Not a day goes by when my mailbox is not filled with the latest and greatest offerings in safety software. From simple tasks like MSDS management and injury recording to complex ones like chemical inventory tracking for facilities around the country, there are an overwhelming amount of options out there if you are shopping for a software package to suit your individual need.

Reasons to purchase safety software are many -- convenience, time and labor savings and increased efficiency, to name just a few. For one that has recently been through the process of evaluating, purchasing and learning to use a safety program, I have learned that there are more options to choose from than there are sources of information on the subject.

What I offer here are 10 tips to think about before you make a software purchasing decision. Each one is based on my recent personal experience. They don't pretend to be all inclusive of what you will need to think about before you can make your decision but they can help you toward that goal.

Define your goal

First, simply ask yourself, "What do I want to do with this software?" Unfortunately, it's a question that often is not addressed thoroughly enough.

What do you want the package to do for you? MSDS management? Accident reporting? Chemical inventory control and tracking? There are countless number of tasks out there, each with a respective program designed to handle it. The key here is to define your goal and then find a package that will accomplish that goal. Ask the software vendors for specification sheets that list what their programs will do. That alone will get you thinking.

Check out the price

The price of a program should not be a restriction as much as a guideline for what it is that you're looking to get out of your investment. There are programs out there that range from simple safety plan creation packages running around $100 to full-blown compliance packages for networked users that will set you back in the thousands. As a rule, the more functions and utilities your situation requires, the more you should plan on spending. Look closely at the fine print. Technical support can be very expensive. Always look for a toll-free help line; chances are you will need it eventually. Also, will it work with your current hardware or are you looking at a computer upgrade? Does your current system have the necessary requirements to run the program such as available memory, modems, the correct operating system, etc.?

Is it too complex?

Computer programs are becoming so easy to use that someone who has never seen a computer in his or her lives can be shown how to navigate the Internet or send e-mail in minutes. Ask yourself, "Am I the type of person who enjoys working with technology and complex programs or am I looking for something more intuitive that will do the more complicated tasks for me?" If a program is not suited to your level of computer knowledge and ambition, then chances are that eventually you will not want to use it or at least not to its full potential. Ask the vendor for a demonstration sample and find out if it's something that you're comfortable using.

Is it user-friendly?

Is the program easy to navigate and work with? Can you easily go from the forklift-training log in employee records to finding out where that shipment of glycol was just unloaded? If you have to go through several steps and sub-programs to find what you need, then the program is not responsive to your needs.

Is the program so easy to use that all your paper files become obsolete? Will you reach for the mouse before the filing cabinet? That is the test for user-friendliness.

Is it versatile?

In this new age of business our roles and functions change overnight. Will the program you are looking at be able to adapt and change along with your company? Will you be shopping around for upgrades and patches after the shipping department doubles the inventory and starts importing from overseas? What happens when that merger finally comes through and you find yourself suddenly in the business of chemical manufacturing instead of simply warehousing and distribution?

Look for a program that has integrated modules available that will grow along with you. Ask about what plans the manufacturer has for future programs and if they will be compatible with what you're evaluating.

Does it offer vendor support?

Technology is one of the most rapidly changing and complex fields. Nobody can become an expert overnight so we need to know that there is help when we need it.

Does your vendor offer technical support after the sale? Who answers the phone when you have a question -- a software technician or a salesman? Is the company staffed by people who have never seen the inside of a warehouse or by professionals who understand your questions? What about a warranty and scheduled upgrades?

Service after the sale is just as crucial as the buying decision. Shop around for a company that will stand behind its product.

What's its growth potential?

Every business desires to grow and expand but are you ready for it? The question to ask yourself here is, "Am I buying a program that will grow as my business and industry grow?" Your employee record database is only set up for 50 employees but the new merger just brought in 25 more. Can you update the system to handle the new records? Reporting was once easily done by hand but now you need to report directly to OSHA online, will this system handle that or will you have to look around for a new program?

Search for a package that offers a large database and external storage capabilities. Ask the vendor about what you think your needs are and see how they address them.

Is it multi-task or single-task software?

There are programs out there that will do everything from simply recording and managing your training schedule to full-blown four-part compliance packages. These programs will integrate and manage every aspect of your safety program from reporting and inventory tracking to training and MSDS creation. One package can do it all if that's what you need.

The best advice? Look into a modular program that suits your needs now but can easily be upgraded and added onto later. Ask vendors about multi-tasking and see what they have to say. Some offer it right up front as part of their package and some programs will also work with other vendors' software. If in doubt, at least look for a vendor that sells and represents all of the programs you may need regardless of the manufacturer. That way they will have a better understanding of what you have and may need to accomplish later.

Do you really need it?

Can you really justify the expense, time and labor involved in working with a safety software program? The question is a tough one and can only be answered by you. Just because there are tools out there to make our lives easier doesn't mean that they must serve a role in our lives. Be sure of what you need and why you need it and you'll be much better off in the long run.

Avoid the technological black hole

I overheard a corporate executive saying how he feared his company was being consumed by what he called "the technology black hole." What he meant was that his firm had become so obsessed with the pursuit of technology that they had lost focus on their original goal. The same can happen to you. My last tip applies not only to this subject but also to many things in life. Computers are great and I couldn't live without one but just because something exists that claims to be better, faster, cheaper, etc., doesn't mean that it's necessary. Technology for the sake of itself could be a hindrance to the functions that we need to perform. Disregard all the hype and salesmanship and invest in only what you need to effectively perform your duties.

Sometimes the best answers are the simplest ones. The truth of the matter is when OSHA comes knocking on your door they won't be impressed by the thousands of dollars you just spent on your new compliance package, or the countless hours you invested importing all that MSDS data. What will impress them is that your facility is a safe, clean and compliant workplace. How you go about accomplishing that goal is entirely up to you.