Columns / Training Strategies

EHS management software digs deep into your safety program

September 6, 2012
While some businesses still use paper and spreadsheets to handle the needs of complex health and safety management programs, in the past couple of decades thousands have turned to more streamlined software products specifically designed to make the whole process of managing workplace health and safety easier and more straightforward. As companies get bigger, processes get more complex and it becomes much harder and more time-consuming to record, input and export health and safety data to and from different ‘data sinks’, be they paper forms, electronic documents, emails and spreadsheets.

For example, look at 1984’s disastrous Bhopal gas tragedy. In the aftermath of the devastating explosion and gas leak, which resulted in nearly 20,000 deaths over the following quarter-century, Union Carbide, the company associated with the explosion, implemented a system to manage its environmental, health and safety data in order to mitigate the chances of future accidents and, ultimately, improve occupational health and safety conditions. However, in time it found the system — which relied on paper and isolated software products — an insufficient means of managing EHS data and turned to a streamlined software solution to improve performance, save time and resources and shift to a more proactive model of compliance.

Now, companies around the world are doing the same thing, and electronic EHS systems have become the standard for progressive, responsible organizations of any size, in any industry. It all goes back to the simple premise that streamlined, integrated, electronic EHS systems are a whole lot easier to access, manipulate and manage than archaic paper-based systems. However, central to this premise is the simple fact that such a system needs to be conducive to employees actually using it.

This highlights a great and often overlooked fact about health and safety management software: however robust and powerful a system may seem, it is only as good and effective as its weakest link, and too often that weak link comes in the form of a terrible user interface. I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve seen invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into an EHS software solution, only to kick it to the curb a few years later in favor of a user-friendly system.

Address ‘user adoption’

Naturally you want power, complexity and vast potential in the EHS management system you adopt. But that doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive with an intuitive, sleek and user-friendly interface. So I’ve put together a list of the five considerations you want top of mind as you evaluate a new system.

  • All Party Access: Think about all the people who will be accessing the system. Frontline workers will have to enter incident reports. Managers and directors will have to compile information, produce reports and analyze data. C-Level executives will want to sign in for at-a-glance overviews. We’re talking a broad range of needs and uses, and a common interface between them all. In my experience, a lot of executive key decision makers in business don’t have the time or patience to be trained on a convoluted software system.
  • Go Web, Young Man: It’s fair to say almost all health and safety management software systems worth their salt are web-based these days. That is, they are accessed through web browsers and point to a centralized, secure database. But just because they are accessible through the browsers we use every day doesn’t mean they are as easy to use as your average website. At the same time, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be. Look for a system that leverages standard web-based navigation conventions and commands. Back. Forward. Home. Bookmarks. Tabs. Links. Sometimes web-based software systems try and reinvent the wheel, and even if they promise the moon, they may be taking you there in a jalopy.
  • All Aboard the Train: This is a consideration that piggybacks right off the last and is just as easy to grasp. When evaluating a system, ask yourself, ask your vendor, ‘Is it easy to train?’. Naturally, if the software uses standard web-based conventions, it will be a whole lot easier to teach a web-savvy workforce how to use it (and let’s face it, the majority of contemporary workers know how to navigate the web).
  • Devil in the Details: If you want to report accurate, complete safety data, if you want to leverage that data to minimize the risk of incidents recurring or prevent new ones from occurring in the first place, you need to look to the data’s point of origin. Let’s take incident reports. In the archaic, paper-based systems we mentioned earlier, the point of origin for information regarding an incident (not to mention a near-miss) is the manual entry — in writing — of incident details on a paper form. Forget the chaos of the incident, frontline workers aren’t exactly inclined to engage in the bureaucratic process of filling out reports and often have to be urged by human resource and safety staff to do so. Let’s translate that to the level of software. If they have to log into a clumsy, unsightly web portal to enter information, their first instinct will be to input only requisite details as quickly as possible and exit the system. Not exactly ideal. Contrast that with a system that is easy to access, configured to an individual’s immediate needs, and — dare I say — fun to use.
  • Fun, Fun, Fun: Fun, you say? A safety management system fun? No, that’s not a stretch. Just as a good system is accessible, easy to use, easy to train, and designed with the user in mind, it follows that it ought to be, well, enjoyable to use. As an EHS manager, if you can compile statistics into dashboards and reports, replete with charts, graphs and other data visualizations, with the click of the button, and in seconds get a clear sense of the chinks in the armor of your safety programs, well, there’s something to be said for the gratification that accompanies accomplishing in seconds what used to take ages.

So much of all of this comes down to ‘User Adoption’. That’s just software implementation jargon for how all members of your organization adapt to using a new system. Too often the question of user adoption is addressed after the fact, either late into the buying cycle or even after a system has been purchased. In evaluating vendors, make it your first order of business, because your new toy is only going to be useful if your people actually use it.

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