So you’re considering buying software to help you manage your health and safety programs, and OH&S management system. Good idea...but where do you start? For many safety practitioners, the daily demand of managing many different types of data and information is becoming increasingly challenging. It’s been said that the safety field is information-rich, but how do you make sense of all that information? And better still, how does all that safety data give you opportunities to improve the way in which your safety system is managed?

In the past five years, there has been a proliferation of automated tools to take what was once a labor intensive, manual data capture exercise, and turn it into easy-to-read, meaningful electronic data.

A quick search on the Internet will provide a wide range of safety products for managing investigation data, inspection and audit information, safety system documentation, industrial hygiene issues and ergonomics, just to name a few.

So here is a quick guideline to evaluating and purchasing safety software.

What are your expectations?

There’s a saying that goes something like this: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” So it is with your safety software. The most critical issue you need to identify when you start looking at software is, what do you want the software to do for you?

You need to be clear on your expectations, and you need the vendor to verify how their solution will meet your objectives.

For larger, enterprise applications, IT departments get involved, as well as purchasing agents, and very structured business documents (Request for Information/Request for Proposals) can be the result. Regardless of the size and scope of your operation, it is imperative you know what you want before you ask for it. Then measure the vendor’s response, technical and otherwise, against your specific requirements.

Fine-tune your needs

Once you understand the most important functional issues associated with your software solution, you will need to define a short list of suppliers. One of the quickest ways to do this is through a detailed Internet search. Just try a popular search engine, such as Google or Yahoo, and, for example, type in the words ‘safety management software.’

Doing so will give you an exhaustive list of software companies with a wide range of product in this area. Consider calling or e-mailing each vendor on your list and ask a few simple questions. And make sure you let the vendor know right up front that the answers to your initial questions will comprise part of any contract for the software purchase. This can be a critical part of an enterprise software evaluation, and it has the added bonus of helping ensure the vendor will give you honest and accurate answers.

Ask lots of questions

One of the best ways to help determine which software and vendor is the right fit with your requirements is to ask questions. And ask the right kinds of questions.

Make sure you ask for names, telephone numbers or e-mail addresses of some other customers of the vendor. It pays not only to evaluate the software before you part with your hard earned cash, but it also pays to see how other safety practitioners such as you have experienced the vendor, both from a service perspective and with their software. Other critical questions that can help you determine whether a vendor and their product is right for you include:
  • How long has the company been in business? Being viable in the technology sector can help indicate whether the company will be around in the future to support your software.
  • What percent of their budget has been invested in research and development (R&D) each year? Why should you want to know this, or even care to ask? Simply put, if the vendor is not investing in their future, then they are not investing in yours. Technology changes quickly, and new features, enhancements and version releases are a sign the vendor is keeping up with the needs of industry and the demands of their clients.
  • When was the most recent product released and how many customers are using it?
Again, you want to see if the vendor is keeping up with the demands in the market. As an example, there is a strong trend towards less and less client server (LAN/WAN) technology solutions, and more demand for Web-based solutions. Some vendors carry solutions for all these technologies. Some don’t. Find out where your vendor sees their product in the next 2-3 years.

Buying tips

Here is some general advice as you move forward with your safety software decisions:

Don’t buy strictly on price — Cheaper doesn’t always mean better. Nor does it always mean a better solution for you. Make sure you have an approved budget, or an anticipated budget, and then evaluate the software you can afford. As you compare the proposals, look at the value each vendor provides. Focusing only on the price could result in disaster.

Evaluate and demo all potential software — Don’t forget to ask about product implementation and training, ongoing support, customizations and enhancement software, and the competencies of the vendor’s staff. All of these issues are as important as the software itself. Be sure to try a demo of the software before you purchase it. Only you can determine if the software will do all the things you require. Insist on working demos of the current software so you can evaluate exactly how the software works with your data, or in your environment.

Ask for references, case studies, testimonials — If you’re satisfied with what you’ve seen in the demonstration, phone the vendors’ references and talk with long-term users of the system you’re interested in. Since you will not find one company exactly like yours, it is important to talk to as many references as you can. Ask specific questions that focus on your critical issues.

Training and support – after-sale considerations — Remember that issues such as training, installation, ongoing support, custom software and the overall attitude of the vendor’s staff are all as important as the software itself.

If done correctly, the work you put into selecting your new safety software solution will pay huge dividends by giving you a solution that improves your safety management system and reduces operating costs.

Sidebar: Product evaluation

When evaluating and selecting safety software, critical issues to consider include:
  • Product functionality;
  • Technology, architecture and infrastructure;
  • Implementation process;
  • Short and long-term technical support;
  • Vendor’s vision for the product, both from a technology and industry perspective;
  • Long-term financial viability.
While each of these key areas is important, some may carry more weight than others depending upon your needs.