Remember the last time you had to search for something in a book. Checking the table of contents, thumbing through page numbers, and skimming through the text to search for signs of what you’re looking for... If that didn’t work, you’d turn to the index section, find the words that might help in your search, and go through every single page they appear on. And hopefully you don’t have to repeat the whole process with another book before finding the information you need.

Search engines like Google, e-books, online publications and blogs changed the way we search and find things. From “Googling” what we’re looking for, easily finding keywords within text, to going through news or email on a smartphone, a digital shift has affected everything we do today. The processes in our personal and professional lives are much different now than they were a few years ago, and tasks such as looking up information in a book, for many people, are becoming distant memories.

Digital technology is transforming the safety sector and the jobs of safety professionals, affecting everything from individual inspections to larger safety management systems.

Even OSHA is realizing the benefits of using mobile technology. And after releasing its first tablet-optimized eBook to promote ladder safety, OSHA communications intern Mark Gracyk remarked: “Three years ago during my first college classes, tablets were nearly invisible in the classroom. Today, students are using their tablets as textbooks, and other electronic devices are taking the place of more traditional learning tools. The workplace is no different.”

The safety manager and technology — then and now

Imagine what it was like a decade ago. You’d go out to the field to conduct a safety inspection with a pen and clipboard and the only way to record a deficiency on a piece of equipment was to describe it in your own words and hope a person responsible for performing a corrective action on it will understand everything you meant.

The first phones with built-in cameras such as Nokia 7650 and the Sanyo SPC-5300 were introduced in 2002. The 176x208 pixel display used then would give you a hard time recording pictures, let alone detailed safety notes.

Back then, the amount of digital information created and shared globally was an insignificant fraction of one zettabyte. Global mobile subscriptions sat around 1.3 billion in 2003. Fast forward to today, and the world creates roughly four zetabytes of digital information each year (which is about four billion times what you can fit on a brand new hard drive). Global mobile subscriptions have soared to more than 6.8 billion in 2013, according to the International Telecommunication Unit (ITU).

Today, digital information devices have become part of our personal and professional lives, and safety managers are reaping benefits.

New challenges and opportunities

Digitizing safety processes results in new opportunities for safety professionals, but it also brings new challenges and adds a new level of responsibility. Going beyond eliminating paper from safety work, he or she needs to data mine, analyze, discover and compare trends over time. For larger teams of inspectors, new challenges may include how to manage technology itself.

A shift to using smartphones and tablets on a job requires safety professionals to deal with ways to bring those devices in. Bring your own device (BYOD) programs are gaining the attention of business leaders faster than ever. According to the research company Gartner, by 2017, half of all employers will require employees to supply their own devices for work purposes. One popular BYOD approach involves subsidizing the mobile device service plan for each employee. For safety professionals, combining a BYOD program with today’s smartphones and tablets can remove the need to purchase expensive rugged devices and provide a simple yet rich user experience that allows workers to make and view images in the field, create and share safety documents and inspection reports.

The reward of mastering safety technology

Digitizing safety improves efficiency and gives today’s safety professional complete traceability and real-time access to any safety information or data needed. That’s why safety managers from various industries are embracing the change.

Conducting full safety or compliance facility and job site audits can involve evaluating everything from PPE and fire safety, to machinery and lockout-tagout procedures, to worker training, certifications and more. Using smartphones, tablets and the web to collect data in the field, you can capture visual documentation, assign corrective or preventive actions, add necessary notes and details and ensure every aspect of an audit is complete.

Training management is another important process ripe for digitization. Workers with different roles and responsibilities require unique training, certifications, or licenses. Keeping track of who needs additional training or re-certification and when it needs to be completed, can easily become overwhelming without the right tools. Digitizing these processes, a safety manager can schedule and automate notifications for any re-certifications needed for your employees and track everything from within one system.

Lockout/tagout (LOTO) is one of the more recent safety processes to go digital. Ranking as one of the top ten OSHA’s most frequently cited violations, LOTO is complicated due to the vast differences between equipment types, how they need to be locked out, and the knowledge required to work on or service these machines. Some complications cannot be removed, but technology can empower companies to streamline every part of their LOTO program.

“As procedures are completed digitally, valuable audit trail data is collected identifying who completed the procedure, and when it was started/completed,” says Matthew T. Dudgeon, the global product manager at Master Lock Company. “If an OSHA inspector visits a facility [...], the safety manager can easily pull a history of the lockout procedures for each piece of equipment in question.”

Digitizing such work can save huge amounts of time for organizations that go through any of these safety processes on a regular basis. And it will change the way you track and report your safety programs for the better.