Safety Culture

Use tablets, smartphones for a paperless future

October 5, 2012
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I magine a visit from an outside inspector who requests a specific safety inspection or audit record. You open your tablet, tap a few spots on the screen, and produce an instant audit trail. Related reports or other connected details are only a few taps away, and you’re able to satisfy all of this person’s questions within seconds. Visual inspection data taken from smartphones or tablets is attached to each inspection or compliance-related event. Providing copies, if needed, is simple. No filing cabinets. No damaged or missing paper records. No time wasted on locating the information needed.

This is just a glimpse into how easy safety and compliance could be in a paperless future.

We are approaching this paperless future in safety and compliance more rapidly than ever before. As little as ten years ago, it seemed impossible to break the 2,000-year-old tradition of documenting key events and information on paper. At that time, our world was consuming more than 230 million trees per year to satisfy an addiction to hard copy everything. Today, technology and productivity tools are becoming so sophisticated, yet so easy to use, that introducing paper into a job just slows things down. For many, it’s become something to be avoided.

The meaning of paperless, or less paper

The idea of the “paperless office” has been around for decades now. It was first intended to describe the office of the future, which would come as a result of the rise in personal computing. One of the earliest mentions of the paperless office concept appeared in a 1975 BusinessWeek article, and the concept pushed the idea that automation and computers would make paper-based record-keeping and bookkeeping redundant.

Here we are decades later, and paper is still part of everyday life. So one would say the paperless office never happened. But is there anyone who hasn’t received one of those emails tagged at the end with a message urging them to think twice before clicking “Print”? Paper itself may never be redundant, but the trend toward less paper has never been so apparent. More and more businesses are realizing that less paper almost always leads to greater efficiency.

From accounting and human resources to safety and compliance management, the benefits of “going digital” are attracting even those most resistant to technological change.

Why?

Because improving efficiency, saving time, and lowering liability are attractive offers for anyone focused on achieving a goal that affects the bottom line. Safety professionals have attributed efficiency problems and lost time to paper-based processes and record-keeping. Clipboards and filing cabinets seem archaic when contrasted with new tools such as smartphones, tablets and the collaborative power of cloud computing.

Tablets, smartphones and anywhere, anytime computing

The rise in everyday use of tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices is fuelling massive change in the way people consume and create information, as well as the way people do and share work. And growing numbers of people are bringing experience with these tools into workplace safety roles and industrial settings. Combined with technology such as radio frequency identification (RFID) or Near Field Communications (NFC), the possibilities for these devices are endless.

A recent study by ABI Research looked at how tablets such as Apple’s iPad, Google’s Nexus 7, and Microsoft’s Surface will expand the market this year and beyond. ABI Research expects the tablet market to top 102-110 million shipments worldwide by the end of 2012. Another study, by Generator Research, forecasts that growth in tablet shipments will double from 120 million units in 2012 to 250 million in 2016. And smartphone shipments are growing even more. Market research and analysis firm IDC noted smartphone shipments went from 305 million in 2010 to 494 million in 2011.

That’s impressive growth, and it’s not just consumers. An IDG Connect survey found that three out of four business and IT executives around the world own tablets. Many of those who don’t are already considering which type they would choose to buy.

Beyond the numbers and statistics, many stories about mobile devices replacing paper-based tools have surfaced within the last 12 months. Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force ordered up to 18,000 iPads for use as electronic flight information manuals, and it’s not the only government agency to move from paper to tablets. The Department of Defense has given iPads to soldiers in Afghanistan for mapping and GPS. The U.S. Marine Corps and the Department of Navy plan to buy up to 15,000 commercial and ruggedized tablets over the next few years. These stories emerged around the same time that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the use of iPads by commercial pilots — as a means of eliminating up to 35 pounds of paper flight charts per plane.

Other mobile devices, such as rugged handhelds, are already being manufactured with built-in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. And the outlook for RFID is also bullish — with ABI Research predicting about $6-billion in worldwide revenue around RFID in 2012. Similarly, NFC-enabled smartphones will soon be the norm as manufacturers see various uses, such as mobile payments, appealing to the public.

How mobile technologies are changing safety work

As the sophistication of mobile technologies and devices advances at a rapid pace, safety professionals around the world are beginning to take advantage of the benefits of going digital. The change is affecting everything from individual inspections to the larger safety management systems that must function efficiently to ensure constant compliance with regulations or policies.

Where safety problems once included inaccurate, damaged or lost paperwork, new approaches are eliminating paperwork altogether. The resulting picture is one that gives today’s safety professional complete traceability, visibility, and real-time access to any safety information or data needed.

Mobile computing, combined with technologies such as RFID and barcodes, makes scanning equipment, facility locations or employee badges instantaneous:

 An inspector or compliance officer can easily locate and tap through virtually any inspection checklist or safety status. The data syncs with the cloud for later retrieval, analysis or reports.

 Corrective actions can be automated.

Alerts and notifications ensure nothing falls through the cracks, or that failed or urgent items are quickly identified and addressed.

Referencing safety information or data in the field is easy.

Tracking times and locations of safety-related events can be automated with the built-in GPS functionality available with today’s devices.

New technology provides flexibility and limitless potential for improving the way safety and compliance is managed, and that’s why safety managers from various industries are quickly moving to digitize all paper-trails.

Leaders in construction, manufacturing, energy, mining, and other industries and operations are revamping their approaches to safety and compliance. Companies are already adopting the latest technology and eliminating paper-based work, and examples are not hard to find.

A paperless future, or a future with less paper, isn’t something to resist any longer. Technology will make it easier to achieve with each passing month. In a future without paper, safety will be as easy as tapping and swiping through the tasks that make safe workplaces.

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