Engineering projects face a growing range of audits, assessment and monitoring, but will COVID-19 restrictions on movement make it difficult for consultants to carry out this work?

The answer lies in leveraging information systems and communication platforms and finding innovative ways of verifying information that used to be confirmed during a site visit, according to SRK Consulting principal environmental scientist Chris Dalgliesh. While some audits monitor a range of project risks on behalf of financiers or investors, others are necessary to satisfy regulatory requirements.

“Meeting clients face-to-face on a project site has usually been considered by consultants as an integral part of conducting an audit or assessment,” said Dalgliesh. “But lockdown conditions have forced us to look at other ways of verifying information. This might include the sharing of satellite imagery online, or live data reviews with the client as part of the audit record.”

He explained that most audits require a combination of desktop work – analyzing documentation and data from the client – and on-the-ground observation conducted during a site visit. “In many of the larger, international projects where we monitor environmental and social performance against good international industry practice (GIIP) such as the Performance Standards of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), it is certainly very useful, even essential, to be physically present,” he said.

This is particularly the case where an audit needs to ascertain the capacity of health, safety and environment (HSE) teams, and to assess whether something has been done to the required standard. “Other types of audits require us to analyze past performance rather than current activities, and here the documentation is really the focus,” he said.

The amount of time required on site also depends on the phase of the project, said Sharon Jones, also a principal environmental scientist at SRK. “For instance, South Africa’s National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) requires statutory audits against Environmental Authorizations,” said Jones. “These focus in a fairly binary manner on whether the conditions of these authorizations are being implemented on site.”

Many of these are conducted when the project is already operational, so much of the work has already been undertaken and the project is either compliant or not. “These kinds of audits lend themselves more to document review, where we scrutinize the systems in place and the documented evidence of action,” she said. “This aspect is usually more important than observing directly what is being done on site.”

She said the same usually applies to audits for Water Use Licenses and Atmospheric Emissions Licenses. Here, documented evidence must be supplied by the client, for the consultant to audit against local compliance limits and international standards. This data is provided in good faith that it is accurate and valid.

“In the past, there has generally been a ‘close out’ session with the client, in which the consultant returns to site following an audit, to report back,” she said. “Working remotely under lockdown conditions, it is clear that some of these interactions can be conducted remotely.”

However, there are minimum requirements for a remote audit to be an acceptable alternative to a site visit. For example, the consultant will generally have seen the site before, and on-site conditions must not change between seasons. Also, the consultant will have to be satisfied with the culture in place at the client’s operations,  in terms of overall adherence to good international practice. This would provide assurance that audit data provided by the client is correct and reliable. Under these conditions, there may be an opportunity for clients and consultants alike to save on the cost and time of travelling to site.

Dalgliesh noted that digital communication platforms are proving invaluable in making remote audits more feasible. “Meetings and conferencing using online platforms can often facilitate the iterative nature of our role, where we may need to be in close contact with a client over a period of time,” he said. “Doing this remotely can also make the process more focused and economical.”

Apart from the time and cost savings of not travelling to site, these tools allow specific people within an organization to be targeted for discussion as and when necessary, instead of having a large client team on standby.