with due professional care. They should remind themselves from time to time that even though unsung and anonymous, they are he-roes and she-roes just the same, even if there is no award or medal bestowed and no ticker tape parade when they return from their next audit.

 

About the Author

Ray Kane is a long time veteran of the EHS auditing business with almost 40 years of experience. He has been a consultant for several companies helping develop auditing programs, providing audit skills training, and participating on more than 350 audits. He previously served on the Auditing Roundtable Board of Directors and the BEAC Board of Directors, and co-authored one of the first nationally recognized texts, Environmental, Health & Safety Audits now in its 9th edition. Ray was recently awarded the James C. Ball Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the EHS auditing community.

 

Photograph: Dome by Bonvivant.

 

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Notes

[i] Bureau of Labor Statistics(BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries 2013 and BLS News Release dated December 4, 2014

 

[ii] National Response Center On-line Database on Spills & Accidental Releases, 2014

 

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