How to Survive a Surprise Audit

Not a big fan of surprise audits? Here's how you can take the stress out of those unexpected visits from governing agencies. It's just a matter of staying organized.
How to Survive a Surprise Audit
Auditors often go straight to the lab, where they look for overall cleanliness, standard operating procedures, calibration logs, standard logs and access to data.

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Surprise audits at a treatment plant are not uncommon. Governing agencies sometimes show up unannounced to look over records and walk through the facility. I’ve had this happen three times over the past few years, and with each visit the auditor found fewer things wrong — and the things he found were easily fixed.

Here’s how to prepare for those unexpected visits.

From my experience, auditors like to go straight to the lab, where they look for overall cleanliness, standard operating procedures, calibration logs, standard logs and access to data.

  • SOPs should be a staple in every plant and should be written every year and updated.
  • Calibration logs should be kept daily and should include date, time, operator, equipment name, calibration slope and temperatures.
  • Standard logs should show that you run tests to prove you are doing your testing right.
  • Cleanliness is the easiest one of all. Remember that if your lab doesn’t look good, you have already piqued the auditor’s interest to dig deeper, so keep it clean.
  • Easy access to data means you have five to seven years of data neatly organized so you can quickly grab anything that’s requested.

Through the years, I’ve worked hard to minimize my binders. I’ve redone my lab worksheets to make them fit my workflow, and I’ve tried to include at least a week’s worth of data on each sheet. My daily lab sheet combines my worksheets.

When an auditor asks for data, I say “would you like the worksheets or just the data?” I’ve received some confused looks, but an inspector usually just wants data. Then, I simply walk over and grab the current year’s binder and hand it over. If the auditor wanted older data, it takes me two minutes to walk to the storage area to grab the year in question. I love being able to hand over everything quickly, which shows things are in order.

SOPs are a bit of a pain to write, but once they are done, you only need to make minor adjustments each year. The SOP should be written so that almost anyone in your plant can come in and perform a particular job. In the lab, this means writing it as simply as possible. We have a regular lab tech, but when he is out, we need someone to come in and do the basics, and the SOP is the key to making this happen. We also have some operators take an occasional day in the lab to keep the SOPs current.

Calibration logs need to show that your equipment is in good working order. Daily calibrations ensure you get accurate readings and that your test data is solid information. This data is used to run your plant, so it should be accurate. Regulators are just ensuring good habits are in place.

Standards logs prove you can attain a known answer on different samples. I run a standard on every type of sample in our permit once per week, including GGA (BOD5), pH, low-range cl2, total phosphorus, E.coli and total suspended solids. Many years of DEP classes have taught me to run a standard once for every five times I run a test. You can run most of standards in conjunction with your daily tests.

I hope these simple tips will keep you prepared for the occasional unexpected inspection. These agencies are here to help and to ensure you don’t get complacent on daily routines and duties that are done in and around your treatment plant. 


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