To maintain safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, industries are leveraging creative solutions for standard practices. Efforts that typically would be conducted on-site are more frequently being driven online to limit potential exposure and continue social distancing. While not all activities translate easily to the remote world, companies are realizing that one aspect definitely can be: air permitting and compliance audits.

As a largely data-driven process, auditing work for air permitting and compliance has been able to proceed in these distanced times — and often with significant cost savings. A remote audit process follows almost the exact same approach as in-person, on-site audits. During preaudit planning calls, the audit scope is identified as well as all data that should be reviewed in advance and during the audit. Essential personnel are then selected and scheduled to be available for interviews regarding that data. Once preplanning is complete, in a pre-COVID world, auditors would jump on a plane or get in a car to travel hours to the site. Not anymore.

Now, the auditor can set up virtual meetings with all relevant parties to conduct the air permitting and compliance audit. So instead of being physically in the same room, meetings can be conducted online to discuss and securely share the same data, following the same ongoing cycle of reviews, discovery and report findings until the audit is complete. But in this scenario, companies do not have to budget for the travel and lodging of audit staff.

This remote approach is not without potential challenges, though. Not all operating personnel may be on-site and immediately available if called unexpectedly. Also, some data might be difficult to access and share remotely, such as specific data related to distributed control systems (DCS) that needs to be viewed on an operator’s screen, DCS programming data on specialized equipment or the review of physical documents and equipment. Therefore, remote audits function more seamlessly for data-driven, highly electronic programs. But as workers continue returning to sites and as companies embrace more robust electronic record-keeping, these issues can become less prominent moving forward.

While remote access will not work for all environmental audits, it should be considered as a long-term solution for the types of programs where it fits, like air permitting and compliance. Though born of necessity, remote auditing has proved to be an efficient and cost-effective approach now and in the future.


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Jim Corbit is a project manager at Burns & McDonnell specializing in air quality services and environmental regulatory support for the oil and gas, refining, terminals, chemical, transportation, power and manufacturing industries. He has detailed knowledge of facility operations and related state and federal air quality regulations, and has conducted a full range of air quality compliance projects.