How to prepare for a safety audit

| August 23, 2013
Roadside inspection data drivers driver-audit selection during carrier reviews.

Roadside inspection data drivers driver-audit selection during carrier reviews.

FMCSA activity in the area of safety audits of all types is on the rise, said Tejas Safety Advantage’s Leon Feazell in his “How to prepare for a safety audit” Smart Session at the Great American Trucking Show Aug. 23. Feazell presented data showing a marked rise in the total number of enforcement cases as well as penalties collected beginning in 2009. In 2007, for instance, the total number of cases stood at just above 5,000, rising to 7,000-plus in 2011, the last year for which he could locate complete data. Find more data on various carrier reviews and interventions via the “Crashes and interventions” reporting from May 2013 as part of our CSA’s Data Trail series.

The consequences of violations discovered during an audit can be dire — Feazell gave the example of a four-truck fleet hit with penalties of a grand total of $23,830, with just 5-7 violations located. Knowing what to expect during an audit can help prepare you to come through clean, though there’s no substitute for knowing the regulations and following the law to stay out of auditors’ eyes.

Find more data on various carrier reviews and interventions via the "Crashes and interventions" reporting from May 2013 as part of our CSA's Data Trail series.

Find more data on various carrier reviews and interventions via the “Crashes and interventions” reporting from May 2013 as part of our CSA’s Data Trail series.

Why an audit occurs
**A complaint comes in from the public or from an employee. “Oftentimes,” said Feazell, “that’s the reason they’re there.”

**A serious accident involving a fatality or multiple serious injuries. Texas, for instance, “has a standing policy that if a major accident occurs, the company will be audited sooner or later — it may be two years later, but they will audit you.”

**CSA BASIC rankings. “If you have one or more BASICs in a high range, they can come in and do the audit,” Feazell said. Audits have become more and more focused, too, down to patterns of single violations, irrespective of BASIC scores. Feazell gave the recent example of a company with 200 drivers notified it would be audited solely for a pattern of speeding violations. “The company did not have policies and procedures in place to prevent speeding,” Feazell said, “and they hammered them on it.”

Drivers, then, are selected for examination depending on roadside inspection and accident data. “Auditors will want all drivers’ Social Security numbers and driver’s license information,” Feazell said. “They’ll run them through [the Commercial Driver’s License Information System] to find revoked licenses and cancellations.”

Audit process
“A couple weeks ago,” said Feazell, “I received a call from a company [saying] we’re in the process of being audited.” The 400-driver fleet officer had received a letter ordering him to produce “all 400 drivers’ logs for the last six months, to produce all dispatch records, all routings, and on and on.” He knew he couldn’t possibly comply in the 48 hours provided. At that point, Feazell said, “there’s little you can do but comply with what they’re asking for.”

Auditors have “a lot of power,” said Feazell. “Some are very nice, but some feel like they have an ax to grind, so be careful with them.”

**Agree on selective time. Auditors are willing, generally, Feazell said, “to negotiate with you on the timing. If they feel like you’re trying to evade them, however, they’ll put the squeeze on you.”

**Designate someone responsible for responding to inquiries and for providing information. The highest safety official in the company should be designated for this. And that well may be you, of course, if you’re an owner-operator.

**Manage the investigator’s time. Be prepared. “If you’re prepared, you’ll sleep a lot easier.”
**Inform employees of the audit and limit access to employees. While your company facilities may be small and may not accommodate limitations, remember that auditors are trained “investigators,” Feazell said. “They talk to people and ask questions. That’s their nature.” Feazell gave an example of a small fleet terminal where a driver comes in and is complaining about something that happened out on the road in the presence of an investigator. “The investigator may want to ask the driver questions about the work environment,” he said.
**Ensure a professional business atmosphere.
**Check auditor’s credentials. The instance of fraudulent claim letters sent to carriers phishing for payment from impersonators of federal DOT auditors has risen recently, Feazell said. “Most will show you their credentials, no problem. If they’re not wiling to do that make sure they’re clarifying their credentials.”
**Respond to questions asked, but don’t feel the need to provide information not requested. Auditors may “ask you questions about your drug and alcohol program,” Feazell said. “Don’t feel like you need to blurt out that you had a recent positive unless asked,” for instance. “I ran into a company in Houston — on the safety director’s door was a big piece of glass, and he had scotch-taped a list of drivers there whose logs were missing, some for over 45 days.”
**Don’t disclose violations that don’t need to be disclosed, particularly if it’s a focused investigation or investigators may not discover all violations, which happens frequently.
**Copy or make notes of the records you provide to the investigator. “Your attorney will need the copies if he’s going to have to defend you later,” Feazell said. Records that could be requested include operational records like lease agreements, bills of lading, hours records, and etc. Have a system in place for storing them in an accessible, central place, well organized.

During the close-out process after the audit is complete, auditors will want to make sure that you understand and agree with any violations that have been found. Avoid agreeing to anything you are uncomfortable with, and “take good notes,” says Feazell. “Schedule appropriate times for the closeout…. You’ll need to set aside at least an hour, minimum. If the auditor feels he’s being slighted, he’ll put that in his report.”

Use caution, and seek counsel, if available, before signing any statement. A final agreement that you sign “can cost you a lot of money,” Feazell said. “Make sure counsel knows this is occurring, as that’s the time he can be the most effective for you.”

After the auditor leaves the office, you’ll get a letter notifying you of results — “If there are any requirements” placed on the business for continued operation, “make sure you do them,” Feazell said. “They’ll tell you to correct any deficiencies within 15 days… And anything you put in writing and send to FMCSA, know that those documents come under the Freedom of Information Act.” If for instance you’re involved in a crash in future, “plaintiff’s attorneys will go after that kind of information.”

  • No Reform

    Sounds like Extorsion. Notice the LARGE Fleets like CR England who has Alert Status for UNSAFE DRIVING and has 600 accidents (10% of the fleet) dont ever get an Audit??

  • martymarsh

    What ever happened to the presumption of innocent?
    What ever happened to unreasonable search and seizure, if I am innocent, presumably.
    The answer to this question and many more like them is simple. They are determined to keep the money wheel turning, and of course the auditor has to find violations to justify their job.
    To think that there is anyone out there that doesn’t want to be safe is way past moronic. There is to much aggravation because of accidents and breaking the law.
    How many companies actually want their drivers causing them grief? How many people start their day with the thought of creating havoc on the highways?
    Yes there is incompetence, but then everyone can’t know everything.
    As the owner of one truck, or even if it is 10, do I have to go out and hire 5 office workers just so I’m up on everything. That there is just one of the small ways they keep the money wheel turning. The harder you make it, the more people that is going to be needed to keep it under control.
    It certainly is not hard to see where these greedy minds are going with all of this. Push all of the little guys out so the big boys that also feed the rail get everything.
    The very simple fact that you can’t regulate rest should prove to everyone the games they are playing.
    Government is nothing more than organized crime, why do you suppose there was such a big push to get rid of the Mafia? Because they where taking to big of cut of the governments action, which would be taxes.
    All of the real criminals are in Washington, the ones that use safety as a money making tool.

  • Gary Holfstra

    You are uninformed as to how the CSA/SMS selection process works. I suggest you read the SMS Methodology available on FMCSA’s website. It explains how carriers of diffent sizes are selected for review based on the data, not just every time they have an accident. If they did that FMCSA mifght as well set up an office at all the big carriers and completely ignore everyone else.

  • Gary Holfstra

    You are presumed innocent, but if your roadside data indicates a possible problem then you are investigated-pretty simple. It is basic probable cause, just like running a red light will get you pulled over. If your drivers don’t run red lights your company won’t get pulled over.
    Compliance with FMCSA regulatory requirements isn’t all that difficult, I ran a 45+ driver company for several years and did everything myself. Checking logs is the most time consuming part but if you know what you are looking for it doesn’t take that long. Maybe 1/2hr a day depending on when they come in. But you do have to schedule time daily or you get behind and once that happens it piles up and you have a problem. Like most problems at smaller companies, time management is usually the issue. You do have to realize it is a business and manage appropriately.
    If you think the FMCSA is part of some big plot to keep the little guy down and the big guy on top then you are more than just a bit paranoid.

  • martymarsh

    Gary, that is all very amusing, and after 39 years in this business, I am far from paranoid. Take off the rose colored glasses and take a good long look at this crooked world. Of course if you are still in management that is not possible.

  • D.O.C.S

    I’ve attended numerous Operator License Audits Lancashire and I don’t think there’s a best way to prepare. strives to maintain an open forum for reader opinions. Click here to read our comment policy.