Think back, not too far, to 1995. Remember being less efficient or resourceful than you are today? It’s hard to believe much could have changed in just two years. But results from Industrial Safety & Hygiene News’ most recent survey on computer usage prove that a lot has. Earlier this year we surveyed 1,000 environmental health and safety professionals on their computer use habits and received responses from 202, for a 20 percent response rate. The difference between the outcomes of our 1997 and 1995 surveys show that reliance on computers and related equipment -- like modems and CD-ROM drives -- among safety and health managers has climbed significantly. The number of professionals going online, for instance, nearly doubled between 1995 and 1997.

Even stronger than the statistics that show computers’ impact on the practice are safety and health pros’ testimonials. Take the industrial hygiene supervisor who sent ISHN e-mail after gaining access to the Internet: "It is amazing how much it has improved my efficiency and effectiveness," he says. "The Internet has changed the way we work for the better," says another.

Many consider technology tools indispensable. In fact, "necessary" was the most common adjective given when we asked safety and health pros to tell us in one word what their computer means to them. Nearly 40 percent of EHS professionals spend more than ten hours a week at their keyboards in the office. More than half hammer away at home computers between three and ten hours a week.

To be sure, there are those who still haven’t bought into the craze: about 30 percent of professionals don’t yet have online access or a CD-ROM drive; 41 percent aren’t linked to e-mail; 60 percent have never used the World Wide Web to download compliance information.

Can't work without one?

So just what is it that makes computers necessary to the rest? Nothing complicated. Word processing (say 90%), keeping records (75%) and scheduling (49%) are the number one, two, and three uses for computers, according to respondents.

Otherwise, about 40 percent use computers for training, budgeting, live presentations and graphics preparation.

77 percent use CD-ROM technology. That’s up from only half who had CD drives in 1995 -- after all, more compliance information is available on disc now.

Only 35 percent say they use computers for MSDS management or employee communications. Even fewer track chemical exposures, manage audits, or document workers’ compensation cases or employee health records by computer. For all the talk in recent years about integrating health and safety databases for greater recordkeeping efficiency and cost controls, only 20 percent of respondents claim to use their computer to perform that function.

Instead, the bigger attraction is the Internet. In fact, EHS pros seem to use computers more now for acquiring information than for managing it.

Internet use

The number of professionals linking to outside resources through the Internet grows unabated. In 1995 only 36 percent of readers reported ever having gone online. In 1997, 70 percent connect to the Internet at least once a week.

What’s the attraction? Here’s what Internet users and cruisers say: ·

  • "The Internet is an excellent source of free safety information." ·
  • "It’s an excellent tool for looking up MSDSs and OSHA regulations and interpretations." ·
  • "From downloading PIP from OSHA to grade our facility to checking EPA for help, I have found the Internet to be very helpful." ·
  • "To send and receive e-mail, I find it useful." ·
  • "I have been on the Internet for a couple of years now at home and have convinced management that it is a very effective tool for safety." ·
  • "We are constantly looking for ways to keep our overhead down. Using the World Wide Web to obtain information from the Federal Register, 29 CFR, 40 CFR and 49 CFR has been very cost effective."

Statistically speaking, the Internet is most widely used for e-mail. Nearly 60 percent of all survey respondents say they use online services for sending and receiving correspondence. More than 40 percent use it for research and retrieving compliance information. And while 39 percent say they engage in "random surfing," safety pros don’t seem to have a lot of time to waste on the World Wide Web: 30 percent spend between one and two hours per week online; only 20 percent are online more than five hours a week.

EHS pros might not have time to take advantage of other extras available online either: Only 12 percent say they participate in online peer group chats and discussion forums; only 9 percent shop for PPE and other safety products online; and 22 percent log on to read electronic versions of newspapers or magazines.

Of course, the question this new information raises is "what changes will the next two years bring?" In 1995 some survey respondents envisioned reading only electronic versions of technical journals and trade magazines within a few years. Sure enough, the results of this survey are available on the Internet at http://www.ishn.com What do you envision for the 1999 installment?