Audit masquerade: How audits provide comfort rather than treatment for serious safety problems

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Abstract

Investigations following major accidents sometimes find that auditing failed to identify critical deficiencies. Such findings assume that the deficiencies were just waiting to be found: if only the audit had looked a little deeper, then the accident could have been prevented. This study analysed health and safety audits to examine the nature of audit corrective actions and whether they were strongly aligned to operational issues. This provides a picture of the capability of audits to find and fix problems. The results demonstrated that only ∼ 16% of the 327 audit corrective actions in this sample were strongly connected to the issue or hazard identified by the audit question. Most actions were weakly or moderately connected to the issue. Stronger corrective actions primarily covered observable physical site issues, such as correcting inappropriate site signage or correcting slip and trip hazards. Weaker actions covered largely documentation-related factors, such as correcting missing documentation or displaying a poster. Pointedly, no corrective actions called for a deep and systematic rectification of deficiencies. Virtually all actions directed localised changes to the immediate deficiency. This sample of audits prioritised superficial fixes over addressing significant operational risks. The findings point to a masquerade in what auditing achieves in some contexts: a symbolic activity optimised for surface tweaks, rather than a critical self-examination about what the organisation believes and tells about itself and its safety. In some contexts, health and safety audits may have become a well-developed strategy for avoiding uncomfortable findings; successfully blinding the organisation to necessary hard fixes.

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APA

Hutchinson, B., Dekker, S., & Rae, A. (2024). Audit masquerade: How audits provide comfort rather than treatment for serious safety problems. Safety Science, 169. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssci.2023.106348

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