EHS Online Services: Casting the Safety Net

Aug. 15, 2002
A variety of environmental, health and safety services are available online. From MSDS to training, newsletters to Web sites, we help you navigate the rising tide of online options.

Pick a search engine, any engine. Type in "EHS online services," and what do you find? In my case, using Google's search engine (, I received "results 1-10 of about 22,100."

My crude search turned up Web sites dedicated to online training services, management of material safety data sheets and chemical inventories, hazard information, the latest regulatory updates, the most current news in the industry, product information and e-commerce, newsletters and consulting services. Some offered free information and services, while others entailed a fee for use or the purchase of a product or a service.

"There's no doubt the Web has changed the way EHS professionals do business," says Elizabeth Donley, publisher of the e-mailed newsletter, EH&S Software News (, which for 14 years has provided information about environmental, health and safety software. "The ability to go online has saved us a lot of time. Information we once spent hours searching for we now have available quickly on the Web."

EHS professionals are turning to the Internet and computers for training and information in growing numbers. For example, a recent survey of environmental professionals conducted by the Environmental Industry Computer-Based Training Alliance found that 65 percent of respondents said they used the Internet to provide computer-based training (CBT), and nearly all the respondents (95 percent) plan to use more CBT in the future. Some 75 percent of respondents used CBT to deliver safety training, 65 percent used it to provide regulatory compliance information, and 55 percent used CBT to deliver environmental health content to employees.

Online Training

Still, says W. Bruce Quackenbush Jr., vice president of sales and marketing at (, Nashville, the safety industry is reluctant to wholeheartedly adopt online EHS services. "We're trying to tell them we've got the best mousetrap, and they didn't know they had a mouse," he says of online training services.

Generally, EHS professionals turning to online training are those with safety responsibilities for more than one location or who have employees in remote locations. They find it difficult to provide standardized, companywide training, and online services fill that need.

"The majority of our customers tell us they made the decision to use online training because of ease of use," reveals Phil Price, president and COO of Coastal Training Technologies Corp. (, Virginia Beach, Va., which offers 44 online training courses and options. He says his customers are generally "the guy with 100 employees at 20 locations or a safety director with a traveling work force that needs to be trained."

With headquarters in Lavergne, Tenn., Thompson Machinery has some 500 employees at 10 locations in two states who sell and service Caterpillar equipment. Much of the equipment sold by Thompson is huge and not something equipment owners can return to a central location for servicing. So service technicians from Thompson are often found working, virtually unsupervised, at locations far from their home base.

"We have to be cognizant of hazards. We have a high level of discipline on EHS matters," says Greg Simpson, Thompson's safety director.

Because many of the machines end up at mines, some Thompson employees receive a training course required of miners by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Others receive training required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Department of Transportation or the Environmental Protection Agency, and some receive all four. That's a lot of training to conduct and track, Simpson says.

In 1998, company management recognized that although the safety department offered excellent training, only 60 percent to 70 percent of employees were taking it. The rest were on vacation, out on service calls or just didn't attend the sessions. "It's the nature of our business that we had holes in our training program," Simpson says, "and online training fills those gaps."

"We created a system where every employee - from the president of the company to the newest guy hired on the wash rack - falls into a category. There are eight categories. We tailored our training to fit each category, so each employee receives relevant, specific training for his job," Simpson says.

The company worked with to develop the training program. Employees log on at a time that is convenient for them and their supervisors, view the lesson, take a quiz and log out. The training program automatically tracks and documents every step, so Simpson (and the supervisors) can log on to any computer and retrieve an employee's training record. Depending on the training and their job duties, some employees must pass a hands-on evaluation as well, a "blended" approach to training that Quackenbush says many customers utilize.

"Employees often need more training than can be done over the Internet. A guy can watch an online course about driving a forklift, but he still needs someone to show him, on the forklift, how to do it," Quackenbush points out.

The move to online training has paid off at Thompson. The company had an experience modification rate (EMR) of .8 to .9, which was considered good for its industry, before the advent of online training. Now, Simpson says, the EMR has dropped to .56, a rate he calls "remarkably good." In practical terms, that means workers' compensation costs dropped, down from more than $800 per employee in 1997 to just over $300 in 2001. Lost workdays have been reduced an average of 55 percent since 1999.

"I have to credit the online training, because that's the only thing we're doing different now than we did in 1997," Simpson says. "Online training is not inexpensive, but in the scheme of things, it's very cost-effective."

Before embarking on online training for employees, Thompson Machinery management determined that most, if not all, employees were computer-literate and that all of Thompson's facilities had a number of computer stations because product and parts ordering is conducted using a computer-based system.

Thompson approached online training wisely, says Frank Pagnatta, vice president of RHS Solutions (, Dublin, Ohio, which offers online toolbox talks, training courses and a safety store. When choosing online training services, he suggests safety managers ask themselves these questions: Do I have a classroom with 20 computers? Does my company have easy connectivity to the Internet? Do I have a T1 line?

"Many companies have firewall issues or limit employee access to the Internet. Employees have different learning styles and different levels of [computer] ability. Take all these issues into consideration when choosing online training services," counsels Pagnatta, who also notes that online training comes in a variety of formats, from HTML page downloads to PowerPoint presentations to streaming video and audio with interactivity.

Online training is a trade-off between "ease of delivery online" and the "richness of CD-ROM," which generally has better graphics and video and a quicker delivery system than online products, Coastal's Price says. The future, he adds, will bring richer graphics and faster downloads for online training, with the ability (available from some training services now) to interface with existing recordkeeping systems and to adapt the online training to fit the needs of the user.

MSDS Online Services

While EHS professionals are slowly turning to online training, online management of material safety data sheets (MSDS) appears to have more widespread acceptance.

Maintaining MSDS logs is an often frustrating, time-consuming task for many EHS professionals. Generally kept in a three-ring binder, MSDS must be kept up to date and complete, be kept on file for 30 years and be readily available to employees, according to OSHA. In different economic times, many companies employed an MSDS coordinator or made the upkeep of the MSDS binder a primary job responsibility for an employee. Now, many EHS directors, often with multiple sites and smaller or nonexistent staffs, are finding themselves with multiple three-ring binders to maintain.

"EHS professionals are trying to keep up with their MSDS binders while everybody and his brother is looking through it," says Diane Walls, marketing coordinator for Corbus (, Kennett Square, Pa., which offers a product called TERMS (The Environmental Regulation Management System) MSDS Management & SARA Title III Reporting Software. "That's tough. That's a nightmare."

It's not surprising, then, that one of the first commercial online services available to EHS professionals was the posting and hosting of MSDS on the Web, either through the Internet or a company's internal Web site (intranet). Companies, via online services, can maintain their MSDS binders, receive frequent updates to their MSDS, have access to libraries of hundreds of thousands of MSDS, host lists of their MSDS on company Web sites and make them available externally or internally, print out copies of their MSDS and fill out forms such as SARA Title III Form 4.

Dan Ciancio, director of marketing and communication for MSDSOnline (, Chicago, says his customers vary in title and responsibility, but they all want one thing: an easy, affordable way to maintain and track their MSDS information. For a monthly fee, they can find, view and print MSDS from the more than 700,000 stored by MSDSOnline, save and backup MSDS to their own "eBinder" and download and backup MSDS on their desktop PC.

"Traditionally, companies receive a MSDS when they get a shipment of a chemical," he says. "The MSDS might be copies of ones the shipper had on file; just a piece of paper. Maybe the MSDS never showed up at the loading dock with the chemicals. Maybe someone took it out of the three-ring binder. Maybe it got destroyed in the photocopier. If the company cannot produce that MSDS when OSHA shows up at its door, it is immediately out of compliance. Period."

Ciancio notes that many of his customers turned to online management of their MSDS following an internal audit or an OSHA inspection. When matching up product lists with the MSDS binder, "they're finding they're missing dozens, even hundreds, of documents. Then they go online and try to fill in the gaps using manufacturers' Web sites, free search sites - whatever they can find," he says.

Services such as those offered by Corbus, MSDSOnline, OHS, 3E Co. and others provide users with one source for MSDS. Such services, may users say, are the best of all worlds: frequent, accurate updates, online availability and printed copies at the click of a mouse.

"Their eyes light up. They say, 'This is so much more efficient than what I'm doing now.' There's instant value in this," Ciancio says.

Another tool that makes online MSDS management so attractive to users is the ability to track who receives the MSDS.

"Tracking is a big issue," admits Tina Payne Hunt, strategic market manager for OHS (, Nashville, which offers hosting and delivery of MSDS databases, provides MSDS in 12 languages and employs an automated MSDS distribution system triggered by sales activity. "Many companies make MSDS and EHS management a criteria for their business. With the global market and reach of many companies, there is a driving need for Internet-based products and services. EHS managers need to know who received the MSDS. Which facilities in the world got it? How are facilities maintaining their MSDS?"

Internet-based services offer the opportunity to standardize MSDS management throughout a company's many locations, Payne Hunt says. "There are pressures to reduce costs and increase efficiencies, to take the cost out of the process and improve compliance. Outsourcing MSDS management through Internet services offers companies the opportunity to reallocate highly skilled people, like EHS professionals, who are stuck doing administrative tasks," she adds.

When choosing an MSDS management service, experts say, the same rules apply as for training: Examine your facility's needs and determine employee access to computers and the Internet or intranet. Some MSDS management services take MSDS from chemical manufacturers, scan them and turn them into PDF files; others retype them into the online system; while other companies research and author MSDS.

These types of services have their pros and cons. While you don't have to worry about typing errors in the online MSDS created by scanning chemical manufacturers' MSDS, it is possible that those MSDS will differ from each other in appearance, making them more confusing for employees to read. The MSDS that are retyped look similar, so employees immediately know where to look for certain information, but typing errors are a possibility.

Look for a system that is specific to the needs of your facility, rather than buying a CD-ROM with 100,000 MSDS, of which 2 percent apply to your company, Corbus' Walls suggests. "You shouldn't look for a 'quick fix,'" she adds, "and make sure you have a hard copy backup, just in case."

Obstacles to Online

RHS Solutions' Pagnatta reveals that one of the biggest obstacles his company has had to overcome is the notion that if the information is available on the Web, it should be free. "Internet dot coms gave a lot away for free," he says. "That mindset has got to change. Companies that provide online services [like training and MSDS management] have to charge for their services."

Another obstacle faced by online services providers is the safety industry's general reluctance to adopt new technology. Bryan Hornik, vice president of marketing for Summit Training Source Inc. (, Grand Rapids, Mich., admits that when it comes to online services, the EHS profession is traditionally not as technically advanced as some other industries. He says his company, which offers online training courses, was forced to remove the audio track from an online training course for one blue-chip company because its operating system wouldn't support it.

Hornik notes of online training, "Not everybody is ready to use it, knows how to use it, knows who needs it or how to support it." Safety professionals, he says, need reassurance that "the guys on the shop floor are going to understand how to use this."

Simpson admits that switching to online, computer-based training was a culture change at Thompson Machinery. "It took about 90 days for management and employees to become accustomed to online training," he acknowledges, adding, "Now, nobody in our company wants to go back to the old way."


Advice from a Pro

Jess Kraus, president and CEO of 3E Co. (, Carlsbad, Calif., founded the company in 1986, practically the Stone Age of online services. In 15 years, 3E has grown from a two-person shop run out of Kraus' home to a NASA-style "Mission Control Center" with more than 175 employees. The company offers online MSDS management systems and online training, including 3E Online, online MSDS management that is usually purchased with 3E's Chemical Inventory Classification and Regulatory Disclosures services; 3Etrainer, an online EHS training package; and 3E's PHD Program, for the publishing, hosting and distribution of MSDS.

As an "old-timer," Kraus has a unique perspective on where online EHS services have been and where they're going. "This is our 15th year of business. In the past four years, I've seen over 100 companies enter this field, and I've seen 30 companies drop out in the past year or so," he says.

Visit your potential online service providers, he counsels, take a look at their hardware, and meet their staff. In other words, do the equivalent in online services of kicking the tires. "You're awarding a $500,000 contract, a $1 million contract, a $100,000 contract; the size doesn't really matter. You are choosing a company that can impact positively or negatively on your business. People are part of EHS," he adds, so make sure you meet the people who are going to provide your company with online EHS services and who are going to support those services. Kraus, along with other providers, lists 24-hour-a-day/7-day-a-week customer service and technical support as an important factor when choosing a provider.

Staying in Touch

Michael J. Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, author of Occupational Hazards' Computers column, finds "big potential in the area of wireless networking and portable computing." Small PDAs that are more powerful and good wireless access while on the road are two trends he foresees having a large impact on online EHS services. But the big one, he predicts, is the increasing use of instant messaging. "It's a way to network with fellow professionals," he says, adding that professional networking via listserves and electronic bulletin boards is one of the key online services available to EHS professionals. "It is a way to keep in touch and help each other out with information," he notes.

(For more information from Michael Blotzer, see the article"Geeks Rule.

For the most part, such lists and bulletin boards are free and open to members, such as the ones operated by the American Industrial Hygiene Association ( or the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (, or open to anyone who registers, such as the safety listserve operated by the University of Vermont ([email protected]) and an environmental studies discussion list operated through Brown University ([email protected]).

For information about free online services, see the article "EHS Online Services: The Free Stuff."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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