Embrace Technology to Get the Most Out of Remote Audits and Management Systems

Technology has been an audit enabler for businesses to effectively manage risk and remain compliant with ISO management system standards.

While COVID-19 brought disruptions to on-site certification audits around the world, remote audit capabilities have ensured that many businesses are able to continue with their compliance schedules despite challenging circumstances. Remote auditing services allow technical experts to review documentation and conduct interviews and site tours using technology while maintaining the high standards of onsite audits and offering flexibility for businesses.

In March 2020, the pandemic halted plans to travel to Johnstown, Pennsylvania to conduct a ten-day, on-site renewal visit at North American Hoganas (NA Hoganas) for the company’s certified ISO 14001 standard and OHSAS 18001 transition to ISO 45001. NA Hoganas is the world leader on the market for iron and metal powders with a yearly capacity of 500,000 tons. The organization was founded in 1797 and develops solutions for automotive components, brazing, electrical motors, additive manufacturing and water treatment.

As travel concerns spread around the country, emergency orders issued by Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Wolf, confirmed that all non-essential work activities must cease. A subsequent risk assessment led by Dave Johnson, EHS Manager at NA Hoganas, confirmed that while the company’s operations were deemed essential, an assessment visit was not.

In response, NA Hoganas agreed to conduct a partial remote assessment to confirm the effectiveness of the company’s integrated management system by reviewing core management elements online. This enabled the extension of the May certificate expiration date to November 2020, in accordance with IAF MD4, ISO 17021 and IAF MD3 requirements.

Through bi-weekly team training web meetings since the start of stay-at-home orders, the team of managers and assessors collaborated on developing and sharing best practices and tackling challenges in the remote “field” so that audits could be adapted to the conditions, retain quality and independence and get back on track. Some of the insights shared included:

• When to use of mobile signal versus Wi-Fi when video streaming in some settings.

• Use of narrators on headsets to describe field activities from videographers where noisy conditions exist.

• Ensuring that there are sufficient breaks for all while adapting to new work conditions.

A five-day remote visit plan was developed and delivered in March, including interviews, file-sharing records and the gathering of other evidence to demonstrate that this multi-site, multi-standard integrated EHS Management System was maintained. There were manufacturing locations along with headquarter oversight that were reviewed. Tentative plans for onsite visits to two sites located in Pennsylvania were also set for July, in accordance with the three-year audit program agreed in 2019.

In early July, all involved parties exchanged Covid-19 risk assessment protocols to assess conditions and conducted tracing on both sides to ensure that an onsite visit would be safe for all. Daily temperature screenings, use of masks by all parties involved, social distancing and regular hand sanitizing were all part of the process. The five-day onsite visit focused heavily on shop visits at both facilities and interviews to assess workplace safety measures as well as tours of waste areas and yard activities to assess the effectiveness of environmental best management practices.

Planning and regular communication with sound risk assessment for the health and safety of all parties resulted in a successful outcome. In the end, a hybrid assessment of both remote and onsite techniques was applied to complete a 10-day renewal visit for both ISO 14001 and 45001 Standards. Risk assessments for both remote and onsite assessment ensured integrity and quality of the assessment and safety for all involved.

The audit was very focused, with due consideration given to the fact that many personnel were working remotely, but accessible through SKYPE. It also proved accessibility to information in such a setting during the pandemic. The result was that NA Hoganas was recommended for recertification and transition to the new ISO 45001 Standard ahead of the expiration extension date, with future visits now on track.

Throughout 2020, management systems assessors came upon numerous instances of innovation and unique applications of management system risk assessment and operational planning processes to keep essential workforces working safely and effectively across many different regions in the midst of constantly changing rules and orders. Companies re-inventing workflows and embracing remote technologies to meet business objectives has been the theme of the past year, which supports using remote assessments with skeleton crews onsite. Organizations needed to continue delivery on core businesses, and the COVID-19 response provided a robust and dynamic audit train for assessors in many industries across numerous standards.

Who knew that pandemic plans and business continuity measures could be so effective? Proper management of temporary changes allowed such changes to work onsite, and strong procurement processes for manufacturing materials and COVID PPE were observed effective.

A recent survey by the Independent International Organization for Certification (IIOC) showed that in the period from March to July 2020, 38 percent of the total audit days across 22 certification bodies were delivered remotely. This is a large increase on the same period last year—in 2019 just 1.75 percent of total audit days were delivered remotely.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic increased demand for remote auditing in 2020. While organizations could postpone some audits for six months, most chose to continue carrying out their audit schedule. Technology has been an audit enabler for businesses to effectively manage risk and remain compliant with ISO management system standards.

Organizations are looking for more flexibility with both online and on-site audits, and whatever the delivery, they want the same outcomes. That is what remote audits have been able to deliver - the same high standards of on-site audits, while benefiting from more flexibility for your business.
Remote audits also reduce health and safety risks for people traveling to hazardous or hard to reach locations. Less travel means a smaller carbon footprint and a more environmentally friendly delivery method. It should be recognized that individual countries have different health and safety, security and technical requirements, so adaptations to approaches and service offerings may need to be adjusted.

Organizations that embraced the changes are already reaping the benefits. Suddenly, auditor
availability, double booked meeting rooms and travel schedules are no longer the key drivers or challenges in planning and delivering a successful audit. Remote audits effectively removed geographical boundaries, minimized disruption for companies and allowed more people to be involved—including sector and technical specialists based all over the world.

Your safety should always be top priority when conducting an audit. That’s why it is advised to:

• Use wireless technology to ensure your hands are free when conducting a site tour.

• Test network connectivity strength in proposed areas.

• Allow time for breaks to prevent fatigue.

• Communicate with a video call.

• Discuss handling of sensitive information.

Remote audits are delivered through safe and secure platforms and applications. Whenever possible, the same high-quality services provided before on-site and in person can be delivered easily and safely online.

Whether you need to minimize travel or have facilities in hard-to-reach areas or with complex infrastructures, remote audit services aim to support organizations by offering alternative auditing solutions wherever possible.

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