PDA Software Offers Auditing Advances

PDAs may not be perfect for safety and health audits, but they certainly are an improvement over pen and paper.

Audits and inspections are critical components of any good safety and health program. Management audits evaluate whether the occupational safety and health management system adheres to recognized good practices and meets organizational needs. Compliance audits gauge the organization's compliance with regulatory requirements. Without an effective audit program, even the best safety and health program can crumble under the weight of regulatory change and organizational entropy.

Auditing is simple in concept but resource-intensive in execution. It is no wonder that most organizations use computers to streamline the process. While computers are great for developing questionnaires and checklists, or managing and tracking corrective actions, even notebook computers are too bulky and inconvenient for fieldwork. The result is that most auditors still use a pen to record their observations on paper questionnaires.

The small size and long battery life of Palm Pilots and other personal digital assistants (PDAs) make them attractive for completing audits in the field. While an organization could use Pendragon Forms and design a custom application that integrates PDAs into its audit program, Creative Business Solutions offers an off-the-shelf solution in PPM Audit.

PPM (Process and Performance Measurement) Audit is a Microsoft Windows application for designing and completing audit questionnaires and tracking corrective actions. As an added bonus, PPM Audit includes PDA software support so audit questionnaires can be completed in the field using PalmOS and WinCE PDAs.

Audit Design

Designing audits in PPM is straightforward. Give the audit a name, enter the audit questions and define an answer set, maximum score and other essential properties for each question (Figure 1).

Audit questions are grouped into related blocks by assigning them section, subsection and item numbers. Questions also may be assigned up to six category numbers that allow a range of options for grouping questions and responses for reporting at a later time.

The set of valid answers for each question, called response options, is managed using response lists. PPM Audit comes equipped with a set of nine default response lists, including:

  • Yes, no, n/a;
  • Compliant, in process of compliance, noncompliant; and
  • Strongly agree, agree, no opinion, disagree, strongly disagree.

Each item in the response list is assigned a percentage value used to score the audit based upon the maximum score assigned to the question. For example, suppose the possible responses to a question are "compliant," assigned a value of 100 percent; "compliance in process," with a value of 50 percent; and "noncompliant" at zero percent. If the question has a maximum score of 10, an answer of "compliant" would score all 10 points, "compliance in process" would score five points and "noncompliant" would score zero.

After a response list is assigned to a question, the audit designer can define a default response, which can include boilerplate text automatically inserted as part of the narrative response. A question can also include scoring criteria (text that guides the auditor in selecting the appropriate response).

Finally, word processor documents, spreadsheets, Web sites or other documents can be linked to an audit question. This can provide auditors easy access to policies, procedures, regulations, standards and other information directly from PPM Audit.

Audits do not have to be built from scratch. Questions can be imported from existing text and spreadsheet files. While the text and spreadsheet files must fit strict format requirements for proper importation, PPM's excellent tutorial feature provides clear guidance. Text files are

limited to importing just questions, which are automatically assigned section, subsection and question numbers. Spreadsheet files are more flexible and can include the values of all the question properties, including response list, scoring criteria and scoring information.

Audit Execution

A PPM audit can be completed in the field by running the audit software on a notebook computer or by writing responses on a printed copy of the questions. The neatest way to complete the audit is using the "Sync to Handheld" feature and transferring the questions to a Palm Pilot or Windows CE device.

Multiple audits can be held in the PDA. Once the desired audit is selected, the questions are presented one screen at a time. Buttons on the bottom of the PDA screen are used to move between questions. Each question is displayed with a list of valid responses, with additional buttons available to display the scoring criteria and to enter a narrative response or notes.

PDAs are not perfect. Entering text into a PDA using a stylus is not as efficient as writing words with pen on paper. Using the PalmOS shortcut feature can minimize this problem. Shortcuts let the user define and enter boilerplate text using a short, easy-to-enter code. For example, the phrase "as evidenced by" can be defined and entered as the three-letter shortcut "aeb." Another alternative for speeding text entry is to use a portable keyboard.

Follow-through

Every time the PDA is synchronized with its Windows host, the PPM Audit database is updated with answers collected on the PDA. The auditor then works within the Windows application to review and complete the audit.

PPM Audit's Follow Up module is used to assign and track corrective actions. Clicking the Follow Up button in the audit questions screen creates a new Follow Up record with the information from the audit question and response automatically entered into the record (Figure 2). The auditor simply completes the "priority," "date due," "event," "initiated by," "assigned to" and "follow up action required" fields, then clicks the PPM Alert button to send an e-mail to the individual assigned to complete the action.

After the audit questions and Follow Up actions are completed, an executive summary is prepared, completing the audit. The final audit report can be printed directly from PPM Audit, or the report can be exported as a word processing document for further editing.

PPM Audit has rich report and export capabilities. In addition to detailed reports of questions and answers, summary, category and trend reports are available that allow users to slice and dice to their hearts' content. All reports can be exported in a variety of formats, from comma and tab delimited files to rich text format, spreadsheet, HTML and a variety of database formats.

The Bottom Line

PPM Audit is a versatile product. Creative Business Solutions has teamed with LabelMaster to integrate PPM Audit with LabelMaster's REG-Trieve CD-ROM of occupational safety and health regulations (www.labelmaster.com/auditsource). The entire set of OSHA general industry standards are formatted as expert audit questions with custom links to the associated regulations on REG-Trieve's CD-ROM.

PPM Audit customers represent a diverse cross section of industry, including utilities, manufacturing, mining, pulp and paper, oil and health care. Additional information and demoware is available at the PPM Audit Web site (www.ppmsystems.com/index.html).

About the author: Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, author of "Internet User's Guide for Safety and Health Professionals," is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast. He can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards, by fax at (309) 273-5493 or by electronic mail at [email protected]

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