Recently, public attention was drawn yet again to health & safety issues in the meat processing industry. On January 28, 2021, six workers died and nearly a dozen others were injured after a refrigeration line carrying liquid nitrogen leaked at a poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia. According to a report released by the New York Times, liquid nitrogen is used in the industry to freeze raw chicken after it is processed. While the accident remains under investigation, it appears that a rupture in the refrigeration line caused nitrogen gas to leak into a section of the workplace, displacing oxygen and exposing workers to an asphyxiation hazard. Fortunately, other employees were evacuated from the facility and avoided injury.
This event is just another hit against an industry already reeling from negative publicity over its handling of workplace infections during the COVID-19 pandemic. As described in the Times article, a union official representing workers at the Georgia facility was quite unforgiving in their assessment of the cause of the event. “Had simple safety protocols been followed today, workers’ lives would not have been on the line”, one official claimed. But what were those protocols? Another individual interviewed following the event was quoted stating “in poultry and meat processing plants, the seals of pressurized liquid nitrogen lines must be checked routinely for leaks.”
It’s important to note that the investigation into this incident is ongoing. And at present, there is no evidence available to confirm that the lines carrying liquid nitrogen in this case had not been routinely inspected, or whether other factors were involved that contributed to the unintended release of noxious gas into an area where employees were working.
But considering the additional demands that have been placed on workplaces to manage COVID-19 infection risks and ensure business continuity, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that such routine inspections may have been missed. If that indeed was the case, it’s beneficial to explore what process changes can be made to ensure future inspections of safety-critical systems are not lost in the “daily whirlwind”.
And the answer lies in technology. Let’s explore the benefits of implementing a digital audit program.
Staying on top of what’s expected
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional responsibilities on supervisors and mid-level managers, tasked to maintain essential operations while limiting the risk of infection to the workforce. With tasks and priorities changing constantly, even important matters can fall through the cracks, especially when it’s left to the individual to simply remember all that they need to do. When those forgotten tasks involve safety-critical systems, the risk for catastrophic failure is high.
Workload management is one of the principal reasons organizations invest in EHSQ software. These solutions offer the ability to deconstruct even the most complex compliance requirements into meaningful, tangible actions that prescribe exactly what needs to be done to adhere to applicable standards. Automated alerts can be configured to notify users when a compliance task is coming due or when it’s past-due, so it can be reprioritized and users can take informed action immediately. Similar alerts can be set as part of escalation workflows, pushing outstanding compliance actions up the chain-of-command at designated intervals, to help drive accountability or reallocate resources to meet these obligations.
Digital audits help ensure the right things are reviewed
But simply ensuring that individuals remember to complete audit assignments isn’t enough. Workers performing workplace audits and inspections must be competent, and must know what specific system components need to be assessed, and how. Enterprise EHS software solutions that support digital audit programs simplify this process by enabling organizations to create and assign standardized inspection checklists to guide auditors on the key components and failure modes to look out for when inspecting safety-critical systems.
These checklists, when accessible via a mobile device, enable inspectors to record findings directly from the field, reducing the administrative burden of secondary data entry, and assist in issuing corrective action requests immediately when a defect is observed. And as technology evolves, software solutions are leveraging the power of prescriptive insights to give workers immediate feedback on the level of criticality of identified issues, and the specific actions to be taken to mitigate risk. In this manner, workers will not simply report when things go awry, but can take immediate, targeted action to address risk and reduce the chance for the failure to escalate out of control.
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Looking beyond the immediate failure
When a system failure occurs, it’s not a question about what happened, but why and how it happened. And as organizations collect greater volumes of EHSQ data, it presents an opportunity to leverage this information to help predict where system failures are most likely to occur next, so they can adjust audit and inspection schedules to ensure these processes are reviewed more frequently.
The challenge is that despite this growing volume of collected audit data, most organizations lack the scalable capacity to translate that data into timely, actionable insights to guide their decision-making – principally because data aggregation and analysis is still predominantly manual. Individuals physically consolidate and analyze data on simple spreadsheet tools, which is time-consuming, error-prone, and limited to the maximum number of datasets that they can evaluate at any given time. In this respect, the value of this data for predictive modeling is lost.
Yet emerging solutions including machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) are enhancing the EHS practitioner’s ability to quickly draw insights from their collected metadata and support more preventive decision-making. Platforms are growing where a user can simply input a query into an analytics engine via speech or text, after which the engine leverages natural language processing to scan all records by those search terms and present data in any number of different graphical formats. The user can then drill-down or manipulate that data to create the insights they need to drive decisions. In this way, natural language processing provides necessary flexibility in querying data and insights without needing to have the foresight on what the desired endpoints might be.
Just as you might say: “Hey Google, show me restaurants in a 5-mile radius from my house”, business leaders will instead query their EHSQ platform by saying “Show me all root causes from audit corrective actions”, to provide them, in real-time, with insights they can use to refine future digital audit planning, and/or to take targeted action to address system gaps before they may lead to fatal outcomes.
The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) announced recently that the investigation into the Georgia meat processing plant fatalities may take up to 2 years to complete. So, it’ll be some time until we know definitely what contributed to the event that cost so many families so much already. And it’s a fair guess that the event will put the facility in the sights of federal OSHA, leading to many more compliance inspections in the months and years ahead.
This incident, while tragic, provides a good case study into the importance of periodic workplace audits and inspections, and the incremental value that organizations may realize when they implement a digital audit program supported by EHS software solutions.
Learn More about Digital Audits
To learn more about how to get started with your digital audit program, check out Going Virtual: Best Practices for Incorporating Virtual Audits into Your Compliance Management Strategy