Does this sound familiar? You spend two or three hours a day at work in front of a computer screen. More and more you find yourself bringing work home, perhaps spending an hour a night on your home PC. You’ve also become more interested in the Internet, spending an hour or two a week sending E-mail and checking out sites.

This snapshot of how safety and health pros are living in an ever-increasing electronic world, circa 1996, comes from a survey of 1,000 readers of Industrial Safety & Hygiene News mailed in late June (153 answered for a 15.3% response rate).

Results show professionals to be fairly serious computernicks. 47% work at a keyboard in their office more than three hours a day. 21% are on a computer more than 20 hours each week. 71% average at least two hours a day.

And that’s just in the office. About two-thirds (65%) of the safety and health pros responding do some job-related work on a computer at home. Of those working at home, 61% log one to five hours a week on a PC; 21% average six to ten hours.

This is too much screen time for some professionals. Asked how computers have affected their work, one respondent answers, "More desk time, less field time." "More time is spent in the office," says another. "Backaches and headaches," writes a third.

This raises a red flag with some experts, who say computers should allow safety and health pros to do more field work, more complex assignments. "If I’ve integrated software correctly it frees me up to do more audits of confined spaces or construction sites," says Mark Hansen of Eagle Environmental Health in Houston. "I’m afraid too many safety people are bound to computers."

Roger Brauer, executive director of the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, says technology should minimize time spent on basics like training and data collection, and elevate professionals to higher-level tasks like designing safety into products and systems. "The tools are there to get away from the grunt work," he says.

What seems to be happening, at least according to this survey, is that many professionals are still doing the grunt work, only now it’s automated grunt work. "Most of the time we use computers for routine tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, or databases," Hansen told an audience during his presentation on computer technology at the recent American Society of Safety Engineers conference in San Diego.

His sentiment is backed up by survey results showing the most popular software applications to be report writing (used by 80% of respondents) and basic correspondence (78%). Along with cranking out reports, letters, and memos, professionals most commonly use computers for training administration (cited by 53% of respondents), presentations (49%), and newsletters and other forms of employee communication (44%).

Roadblocks to ramping up

Several barriers can block pros from more high-performance applications: ·
  • Some safety and health departments are limited to hand-me-down hardware. "Someone in my office died and I inherited their computer, finally entering the 20th century," writes one survey respondent. "Management had not previously felt the nurse needed a computer. After all, I spend the company’s profits, I don’t make money for them." ·
  • Some employers might be computer phobic, especially when it comes to letting employees loose on the Internet -fearing they will run up phone bills making travel plans, E-mailing friends, or worse, letting in viruses that corrupt internal systems. In fact, one survey respondent anonymously admits: "I can look busy when in reality I’m playing games or doing personal work." ·
  • Having to do more work with less support in this age of downsizing is a major constraint. "The biggest problem in the safety profession today is time -professionals don’t have the time to figure out how to use the technology," says Hansen.

That most safety and health pros must "figure out" how to use computers reflects the profession’s demographics. The average ISHN reader is 43 years old, meaning he or she probably learned personal computing on the fly somewhere on the job. Many college graduates entering the field today started pointing and clicking in grade school.

But it’s easier these days to get up to speed on technology. You don’t have to go too far at work or around the neighborhood to find someone who’s computer savvy. "The best way to learn is to talk to someone who’s already doing these things," says Ralph Stuart, who manages the SAFETY list online message posting and feedback service from the University of Vermont.

He says there are also enough user groups and support groups online "that it’s not a major chore to find what you need."

There’s also a plethora of periodicals that keep up with the proliferation of hardware options and software programs. Mark Hansen finds time to read PC World, Computer Life, Health Data Management, Healthcare Informatics, Imaging, Government Imaging, Mobile Office, and VAR (Value-Added Reseller) Business. He says he also finds valuable computer information in BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal.

Judging from our survey, about one in every four or five safety and health pros are something of computer sophisticates, reaping the benefits of document imaging, database integration, and mobile offices. For example, 26% of the respondents use a portable computer at work or at home. 17% have integrated databases -such as human resources records; accident/illness and workers’ comp histories; and training, worker health, chemical exposure, and audit logs- to examine various cause-and-effect links.

Approximately one in three pros surveyed makes use of stand-alone programs for OSHA recordkeeping (35%), audit tracking (32%), and MSDS management (38%).

Despite the learning curve and some trouble accessing cutting-edge equipment and programs, the survey leaves little doubt that technology is strengthening the hand of safety and health professionals at work. "Computers have made my life a lot easier," simply states one respondent. "Tracking injuries allows for more effective decision-making," says another. "I’m more self-sufficient," says a third.

Case studies

Here are three quick examples of what pros are talking about: ·
  • Talk about self-sufficient, University of Michigan industrial hygiene professor Steven Levine hardly goes to the office anymore except for lectures and occasional meetings. He’s wired in at home with three phone lines, two computers, a scanner, fax, and headset. "I send and receive documents around the world, responding to E-mail or fax. Someone wanted a copy of a journal article; I scanned it in and faxed it to them while talking on the phone," he says. ·
  • Matthew Weilert says his consulting business, the Systems Thinking Institute, wouldn’t exist without electronic communication. He works in Manchester, New Hampshire; his two partners are in Austin, Texas. "Voice mail, computer-based faxes, and E-mail are pillars of our business," he says.

    The business is marketed on the World Wide Web, using a home page designed and programmed by Weilert. "With only three principals, print and traditional advertising is out of the question," he says. ·

  • Howard Kusnetz retired several years ago after an active career in industrial hygiene that included a term as president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. Professionals still seek him out at his home in Houston for advice. That’s not hard to do -thanks to E-mail he’s an electronic mentor. "That’s how we get around the cost of long distance calls and time zones," he explains.

Online bennies

Survey results indicate that more professionals are discovering how to network and conduct research on the Internet. In a 1995 survey of Industrial Safety & Hygiene News readers, 36% said they were connected to the Internet. In 1996, that number now stands at 46%.

81% of those connected online use E-mail. Other popular online applications include obtaining regulatory information (65%) researching projects (58%), and reading electronic versions of magazines and newspapers (41%).

A good example of networking is Ralph Stuart’s SAFETY listserv. Started in 1989 as a forum for 50 to 75 academic safety pros interested primarily in laboratory safety issues, it now serves a list of about 2,400 subscribers. Every morning they receive up to 50 messages or postings from other subscribers, and they have the opportunity to respond. Stuart’s summary of topics discussed during the last week of June included 49 items -everything from motivating line management and successful safety programs to glassblower hazards and bee stings to meter readers.

Hubert Talley, human resources director for the Avis Sports Group, is a typical user. He recently signed on to the list because "safety is the most difficult area to obtain information on, and we needed a forum for our questions pertaining to interpretations of many OSHA laws."

Finding information online can be a formidable challenge as Net usage explodes. For instance, the Alta Vista search engine turned up 50,000 documents matching the query term "confined space," and 70,000 documents for "behavioral safety."

According to the survey, many professionals seem to be at the stage where the Net is still a novelty, with 70% saying they spend time just randomly surfing. A number of safety pros who have been on the Net for years say they get on and off as quickly as possible to save on phone bills and avoid the aggravation of traffic gridlock.

They’ve become adept at knowing where to go, or asking the right directions, to make sense of a bewildering avalanche of information. Sort of like traditional regulatory compliance chores. Which goes to show, even in this techno-age some basic skills never grow obsolete.

Sidebar: Shopping for a portable computer

Here are some quick tips for road warriors in the market for a portable computer, courtesy of Mark Hansen at Eagle Environmental Health, Inc., in Houston: ·
  • If you’re going to invest in a portable computer you probably want it to keep pace with technology, so you might as well buy a 486SX or DX. A 486SX should be sufficient if you’re planning to use your portable as a word processor. But you’ll probably need the computing power of a 486DX, DX2 or DX4 if you’re planning on using graphics, multimedia, spreadsheets, and CAD drawings. The way computer power keeps growing, a Pentium might be worth the investment. ·
  • If you need more performance, you might as well get the 100, 120, 133, 150 or 166 MHz (or more) processor clock speeds. ·
  • I believe in loading up your computer with the maximum in random access memory -16 megabytes of RAM, with some vendors now advertising 32- to keep up with the growing demands of software programs to use more active RAM. ·
  • As for hard drives, I would go so far as to say that 340 megabytes of memory should be the minimum. In fact, I’d consider the 500MB, 700MB, 850MB, 1 gigabyte or even 1.275 gigabyte. The reason is, I don’t believe in disk doublers. Too often I’ve seen them cause performance problems. ·
  • Monitors come in all shapes and sizes, with resolutions from 800 x 600, 1024 x 768, 1024 x 1024, 1280 x 1024; and 14 inch to 21 inch diagonal measurements. Super VGA (SVGA) screen monitors are the way to go, especially with the arrival of Windows 95. SVGA has a resolution of 1024 x 768. For high resolution the next step is SVGA 1280 x 1024 -the minimum tolerable resolution on a 17-inch monitor. ·
  • For portable computer screens, I find black and white versions sufficient, leaving color work to be done on my office computer. For prolonged use of portable screens, I’d recommend the larger sizes, such as the 9.4 inch or the 10.4 inch screens. ·
  • When it comes to batteries for portables, go for the longest life. Battery life advertisements range from two to five hours; as a rule you may want to halve the advertised battery life to get a more accurate feel for performance. I’d recommend the lithium-ion battery over the nickel-cadmium battery; it costs more but lasts longer. ·
  • The easiest way to expand the capabilities of your portable computer is to add a Personal Computer Modular Interface Adapter (PCMIA) card. It allows you to hook up to fax/modems, add space to your hard drive, use CD-ROMs, capture video, or connect to a Local Area Network. I recommend at least one PCMIA slot, if not two. ·
  • Once you’ve "spec-ed" out your needs, there are several purchasing options. Buying from a local dealer gives you local support if you have problems. You’ll save a few dollars buying from a mail order house -if you go this route, I suggest leaving your computer on for a few days when it arrives because if it’s going to fail, it will usually fail during that time period. ·
  • If you buy by mail order, try using a credit card to protect yourself against defects or loss. You may want to try buying through the want ads. Be careful that the computer has everything you want and you know the right questions to ask, otherwise you may get caught holding a lemon. ·
  • The used computer market is hot. According to The Wall Street Journal, 2.4 million used computers were sold in 1995 (compared to 10.5 million new models). 60% of the used computers sold for less than $500. ·
  • Here are some recent prices for used computers: Dell 386/33 with 130MB HD, 4MB RAM, 14-in. color monitor ($350); IBM 486/66 with 420MB HD, 8MB RAM, 14-in. color monitor ($825); Toshiba 1960 CS with 320MB HD, 4MB RAM, color monitor ($1,000); Compaq P100 with 1G HD, 16MB RAM, 15-in. color monitor ($1,685); Apple Powerbook 320MB HD, 4MB RAM ($1,725). ·
  • Prices for new 586/166 computers (Pentium) with 1G HD, 16 MB RAM, 14-in color monitor range from $2,000-$5,000, depending on bells and whistles. ·
  • Buy what will suit your current and foreseeable needs. And unfortunately, no matter what you buy now, it will most likely be out of date in 18 months or less. ·
  • When is it time to upgrade? How your computer handles the latest software games is a good indicator, since many programs are adapting the visual style of games.