Internet Innovations

Oct. 1, 1999
An Internet-based service offers innovative support systems for OSHA compliance.

From book sales at to hardware and software sales at, virtual storefronts are popping up like spring flowers. The commercialization of the Internet, "e-commerce," is changing the way companies deliver goods and services to their customers.

E-commerce is more than deep-discount, mail-order shopping. The interactive nature of the Internet allows companies to make customers an active part of their business. customers post book reviews to help other customers with purchase decisions. E-bay (, the Internet auction house, enables anyone with a computer to be an auctioneer.

The safety and health industry is quickly joining the e-commerce parade. Safety and health equipment suppliers such as Leonard Safety Supply (, National Safety Equipment Outlet (, Safety Equipment Co. ( and Wayest Safety Inc. ( ply their wares online. American Industrial Hygiene Association (, American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists ( and National Safety Council ( sell safety and health books, training videos and software online.

Beyond discount mail-order convenience, customer reviews and discussion groups, there is little innovation in using the Internet to improve customer service. One company, VCOM (VCOM, LLC, 3045 Federal Hill Drive, Falls Church, Va. 22044, (703) 533-5550 phone, (703) 533-5551 fax, [email protected]) has staked its business on tightly integrating the Internet with MSDS and regulatory assistance software to provide innovative support systems for OSHA compliance.

MSDS E-Manager

Maintaining Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) can be a formidable task. Managing a paper MSDS system quickly drives one to computer-based MSDS management. Unfortunately, computerized MSDS systems leave the user with the problem of converting paper documents to an electronic format. While subscribing to MSDS CD-ROM collections can eliminate a good chunk of the time spent converting paper documents to electronic, you're still left with the task of reviewing the quarterly CD-ROM for changed data sheets to keep your local database up to date. There has to be an easier way.

VCOM's strategy to ease MSDS pain is to provide users a central library of MSDS in Adobe Acrobat format on the Internet. Customers use VCOM's MSDS E-Manager software ($995) to build a local MSDS database from VCOM's MSDS library.

To select an MSDS for downloading, simply search the MSDS index by entering the manufacturer and at least part of the product or chemical name. MSDS E-Manager returns a list of MSDSs matching the query. Desired data sheets are added to a download list using the "Queued for Download" command. Executing the "Perform Queued Downloads" command downloads the queued data sheets.

VCOM's product index is larger than its data sheet inventory, so only about half of the queued data sheets are downloaded on the first request. VCOM's server automatically generates a fulfillment request for the unavailable data sheets, then the data sheets are requested from the manufacturer and added to the server. MSDS E-Manager automatically checks the status of outstanding requests each time a user logs onto the server, downloading the MSDSs when they are available.

If a product is not listed in VCOM's index, the user must request the data sheet, using the MSDS Request Wizard. The wizard prompts for the manufacturer's name, address, telephone numbers, e-mail address and product or chemical name. The request is sent to VCOM's server over the Internet, then the MSDS is obtained from the manufacturer, loaded on the server and sent to the user.

A key feature is MSDS tracking. MSDS E-Manager keeps track of MSDS versions, automatically updating the user's local database when a new data sheet becomes available. Chemical manufacturers and distributors can use this feature to ease the burden of updating customer data sheets. The manufacturer or distributor uploads new MSDSs to VCOM's server, using their MSDS E-Distributor software. The server then pushes the updated MSDSs to customers when they log on with documentation of download and receipt.

One weakness in MSDS E-Manager is its limited search capabilities. The database is searchable only by manufacturer and product or chemical name, so searches for chemicals contained in a product mixture are not possible.

MSDS E-Manager can be configured so customers can provide employees computer access to the local MSDS database. VCOM also provides custom scanning and data conversion services to convert existing paper MSDS archives and inventory lists into Adobe Acrobat format.

Compliance E-Manager

Anyone who does income tax returns on a personal computer is familiar with the TurboTax (Intuit Inc., model for dealing with the complex maze of IRS regulations. TurboTax uses interview questions coupled to an expert system to lead the taxpayer through the income tax return jungle. The interview questions identify the forms that apply to the individual taxpayer's situation, quickly focusing on what is required to complete the return. TurboTax is a cutting-edge product that has simplified tax returns for millions of Americans.

David Frankil of VCOM recognized that integrating a TurboTax-like tool with the Internet could be a powerful way to help people achieve and maintain OSHA compliance. The result is VCOM Compliance E-Manager ($995).

Compliance E-Manager's expert system utilizes user responses to safety and health questions to identify OSHA standards that apply to the user's operations. Key terms are hyper linked to definitions maintained on VCOM's servers, and every question provides a hot link for user questions and feedback.

Once the profile questions are answered, the expert system develops "to do" lists of actions required for OSHA compliance. "To do" items can be assigned to specific employees and printed out for reference as a checklist for completion.

Integrating Compliance E-Manager with the Internet lets VCOM continually update its expert system, provide new definitions and automatically push updates to customers. VCOM is also committed to adding new features, such as linking action items to OSHA Web-based training courses.

I found a few problems in working through the profile questions. Hyper- links to SIC definitions returned a blank page to my browser, and, on two occasions, answering "no" did not screen out additional questions on the topic. VCOM was responsive in taking action to correct these problems.

Compliance E-Manager is weak on the health side, as it does not cover the chemical-specific standards in Subpart Z of OSHA's General Industry standards. VCOM plans to add coverage of these standards in the future.

Who uses Compliance E-Manager? According to David Frankil, VCOM customers include lumber and building material dealers, utility equipment suppliers, an eye care clinic and a major metropolitan county.

"People seem to be using the system in slightly different ways," Frankil said. "We have a user in a multifacility firm who is using the system to establish a baseline set of compliance standards, so that when his EHS personnel check off on a "to do", he has some confidence that they are covering the same ground. We have an EHS professional who uses our system as a double check because "there's nobody around here I can ask for a second opinion." We are also working with a consultant to allow him to manage MSDS accounts over the Internet for his customers, setting up a master administration module and providing access over the Internet for his customers."

Overall, I found VCOM products easy to use, with excellent help systems. The company is obviously working extremely hard to make its products easy to use and is committed to improving services through Internet integration. Demo versions are available for download from the VCOM Web site at

NIOSH Databases to Go

If you don't have a copy of NIOSH publication 99-115, CD-ROM: NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards and Other Databases, order your copy from the NIOSH Publications Office at 800-356-4674 or This free CD-ROM contains the following NIOSH databases:

  • "Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health Concentrations;"
  • "International Chemical Safety Cards;"
  • "NIOSH Manual of Analytical Methods;"
  • "NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards;"
  • "Recommendations for Chemical Protective Clothing;"
  • "Specific Medical Tests Published for OSHA Regulated Substances;"
  • "Toxicologic Review of Selected Chemicals;" and
  • "U.S. Department of Transportation 1996 North American Emergency Response Guidebook."

The databases are in HTML format and take up only 62 megabytes of disk space. By copying the nioshdbs folder from the CD-ROM to your hard drive, you can access all the databases without need for the CD-ROM disc. Just open the folder and double click the start.htm document to access the databases. This allows the databases to be run on any computer with a Web browser 2nd Adobe Acrobat, including subnotebook and WinCE handheld computers.

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 who brakes for animals on the information superhighway. Mike can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards, by fax at (216) 899-1581 or by electronic mail at [email protected]. Visit Mike's World Wide Web page at

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