4 Value Driven Reasons Your College or University EH&S Program Needs a Gap Assessment

An environmental health and safety (EH&S) program at a college or university is tasked with running like a well-oiled machine – the optimal performance of the overall program requires the smooth operation of each program component. This is much easier said than done.

Colleges and universities face a range of occupational health and safety risks and environmental compliance challenges. Combined with the complexities of institutional operations and the shifting landscape that characterizes campus communities, it’s easy for EH&S programs to experience gaps that result in inefficiencies or regulatory noncompliance.

Gaps occur in numerous ways — making them even more challenging to identify. Many EH&S professionals have been focused on providing pandemic response support and in some cases traditional health and safety items took the back seat, leaving key compliance areas lagging. With the return of some level of normalcy, now is a perfect time for institutions to conduct an EH&S gap assessment, reassess priorities and refocus staff and resources based on the new landscape.

An EH&S gap assessment can help you identify vulnerabilities in your program and ensure that its running in a streamlined manner. But let’s back up. What is an EH&S program gap assessment?

What a Gap Assessment Is — and What It’s Not

A gap assessment of your EH&S program is exactly what its name suggests: an assessment of the current performance level of each of the components of your program to identify gaps for efficient targeting of resources. The scope of a gap assessment can range from a bird’s-eye overview to a laser focus on a single program – you may opt to benchmark your campus against similar institutions in terms of the overall performance of your EH&S program’s management systems, supporting lines of communication, as well as staffing or you may choose to evaluate whether a specific program component meets your strategic goals.

A gap assessment is not a regulatory compliance audit. It is not about ticking off inspection items from a lengthy checklist. A gap assessment should not be burdensome to your staff who are likely already stretched thin. And it’s certainly not about “catching” your institution in any wrongdoing nor “reporting” areas of non-compliance to regulatory agencies.

Rather, a gap assessment is a powerful, low-cost tool performed by an independent third party – it’s an informal process designed to work in partnership with, and on behalf of the director of your EH&S program to streamline program components and ultimately ensure the overall health and safety of your campus community. When done correctly, it is tailored to your institution’s needs and operations and configured so that it does not generate a lot of extra work for your EH&S staff. Most importantly, findings are a gold mine of information that can unveil opportunities for improvement as well as be used to help focus resources towards addressing program vulnerabilities with the highest risk.

So how do you know when it’s the right time to invest in a gap assessment?

4 Value Driven Reasons Your Institution Needs a Gap Assessment

Activity and change are defining elements of academic campuses. Some colleges and universities choose to wait until their institution has gone through a big change to conduct their gap assessment. Other institutions periodically conduct a gap assessment to ensure that their EH&S program remains up-to-date, compliant, and performing in an optimal manner. Below are 4 common changes where any institution would benefit from conducting a gap assessment.

Development of New or Modified Laboratory Research Procedures and Techniques

Campuses often host multiple academic research studies involving various hazardous materials and processes across hundreds of labs, each individually administered by one or more principal investigators (PIs). Efficient management of EH&S across these labs is no easy feat. Even more, an EH&S program must continually ensure availability of sufficient safety staff to support the arrival of new PIs, new lab procedures or new hazardous materials that require additional support and collaboration.  In the face of such a rapidly evolving research landscape, conducting a gap assessment allows EH&S leadership to evaluate the maturity of its EH&S program, so services can be scaled up or down and aligned with campus research needs. The gap assessment additionally helps you understand once-and-for-all who is working with what hazard in the laboratory.

A booming area requiring EH&S program support involves biohazardous materials. Any professor starting new research involving recombinant DNA will require campus focused guidance and collaboration with an Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) to coordinate protocols review and approval — an IBC is a vital part of compliance and necessary when receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health.

With the hazards of biological research becoming increasingly complex, campuses nationwide are tightening up their biosafety programs to ensure that regulations and best practices are always followed.

Changes in EH&S Staffing

Let’s face it, staff burnout is real. Fostering a stimulating work environment while ensuring that routine tasks such as eye wash inspections are completed is a delicate balance. It’s not uncommon to have frequent turnover of EH&S staff on campuses – particularly in those positions requiring repetitive technician level activities, such as conducting lab inspections and providing routine training. Employee turnover and the resulting short or mid-term staffing gaps creates a domino effect. It contributes to gradual loss of subject or program-specific expertise and an increased likelihood of unforeseen compliance gaps in various pockets of EH&S services.

Planned Transitions in Leadership

A gap assessment can also be conducted as part of an EH&S program’s planned staffing transition plan. One of the biggest down sides of transitions in leadership is some loss of organizational knowledge. Going through a bunch of file cabinets and sitting in meetings with an army of people is the last thing a new staff member wants to do to figure out where the EH&S program stands. The gap assessment is a valuable tool to gauge current program performance level and the maturity of the overall program as well as the adequacy of existing services to meet current and future needs.

Changes to Organizational Structuring

Colleges and universities should conduct a gap assessment when considering organizational restructuring of the EH&S program to prevent unintended gaps in knowledge and skills. EH&S departments may fall within the larger umbrella of research compliance, however, some campuses may select under certain circumstances to restructure some of their services or the overall program under Facilities Management or Safety. The resource evaluation that’s conducted as part of the gap assessment can offer valuable insights on the need for efficient staffing configurations based on key parameters such as number of stakeholders, PIs, square footage impacted, and dollar value of research.

Now that we’ve laid out key timing opportunities to initiate a gap assessment, you may be wondering about the benefits of a gap assessment beyond catching potential compliance vulnerabilities.

4 Added Benefits of a Gap Assessment

Discovering What’s Working

One of the biggest advantages of the gap assessment process is confirmation of aspects of your EH&S program that are working well, as well as capturing a snapshot of how well your program compares to similar institutions. A third-party affirmation that current campus efforts are successful helps validate your program and the performance of EH&S staff.

Providing an Outside Perspective

Many EH&S directors are aware of the issues on their campus — they can identify exactly what gaps exist in their program. Having a report from an independent third-party compliance and safety expert brings a fresh outside perspective and added validation to concerns. Institutional leadership or other departments may also be more open to ideas validated by a qualified outsider.

An independent expert can serve as a different voice to help resolve issues between departments on a campus. Consider roof safety concerns as an example. It’s not uncommon for there to be disagreements between the EH&S director and the director of facilities as to the proper procedures for roof safety and, specifically, in identification of the hazards that are present and the steps to address them. A third-party expert can help both sides reach a conclusion that allows projects to be well managed, while also ensuring worker safety and regulatory compliance.

Identifying Weaknesses

In addition to identifying gaps, your assessment can also drill down into process improvement needs, weaknesses and the risks posed by deficiencies. This knowledge can guide your priorities and direct resources to the areas where they are most needed. You may, as part of the gap assessment process identify areas in your program where you elect to conduct a detailed audit for improvement and streamlining.

Fine-tuning Efficient Staffing Configuration

The resource evaluation and benchmarking that may be part of a gap assessment may uncover inefficiencies in your current EH&S program staffing. With the increased demand in biosafety services on campuses nationwide, EH&S programs are frequently faced with the challenge of hiring a high-level biosafety focused team member with subject matter expertise for tasks that occur infrequently on campus. In this scenario, a gap assessment could highlight program and service specific needs that would allow the development of a cost-effective and efficient staffing configuration that meets the sweet spot between expertise and cost.

Some campuses choose to outsource or seek additional outside support for certain EH&S services to reduce inefficiencies in staffing. Such services may include tasks that don’t occur regularly enough for an all-hands-on deck approach or those all too routine activities that lead to staff dissatisfaction and high turnover. The plus side to this would mean a boost to employee morale if your in-house staff can focus on other program priorities and be engaged in their position – then hopefully they stick around.

Want to know more about how an EH&S gap assessment can benefit your program? Get in touch with us today!

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