Staying on Track

After an EHS audit, the right software can help an organization streamline the process of making sure corrective actions are taken.

Safety, health and environmental audits can seem like a visit from Caesar's legions. After a report of "veni, vedi, citi" - I came, I saw, I cited - the audit team moves on to its next engagement, leaving the facility to pick up the pieces and implement corrective actions.

Implementing corrective actions is one of the hardest parts of safety, health and environmental management. It requires discipline, dedication and follow-through. Someone must be assigned responsibility for each item, identify the root cause, develop a corrective action plan, obtain required resources, implement the corrective action, and document and verify completion.

All of this is done while struggling against ongoing demands of the daily grind. It's all too easy for action items to get lost in the noise of day-to-day activities.

Corrective action-tracking software can help an organization maintain its focus on closing out audit findings. While software will not eliminate the need for discipline and dedication, it can streamline the process, simplifying management and coordination.

Dakota Tracer

Dakota Tracer (www.dakotasoft.com) is an intranet-based, corrective action-tracking database and analysis tool. Tracer is a Microsoft SQL-Server database made accessible to individual users through Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. Netscape and other Web browsers are not supported.

Tracer defines an organization's structure using a nested list, known as the "organizational hierarchy," that appears in a frame on the left side of the browser. Folder icons represent divisions, departments or other parts of an organization. Clicking on a folder with the mouse expands or collapses the folder, controlling the level of detail displayed.

Other icons represent "action item collections" - action items associated with a specific audit. The number of action items associated with each level of the hierarchy appears in brackets to the right of each closed folder and action item collection. Checkboxes to the left of each hierarchy item are used to select action item collections for viewing in an "Action Table."

Maintaining the hierarchy using the Web browser can be a chore for large organizations. Dakota Software, however, provides database tools that can help. One of Dakota's clients maintains a six-level-deep hierarchy for 2,500 sites using an Oracle database that automatically updates the Tracer hierarchy.

The Action Table summarizes action items selected in the hierarchy. Fields displayed in the table can be modified to suit individual preferences, and the table can be sorted on any displayed field. Individual records are viewed by double clicking a record or by splitting the window to display the Action Table and the Action Details windows.

While action item records can be added to the database by hand, the easiest way to populate the database is to import action items from spreadsheets, delimited text files, Access databases or Dakota Audit Sessions. A Data Import Wizard analyzes the information in the file to be imported and provides step-by-step guidance.

Action Table exporting is limited to html format. The html file can be opened and edited by any word processor, spreadsheet or database program that can open or import html files. Or the exported table can be opened in a Web browser and text copied and pasted into the desired application.

The Action Details window displays all information associated with a record. Records are edited by clicking on the Edit button at the top of the window and making the desired changes. Changes are only entered into the database after clicking the Submit button.

Judicious use of alerts and journal entries can minimize the need to track down individuals for information and facilitate collaboration and coordination in completing corrective actions. The alerts function is used to send an e-mail notifying specified users of changes to an action item or to remind them that action is due. The journal field automatically keeps a list of all changes made to a record. The journal is also used to record user notes on an items status, the reason for changing a record and other useful information.

Tracer really shines when it comes to data analysis, using what Dakota calls "point-and-click parametric filtering." Filters are selected from a list of fields, which Tracer automatically analyzes to display a list of the unique response associated with each filtered field on a "filter tree." A count of the number of records meeting the response is displaced next to each level of the filter tree hierarchy.

Once the filters are set, the user is free to analyze the database by selecting the parameters of interest, displaying only those records that meet the selected criteria. Suppose, for example, that you want to view only high-priority action items where no action has been taken. Simply filter the records on the "status" and "priority" fields and click on the filters to select the records with a high priority and a status of "not started" or "none".

Tracer's parametric filtering is one of the slickest analysis tools I've experienced. Huge amounts of data can be efficiently sliced and diced to find the records of interest. In addition, an analysis report, along with bar charts, can be generated automatically at the click of a mouse.

Tracer provides system administrators with the typical set of user account management tools. Accounts can be set for read-only access, read-and-write access or read-and-write access with administrator privileges. Access also can be limited by the organizational hierarchy so that a manufacturing division user, for example, may be given only access to manufacturing division records.

Dakota Software has been providing safety, health and environmental auditing tools for more than a decade, continually refining their products based on customer input. While Tracer is probably priced out of the range of most small businesses, larger firms with active audit programs should find it an excellent tool for managing their corrective action process.

Goodbye Northern Light Search, Hello Vivisimo

I'm sad to report that my favorite search engine, Northern Light Search, closed free access to its Web search engine Jan. 16. I'll miss Northern Light's innovative folder system that automatically categorizes search hits by topic for easy browsing. Fortunately, I won't have to go cold turkey, thanks to Vivisimo (http://www.vivisimo.comwww.vivisimo.com).

Vivisimo is a meta-search engine based on research done under National Science Foundation grants at Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Science Department. Search results are reported in a nested category tree, called "document clustering" by Vivisimo. The technique is similar to, and in some ways better than, Northern Light's, making it easy to browse through search hits.

Less than two years old, Vivisimo received Search Engine Watch's 2001 award for the Best Meta Search Engine and an honorable mention for Best Search Feature.

Regardless of your favorite search engine, Search Engine Watch (http://www.searchenginewatch.comwww.searchenginewatch.com) provides a great collection of search engine reviews, tutorials, tips and information. Surf on over. You'll be glad you did.

About the Author: Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast who brakes for animals on the information superhighway. Mike 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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