“Umpires don’t make the rules.  They apply them…They make sure everybody plays by the rules.  But it is a limited role.  Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire.”  — Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

A call about doing a PSM audit usually begins with a question from the caller about whether we can do a third-party audit. There is an obvious question, but we don’t ask it. Instead, our first question is usually, “How do you want us to approach this?  As coach?  Or as umpire?”

We usually get “What’s the difference?” which gives us a wonderful opportunity to understand our client’s motivation.

But there is that obvious question:

If the auditor is the third party, who’s the second party?

The personnel at the unit or units being audited are clearly the first party. We like to think that we aren’t auditing people, that we’re auditing systems, but it’s hard for the personnel at the units whose systems are being audited not to take a process safety audit personally.  By definition, process safety auditors that come from outside the organization are the third party.  Somewhere, though, is the party between the first party and the third party.  Who is the second party?  While the question seems obvious to us, the answer doesn’t always.

A hint may come from the idea of internal audits.  The most internal of internal audits is when someone from the unit being audited conducts the process safety audit.  Many aren’t comfortable with this, though.  It just seems too, well, internal.  So, they turn instead to someone from outside the unit.  Using a process safety auditor from a different unit in the same facility can sometimes settle this squeamishness.  Then there are those that prefer that their internal audits be conducted by someone from outside the facility altogether—someone from another facility.  Finally, there are those that are convinced that an internal audit only means something when it is conducted by someone from outside of any production facility—someone from corporate.

What all of these options have in common is that the auditor has a stake in the outcome.  Whether from the unit itself, from another unit, from another facility, or from corporate, it is possible for any internal auditor to believe that they will be judged by the results of the audit.  While it is easy enough to see how this might be true for an auditor from the unit itself, even auditors from other units or other facilities can have it in the back of their minds that at some point roles will be reversed.

As for auditors from corporate, they have a stake as well.  Were they too easy? Too harsh?  When there are findings, what responsibility does a corporate department bear for the shortcomings or for resolving the shortcomings?

So, what is a second party?  We think of it as someone with a vested interest in the results of the audit.  In practical terms, it is also frequently the organization that issues the purchase order for the third-party audit.

Auditor as Umpire

So, should a process safety auditor be looking at a process safety program as an umpire?  Whether internal or third-party, many process safety auditors will confidently explain their role as that of umpire.  Referee.  Judge.  They see their job as comparing performance to a set of rules and determining whether any rules have been broken.  A broken rule is a finding.

It’s a valid approach and sometimes the only suitable approach.  An umpire must first begin with a set of rules, a set of rules that the umpire did not create.  We would like to think that umpires are objective, but the umpire decides what complying with those rules means.  The rules may define a strike zone, but the umpire decides which pitches are strikes. Crossing the line may be out of bounds, but the line is not a mathematical abstraction; it has width.  While some judgments are easy, some are close.  Umpires make the call.

Process safety auditors, like umpires, have discretion, but their job is to judge against the rules.  Some process safety auditors, like some umpires, will abuse that discretion and enforce rules in ways that were never intended.  Plant personnel, like players, may protest a call.  Unlike umpires, process safety auditors are not typically empowered to eject someone from the game.  Ultimately, though, process safety auditors who approach an audit as an umpire would have a limited role, discretion or not.  They enforce the rules.  The audit is black and white, there is compliance or there is not.  A process safety umpire’s loyalty is to the rules.

Auditor as Coach

A coach’s loyalty, unlike that of an umpire, is not to the rules but to the team.  During a competition, that loyalty manifests as outright advocacy.  The coach wants the team to win. There can be talk of love of the game, doing their best, but during the competition, the coach is not there for altruistic reasons.  The coach is there to guide the team to victory.

When a process safety audit is seen as a competition, then the process safety auditor cannot be there as a coach.  When a process safety audit is seen as a competition, it is much more appropriate for the process safety auditor to serve as umpire.

However, most coaching happens, not during competitions, but between competitions.  First and foremost, a coach is a teacher.  A coach seeks to understand where the team’s strengths and weaknesses are.  This is so the coach can help the team to bolster the weaknesses and reinforce the strengths. A coaching auditor doesn’t see a process safety audit as a competition, but as an evaluation of the weaknesses that need to be bolstered and the strengths that would benefit from reinforcement.  The coach is there to see the team become the best it can be.

When a process safety audit follows a coaching model, the objective shifts from enforcing rules to becoming safer.  Findings are not so much infractions as weaknesses that need to be bolstered.  A good coach will limit the number the findings to the most serious concerns, knowing that a team that is overwhelmed with findings is likely to make no progress anywhere.  As a process improves, so will the subsequent expectations of the process safety auditor.  This requires discretion, flexibility, and the ability to see beyond a black-and-white interpretation of the rules.

Auditor as Police

An audit is not an inspection.  OSHA is quick to tell anyone that asks that an OSHA inspection of a PSM-covered facility is not a substitute for a PSM compliance audit, no matter how much it appears that the inspector and the auditor are looking at the same things.  Inspections are adversarial, not educational.  Inspectors feel obliged to assume that every statement made is a lie until proven true.  Hence the inspector’s adage, “If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.”

A process safety audit that must be conducted as an inspection indicates a serious failure of the process safety management program and system.  That is not to say that serious failures cannot occur, but that a policing approach should be seen for what it is:  a total lack of confidence in the ability of unit personnel to implement process safety management.  When that is the case, there are worse problems than PSM compliance.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Choosing an auditing model

While it is hard to imagine the circumstances where a policing model to process safety audits is appropriate in any but the most dysfunctional of operations, the umpiring model has much to recommend it.  When a large organization has a program where PSM compliance audits are scored so that different units can be compared or improvement at a specific unit can be tracked over time, the umpire model is the right approach.  The primary focus will be on the score, not on safety, but for those organizations that want to use competition as a means to motivate improvement, the umpiring model is the way to do it.

A fascinating aspect of the coaching model of auditing is that the auditor and unit personnel become partners, with the joint aim of becoming safer.  As is the case with coach and player, an auditor accepts what unit personnel say as true, knowing that they share the goal of becoming better, safer.  The unit personnel want to know what they need to do to be safer, and so are much more inclined to freely admit when there is a shortcoming, just as the auditor is much inclined to freely accept an assertion that something is a strength.  The result is that the coaching model of process safety auditing is not only more cooperative, it is much more efficient. Unit personnel do not have to spend time proving to an auditor what they already know to be true.  Instead, they can focus on those areas where they need to get better.

When you, as the second party, decide that you want to use a third-party auditor, think about the auditing model you want them to use.  They will use the same checklists, but they should ask different questions. Your choice will be driven in part by the kind of second party you are: from the unit being audited, from another unit, from another facility, or from corporate.  Your choice will also be driven by what you want the audit to cause.  It’s not an earthshaking choice, but it is a choice that matters.


This blog is based on an earlier version, “PSM Auditor: Coach, Umpire, or Police”, posted on 11-Jul-2017 by Elsevier in Chemicals & Materials Now!


  • Mike Schmidt

    With a career in the CPI that began in 1977 with Union Carbide, Mike was profoundly impacted by the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal and has been working on process safety ever since.