You Can Take it With You

With a PDA and a couple of software tools, EHS professionals can create an extensive safety and health library and carry it in their pocket.

Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are more than schedule and contact management tools. Safety, health and environmental professionals increasingly use PDAs for audits, inspections and other field applications. And they can do even more.

A PDA can be a reference library, putting key information in the palm of your hand. A PDA can download information from the World Wide Web to keep you up on the latest news and safety information. While it takes a bit of time and effort to set everything up, it's worth the effort.

Let's look at how you can build your own personal pocket library and news room. Along the way, you'll learn how to create a PDA version of the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards and get a daily news fix from Occupational Hazards. Finally, we'll examine steps the safety and health community can take to provide more PDA-friendly material.

Word and Acrobat Readers

Safety and health documents are generally available in Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat format on the Internet and corporate intranet. With the right software, you can carry your favorite NIOSH guides, OSHA publications and corporate safety and health policies on your PDA.

Windows CE (WinCE) and Palm PDAs come with Microsoft Word compatible software. WinCE devices arrive with PocketWord already installed, while DocumentsToGo is included on the Palm bonus software CD. Other PDA owners can purchase and install a third party document reader. DocumentsToGo (www.dataviz.com) and ThinkOffice (www.thinkingbytes.com) are excellent options. Other Word-compatible readers are available through www.handango.com and www.tucows.com.

PDA versions of Adobe Acrobat Reader are available free for the download at www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readermain.html.

The PDA Word and Acrobat Reader programs use companion software on the desktop computer to convert documents into PDA format. Converted files are automatically transferred to the PDA when it's synchronized with the desktop.

Once you've installed the software, try it out by downloading documents from the Web. The NIOSH (www.cdc.gov/niosh/pubs.html) and OSHA (www.osha.gov/OshDoc/Additional.html) publications Web pages have extensive collections of PDF documents. Or visit the American College of Radiology and snag a PDF version of Disaster Preparedness for Radiology Professionals (www.acr.org/cgi-bin/fr?mast:masthead-about,text:/departments/educ/disaster_prep/dp_primer.html) an interesting primer on responding to radiological terrorism.

Reading Acrobat files on a PDA is not perfect, especially when large graphics are involved. But my biggest complaint is that Acrobat files routinely grew larger when converted for PDA use. Increases of 50 percent were common, and an article from the online AIHA Journal more than doubled in size from 162 KB to 393 KB. This is not good considering the limited memory available on most PDAs.

Reading Web Pages

An amazing amount of health and safety information is available on the World Wide Web in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). With iSilo and AvantGo, you can carry chunks of the Web in your PDA for offline reading.

iSilo, available in desktop and PDA versions, reads Web sites cached for offline reading by its desktop companion, iSiloX. iSiloX has a number of settings that impact document size and how pages are displayed on the small PDA screen. Use the desktop version of iSilo while learning iSiloX so that you can view the results of an iSiloX run without transferring files to the PDA for viewing.

A critical setting is the maximum link depth, which determines the number of Web pages iSiloX downloads. Since the number of pages downloaded increases dramatically with the link depth, it's easy to create huge, unmanageable PDA files. In one experiment with the NIOSH Databases CD-ROM, increasing the link depth from 2 to 3 increased the PDA file from 1 megabyte to almost 17 megabytes.

To create a PDA version of the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards with iSiloX.

  • Download iSiloX from www.isilox.com and install it on your desktop computer.
  • Download the proper iSilo PDA client from www.isilo.com/download and install it on your PDA.
  • Download the NIOSH Pocket Guide from www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npg.html. Unzip the file to your computer.
  • Launch iSiloX and select the "Add" command from the "Document" menu.
  • Enter "NIOSH Pocket Guide" as the document title, check the "Go to document properties dialog" option. And click the "Next" button.
  • Click the "Add URL" button and select "browse". Go to the location where you unzipped the pocket guide, open the "NPG_only" folder, and select the "pgdstart.htm" file.
  • Click the "Destination" tab and confirm the file will be sent to your PDA.
  • Under the "Links" tab, set the "Maximum Link Depth" to 2 and remove the checkmark from "Follow Offsite Links."
  • Under the "Tables" tab, check the "Ignore pixel width specifications" box under the "Process table formatting" option.
  • Click OK.
  • Right click on the NIOSH Pocket Guide entry in iSiloX and select the Convert command from the popup menu to create a 952 K byte PDA file.
  • Synchronize your PDA with your desktop computer to transfer the Pocket Guide to the PDA.
  • Now open iSilo on your PDA and select the NIOSH Pocket Guide from the file list.

For additional practice, create a PDA file containing the NIOSH Current Intelligence Bulletins. Use http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/cibs2.html as the source URL and 1 for the link depth. The resulting file will be just over 1 megabyte.

Since iSiloX doesn't support automatic caching of Web sites based on a schedule, it's best suited for saving Web sites that don't change frequently. AvantGo (www.avantgo.com), on the other hand, shines at accessing constantly changing news and information Web sites.

Avantgo automatically pushes PDA-friendly Web sites, called channels, to the PDA when the PDA is synchronized with the desktop. AvantGo has hundreds of channels to choose from, including business, education, entertainment, health and fitness, news, shopping, sports, technology and travel information channels.

Despite the wide channel selection, there is very little safety, health and environmental content. Fortunately, AvantGo supports user-created "custom" channels. It was easy to create an Occupational Hazards channel by entering a title and the URL for the Occupational Hazards Web site to receive the latest health and safety news whenever I synchronize my PDA.

AvantGo Accounts are free for up to 2 megabytes of information and $15 per year for up to 8 megabytes.

Promoting PDA-friendly Access

iSilo and AvantGo have enormous potential potential stifled by the design of most safety, health and environmental Web sites. Want to use AvantGo to keep up with the NIOSH "What's New" Web pages? Sorry, the NIOSH page is a year-long journal of links to items that quickly exceeds the capacity of AvantGo. NIOSH could correct this by having the page cover just the current month's news and including a short abstract of each item on the page.

Want to use iSilo to read online version of the AIHA Journal and Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene? Too bad. The journals' convoluted log-in process is incompatible with iSilo. This problem could be corrected by logging in using the HTTP Basic Authentication protocol instead of using page-embedded login fields.

Finally, there's the nuisance of Web sites not designed for optimal viewing on a small PDA screen. It doesn't have to be this way. Government, commercial and professional society Web sites could produce and publicize PDA friendly Web pages. Guidelines are available at Handheld Friendly Webpages (www.its.uiowa.edu/cs/sp/pda/PDA-handheldfriendly.html) and the AvantGo HTML Style Guide (www.avantgo.com/doc/developer/styleguide/styleguide.html).

Despite these problems, so much information is available that the biggest problem is finding the best price on PDA memory modules.

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 mblotzer@attbi.com.

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