Sharjeel Farooq, IRCA Principal Auditor, and Director of Advanced Certifications Pvt Limited in Pakistan, shares his experience and advice on how to hold a safe on-site audit during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges to most organisation’s management systems. For compliance with conformity and assessment requirements, most national and international certification and accreditation bodies introduced Covid-19 remote assessment polices in March 2020. This presented new challenges on a global scale for auditors to achieve conformity performing remote audits. Organisations and auditors alike have had to quickly adapt.
With the easing of lockdown and the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccination programmes to the public, auditors are starting to return to the field, with a choice of performing their audits remotely or in person.
In recent periods, I have performed more than 10 on-site audits, but many more were performed remotely. Although on-site visits were and are associated with a higher health risk, I managed to mitigate such risks by following the guidelines set by ISO 45005:2020, the World Health Organisation, and Pakistan’s Health Ministry precaution procedures. When I planned my audits, common questions, included but were not limited to, whether or not the audit site was compliant with Covid-19 regulations, who was responsible for the enforcement of precaution procedures, and what are the associated checks. It was also necessary to ascertain safe methods of communication and review the records in order to check for compliance.
On-site audit of a medical laboratory
In November 2020, I was tasked with performing an on-site ISO 9001:2015 audit of a medical laboratory. The laboratory was performing Covid-19 testing on-site. It was an unusual experience as although I was the reviewing client’s quality risk assessments as per clause 6.1, I had to examine my own risk of being infected with Covid-19 in an extremely high-risk area. It was the ISO/PAS 45005:2020 Occupational health and safety management – General guidelines for safe working during the Covid-19 pandemic that helped me manage this risk on both a personal and professional level during onsite audits. I highly recommend fellow auditors read all of these guidelines, as it will assist you in performing a safer audit of the client’s system.
While on-site auditing remains a necessity, following guidelines will ensure compliance and safe auditing
The essentials safety measures
- Wearing a good quality mask and protective gloves.
- Request Covid-19 controls before the on-site visit, like risk/hazard identification as part of pre-audit preparation.
- Adopt a seating arrangement that keeps physical distance between staff for the opening and closing meeting.
- Washing hands during breaks and avoiding touching the eyes, nose, or mouth during the documentation review phase.
- Use of a pocket sanitiser at high touch areas like main entrance doorknobs or stair handrail.
- Discourage handshakes and personal contact with the auditee and staff after closing meeting.
- On return home, change and clean clothing, and have a shower before any contact with family.
As an auditor, I have witnessed first-hand the changes faced by businesses. As well as needing to implement Covid-19 protocols outlined by the regulators for safety of all stakeholders, businesses have had to update the context of their organisational clauses to cover the change that this pandemic has caused. The on-site audit must start at the entrance of facility, and auditors need to comply with safety protocols, such as wearing safety masks, having their temperature checked and potentially, time in a disinfection booth. Throughout the day, social distancing practices must be maintained and verified as an auditor. During this difficult time, businesses are encouraged to manage their visitors remotely, whilst on-site engagements should be discouraged unless it is strictly necessary. While on-site auditing remains a necessity, following guidelines will ensure compliance and safe auditing.
Key hygiene practices
It is important not to underestimate the importance of hygiene. Some of the most important precautions to take while auditing on-site include hand hygiene practices, along with respiratory etiquette (coughing into your elbow/sneezing into disposable tissues), and the verification of staff training on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Keeping the site disinfected is also important, as is maintaining physical distance and avoiding close contact with the auditee and other members of staff. Focussing our attention on the management systems, specifically clause 9 – performance evaluation, will be key for self-assessment for compliance. The auditing community can help in many ways in our social and corporate battle against Covid-19, such as performing effective internal audits and management reviews, which can help us channel our objectives into a common goal and fight this pandemic.