In 2012, it’s hard to believe that archaic paper and spreadsheet-based systems are still widely used to handle corporate environment, health and safety management programs, yet this remains a fact of life for businesses around the globe, and the same is no less true in the oil and gas industry.

Of course, many in the industry have championed state-of-the-art EHS management in light of the array of stringent requirements and operational hazards that face oil and gas companies: tough regulatory oversight, costly notices of violations, the constant threat of life-threatening accidents as well as the possibility of brand-damaging spills and releases. Furthermore, oil and gas businesses have been under the microscope in recent years as a result of a number of high-profile environmental disasters and safety infractions. In light of these stakes, it’s hard to understand why archaic EHS systems persist, even among some industry leaders. These systems are contributing factors in the dangerous paradigm of reactive management within the oil and gas sector and the continued reliance on old ways is an increasingly anachronistic means of doing business in the 21st century.

How do you know if your EHS management system is ‘archaic’? Let’s look at how an EHS program is managed, where EHS information is contained, and how it is captured, recorded, analyzed and acted upon.

The problem with paper

The conventional scenario is pretty straightforward: across its drills, rigs, platforms, offices and other worksites, a hypothetical oil or gas company captures data initially on paper. Let’s say an employee slips, or an oil drum spills, or a field inspector notices a hazard during an audit. The details associated with these incidents and hazards are documented on a paper form to be eventually moved over to a computer program, in most cases spreadsheet software.

Now, before moving on, consider the importance of this data. This is essential information that has either resulted from lax safety or environmental oversight or has been identified by an internal or external auditor as a concern or opportunity for improvement. In other words, this business-critical data can be leveraged to fundamentally improve a business’ bottom line by minimizing risk, averting disasters and ensuring ongoing regulatory compliance. Now consider where this information has gone. At this stage in the EHS management recordkeeping process, this data lives on a paper form. That paper form will in all likelihood be placed in a three-ring binder with similar forms.

Someone at some point thereafter will be charged with the task of compiling all of this information, manually entering it into a spreadsheet. A time-consuming task in and of itself, add to this process the simple factors of competing priorities, human fallibility and, well, laziness. Will the employee responsible actually enter the data? Will they enter it correctly? How will they prioritize documenting the information? When will they enter it? Do they understand the value of the data? Will they postpone entering the data until the deadline for the associated forms and reports emerges? In that rushed scenario, will the data be recorded as accurately and precisely as possible?

In the face of competing tasks and a growing stack of seemingly non-essential paper, the first inclination is often not to complete the work, but to get the stack of paper out of sight and out of mind. In this all too common scenario, this business-critical data information is shut away in a file cabinet to collect dust until some pressing emergency or deadline or regulatory requirement arises, presenting additional vulnerabilities. When it is finally entered into a spreadsheet at a particular worksite, it will then have to be merged with EHS data from other sites which may or may not use the same forms for EHS data collection. Eventually, all the individual site reports will have to be rolled up into a high-level report for senior management and required regulatory reports, a vastly time-consuming process. Audit recommendations and results are input into a system long after an audit has been conducted. There’s no easy way to determine which audit-related tasks have been created, what is completed, and what is outstanding. In short, an array of valuable business intelligence is rendered inert. There is no visibility and transparency on EHS performance, and this simple oversight has literally put lives at risk and presented opportunities for environmental calamities and the associated costs of these deleterious events.

A better alternative

The best-in-class alternative, leveraged by proactive oil and gas companies around the world is a streamlined, web-based system for EHS data collection, reporting, trending and analysis. The best electronic EHS management systems curb the vulnerabilities presented by archaic paper and spreadsheet-based systems by fundamentally simplifying and streamlining the data management process. Instead of recording data on a paper form, audit and incident details can be entered directly into a web-based form through a laptop or tablet computer as a site is navigated or immediately after an incident or near miss occurs. This action represents the one point of entry for audit and incident details into one centralized data repository.

That information never needs to be manually manipulated again, and will instantly be pushed and pulled to and from real-time dashboards, automated notifications, instant reports tailored to different corporate demographics (e.g., managers, executives, etc.) with appropriate levels of depth and scope. The information can virtually be instantly translated into necessary corrective and preventive actions by responsible parties who will be instantly notified of their required actions.

In this scenario, the raw power of the EHS data can be turned into meaningful action almost immediately. Companies that leverage these systems find that they are able to invert the 80-20 data collection/assessment dynamic common among oil and gas businesses all around the world; essentially they move from spending 80 percent of their time and resources on data collection and 20 percent of their efforts on analysis to 20 percent spent on data collection and 80 percent on analysis. The net impact of such a shift on a business is staggering. Managers and directors have instant visibility into EHS performance through real-time key performance indicators (KPI). Trending and analysis tools enable decision-makers to identify recurring trends (e.g., a high amount of forklift incidents and near misses occur on a particular rig) and implement appropriate preventive actions. Time and efficiency savings go through the roof. Potentially disastrous spills and releases are averted, not to mention the associated costly brand damage of a highly publicized incident. A positive safety culture is cultivated. And all of these impacts have a positive impact on an organization’s bottom line.