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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: Smartphones as an EHS game-changer

January 11, 2010
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Smartphones such as the iPhone, Blackberry, Palm, Nokia and Droid are leading the mobile phone market. By the end of 2010 more than 100 million people worldwide will own a smartphone. Smartphones defy a simple definition. The latest smartphones are equipped with accelerometers, magnetometers, GPS, large touch screens and other technologies that make the “phone” part of the device a minor function.

Figure 1 – Screenshot “deciBel” app. See www.bsb.bz.

Smartphone used as an SLM?

Imagine if you could turn a smartphone into a sound level meter and measure noise in decibels (dBA). Millions of people could easily determine their noise exposure at any time. Going further, they could use their smartphone to take a picture of the noise source, map its location with GPS, and share this information in mass collaboration over the Internet to create a Goggle Earth map of noise for anyone to evaluate.

Don’t just imagine a smartphone as an SLM — there’s a free app for it. Figure 1 shows a screenshot of the deci- Bel app for the Android OS. I recently installed the app and calibrated the device for my Droid. It’s not a professional SLM, but it is fairly accurate as a survey meter.

The NoiseTube project is underway (see http://www.noisetube.net). Check out the YouTube video at the web site to see how this works and link to publications to read scientific papers that describe the technology of using a mobile phone as an environmental sensor.

The following are other features of smartphones that might impact EHS practice:

Measuring physical activity: The latest smartphones are equipped with an accelerometer that allows the device to know its orientation as either up, down, or tilted. Combined with a magnetometer the smartphone can determine its direction as facing North, South, East or West. The device’s GPS can detect distance and speed traveled. Combine these technologies with the smartphone’s connection to the Internet, along with the device’s huge software capacity, and peoples’ physical activity in real-time can be tracked and measured. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s NIH grant, “Enabling Population-Scale Physical Activity on Common Mobile Phones,” shows that this technology and research is underway.

Ergonomics: What if a smartphone was attached to an employee’s trunk or other parts of the body; could the accelerometer help assess and measure lifting behavior? Check out the patent application by the Hartford Insurance Company for a lift monitoring system and method at http://www.faqs.org/patents/app/20090135009. Various ergonomic apps for smartphones are possible.

Heartbeat monitor: Beyond tracking physical activity, the iPhone has an app to monitor a person’s heartbeat. See http://downloads.zdnet.com/abstract. aspx?docid=1186087 for more information.

Monitoring traffic speed: There is a smartphone app now that will provide an alert when a designated speed is exceeded. Not only might this app alert the driver, it can also send an automatic notice to anyone else so designated. What if this other person is your boss? Nice app for slowing people’s driving speed.

“Man down”: There are several smartphone apps that track the whereabouts of people or assets. See http://www. trackandlocate.net/ as one example. Not only can these apps show where a person (or thing) is, but it can also detect motion, electronic fence violations, voice prompts, panic alerts, G-force alert, etc. Working alone is not as dangerous as it once was if you have a smartphone.

Product recognition: A growing number of products have barcodes on their labels that can be scanned and linked to the Internet to obtain substantial information about the product. The latest smartphones are equipped with a barcode scanner. Although current apps mostly help find the lowest cost for a scanned product, apps are possible to scan a product’s barcode and immediately link to safety data.

M-learning: The smartphone’s large screen and excellent sound output allows viewing of videos wherever a person is located. NIOSH refers to this technology as M-learning (M = mobile). NIOSH tested whether M-learning was as effective as traditional classroom learning (e.g. lecture) and found there was no significant difference in mean test scores among the two methods. See www.cdc.gov/niosh/nora/symp08/ posters/038.html. Redivideos (http://redivideos.com/) is one of the growing number of companies that are producing safety training videos for smartphones.

One Redivideos customer commented: “I'm the head of safety at a major mining company. We have installed the CPR video on all our employees’ BlackBerrys. Having this information on them at all times in a convenient application is very important to us!”

The NIOSH Pocket Guide for Chemical Hazards (see http://www.dangerousdecisions.com/apps.html) is now an iPhone app. More smartphone apps for these types of databases are possible.

Picture saved as PDF: Have you ever tried to write down all of the information on a hazmat label? There are apps that will use the smartphone’s camera and save a picture as a PDF or other file format. Capture all of the hazmat or product label information with a click of a button, then enter this as an attachment to your safety audit report.

Smartphone technology can enhance our ability to perform better. We just need to be alert to these possibilities and how to use them.

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Recent Articles by Dan Markiewicz, MS, CIH, CSP, CHMM

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