Cost-Effective Use of Computer Technologies in EHS Management

Feb. 3, 2004
With decreasing budgets and intense pressure to produce more with less, management requires environmental health and safety (EHS) professionals to reduce costs while maintaining high-quality services. In order to meet these expectations, cost-effective strategies for managing the broad range of EHS issues should be considered.

by Chris Shulenberger, CPE, and Nicole Gladu

As Web-based computer systems advance, many employers are relying more and more on this technology to carry out various functions in areas such as marketing, human resources and information management. These technologies can also be utilized as cost-effective tools to manage EHS functions. Here are some selected EHS applications you can use in your facilities.

Managing Data with GIS

Employers manage large volumes of EHS data, some of which is related to the work environment. Examples include:

  • Locations of asbestos-containing materials;
  • Areas with elevated noise levels;
  • Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for products that employees work with;
  • Occupational exposure data (industrial hygiene sampling results);
  • Life safety equipment;
  • Schedules for medical evaluations and respirator fit testing;
  • Training records; and
  • Equipment calibration.

A geographical information system (GIS) can link these types of data (from a spreadsheet or a database) to a spatial representation of the work site. Using a graphical approach makes it much easier to visualize how the data relates to specific work areas or site locations. EHS professionals can use GIS to focus on specific workstations or query the system for a single facility or multiple sites.

Your facility department is a good place to start. Find out if they use a GIS as a part of their facility management software, and look for ways to move the management of one or more EHS programs to the same system.

Environmental professionals often use GIS for site assessment tasks involving extensive data collection; however, industrial hygienists and safety professionals typically have very little experience with these types of systems. Expanding the use of GIS in the occupational health and safety arena will enhance the presentation of the data we collect and should allow us to be more efficient and cost effective. The following examples illustrate several potential applications:

At most manufacturing facilities, processes are subject to change. This can result in the replacement or re-distribution of equipment and/or personnel. As part of the planning process, sound level measurements and noise exposure data can be used to assess potential effects of introducing a new piece of machinery or a new process in a given area. By linking noise data to the spatial representation of the building, planners can view a graphical display of the exposures and consider the impact of new equipment on hearing conservation programs.

The financial impact of additional regulatory requirements (i.e., employee training, audiometric testing and hearing protection) can also be captured during the decision-making stage. The anticipated noise levels can be calculated based on equipment/machinery noise specifications, and the costs of increasing the number of employees participating in a hearing conservation program can be identified for budgeting.

Some of the equipment that is used to assess industrial hygiene exposures (including physical, chemical and biological hazards) is now available as direct-reading instrumentation with data-logging capabilities. This technology allows us to collect measurements and download the data or print it out.

If the data is downloaded and saved to either a spreadsheet or database, that information can be linked through GIS to specific locations on a site plan or building drawing. We can then query the system for information such as "Display all areas where noise exposures exceed 85 dBA decibels as an 8-hour time-weighted average" or "Display all areas where sound pressure levels exceed 90 dBA." The results can be displayed graphically as an "overlay" on the site plan or building drawing (they can also be linked to a customized report format for record-keeping or distribution).

Indoor environmental quality (IEQ) surveys often involve the collection of various measurements to assess employee concerns or complaints. These types of evaluations may require inspections and photographs of HVAC systems, interstitial spaces and other building components. All of this information can be linked to a facility plan using GIS. When the data is displayed graphically, patterns may emerge which are difficult to visualize when the information is presented in a tabular format.

For example, if measured indoor temperature levels throughout a building are listed in a table, there may not be an obvious pattern of room temperatures exceeding the levels recommended by ASHRAE. However, when the information is displayed graphically, a pattern of elevated temperatures in perimeter rooms becomes much more apparent.

If air samples are collected and the laboratory provides analytical results in an electronic format, the data can be imported into the GIS database for subsequent use. This approach avoids the need for re-entering data and eliminates transcription errors.

Using PDAs to Collect Data

EHS professionals can also improve their efficiency by using personal digital assistants (PDAs) to collect data in the field. The collection of standardized data (i.e., industrial hygiene sample collection locations and results, ergonomic assessments, asbestos surveys, sound level measurements, and Phase I Environmental Site Assessments) is more efficient with PDAs. Unlike laptops, PDAs are lightweight and easy to carry. Many of the newer generation PDAs are rugged enough to endure the wear and tear associated with fieldwork.

When using a PDA, one of the primary considerations is designing the data collection form for the specific application. Incorporating pull-down menus, checkboxes and buttons should be considered. When the fieldwork is completed, you can download the collected data from the PDA to a computer, which can then be incorporated into a report.

Companies also can make good use of technology through the active use of their intranets for ergonomics training and program management. Even large companies may find it cost-prohibitive to maintain full-time staff to address all their ergonomics needs.

Unlike other health and safety functions, ergonomics issues tend to vary from company to company, and even between business units and functions within a company. Because ergonomics is so closely tied to both specific job tasks and the machinery or equipment associated with these tasks, employees with slightly different functions may have completely different needs.

However, while many ergonomics policies only affect specific job tasks, most information concerning safe ergonomic practices must be passed on to multiple departments within a company. For example, the engineering and design departments need the same information that is conveyed to an operator (so do the operation's supervisors and managers).

Intranet resources provide an ideal vehicle for broadcasting ergonomics information. Any interested party, from an employee to an engineer or manager, may retrieve information when needed, at convenient times and locations. This greatly minimizes the time needed for meetings, especially those involving multiple departments and functions. This approach also ensures that consistent information is delivered to all groups and facilities. To assure that affected personnel receive important information pertaining to their jobs, companies using intranet-based systems can easily track whether employees have taken the opportunity to access and review applicable information.

If an intranet site is well designed, presenting ergonomics information can often be more effective than presenting the same information "live." Personnel may choose to access information relevant only to their own functions or needs, to review and refer to the information whenever needed, and to evaluate their own knowledge in a non-confrontational manner. This format is more neutral and knowledge-based, and somewhat more private. This approach also eliminates the appearance of fixing blame when addressing inappropriate practices.

Web-Based Office Ergonomics Applications

Commercially available Web-based Office Ergonomic Platforms (OEPs) have evolved to the level where they can provide:

  • Office ergonomic training (some products provide multiple languages)
  • Individual employee risk assessments
  • Personalized feedback for employee self-correction
  • Powerful reporting tools to measure progress
  • A central repository for program management

These systems allow employers to meet the critical program objectives of managing and preventing repetitive motion and musculoskeletal injuries. In addition, OEPs can assist with regulatory compliance while increasing operational efficiencies within internal ergonomics programs, empowering employees to make changes, and minimizing productivity decreases resulting from discomfort and injury.

Most importantly, more sophisticated OEPs have delivered measurable results, as demonstrated by the following:

  • A recently concluded analysis of a Fortune 50 client's data indicated an 83 percent reduction in the average cost per claim and an 87 percent reduction in the number of lost workdays.
  • A large computer company realized a 50 percent reduction in program administration costs, a savings of over $800,000 per year.
  • Users are empowered to change how they work. Over 80 percent of users within the IT Department at another firm indicated that they made changes as a result of using this type of platform. In addition, 91 percent of users indicated they believe they will work more comfortably as a result of the recommended corrective actions

The preceding examples illustrate how new technologies (i.e., GIS, PDAs and Web-based systems) can be utilized as cost-effective tools to manage a broad range of EHS functions. When considering the various systems and forms that software providers offer for managing EHS data; identify your organization's needs, prioritize them and develop a plan for implementing change. Choose programs and tasks where cost savings can be easily measured and demonstrated to management.

Chris Shulenberger, CPE, is director, Ergonomics for Clayton Group Services' San Francisco Regional Office. He has over 25 years of experience applying ergonomics in the fields of occupational health, safety, risk management and workers' compensation. As Clayton's director of Ergonomics, he is responsible for developing and managing the Ergonomics Practice Group, which oversees all client ergonomics projects nationwide including work site assessments, program development and implementation and training.

Nicole Gladu is manager, Occupational Health and Safety, for the Portland Regional Office. She has more than 13 years of experience in environmental health and safety. As an EPA Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) certified building inspector, management planner, and project designer, she specializes in managing projects involving asbestos-containing materials and lead-based paint for public- and private-sector clients. Gladu has extensive experience developing and using environmental data management systems for tracking hazardous building materials.

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