By Sean Baldry, CRSP, Contributor
In a 2000 survey, the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) reported that its members were spending almost 50% of their time on activities other than industrial hygiene.1 In the two decades since, that trend doesn’t appear to have slowed. Companies appear to be shifting, more and more, toward a generalist approach to health & safety (H&S) management, where H&S professionals are forced to “wear many hats,” instead of focusing on a single area of study.
This shift creates a very practical challenge for H&S professionals: How do you remain effective while your responsibilities continue to increase? It means that H&S professionals need to find ways not only to be effective, but also efficient. These two terms are often confused.
Effectiveness generally describes the ability to achieve a desired end-result. In contrast, efficiency refers to the ability to produce a desired result with an optimal use of resources. In other words, can we achieve our goals while reducing unnecessary waste—whether in terms of time, money or material used.
Looking to change the way H&S programs are managed is the first step in becoming more efficient. It starts by looking at your management system.
It All Starts with the Management System
Managing health & safety risks effectively starts with building a robust management system: a comprehensive system of policies, procedures, objectives, plans, responsibilities and metrics designed to help the business achieve its goals—whether that involves safety, production or revenue—in a systematic, consistent and reliable way.
Most traditional management systems are paper-based: a collection of hardcopy manuals, forms and records that outline key processes, workflows and responsibilities. These paper-based systems, unfortunately, are no longer capable of supporting the dynamic nature of business; the speed of communication; or the process interconnections that are necessary for success in the 21st century.
One of the quickest ways to increase efficiency is to undergo a digital transformation of your management system through software. Let’s review some of the challenges faced in context of an industrial hygiene (IH) program and see how software can help improve efficiency and overall program outcomes.
Data Quality: How Manual Processes Can Wreak Havoc on IH Data
In industrial hygiene, data plays a critical role in our ability to “anticipate, recognize, evaluate and control” workplace stressors that could adversely affect worker health.
Management systems reliant on paper records create considerable data-quality concerns in how the information is collected, stored and used. Transcribing IH data from paper reports to spreadsheets increases the risk of errors, which could result in underestimating exposures or delaying interventions, thus endangering worker health. Similarly, spreadsheets and data files containing IH data can be easily corrupted by viruses and malware, leading to data loss. Data loss means that important IH work may need to be repeated, adding inefficiency and cost to the business.
Measurement accuracy can also impact data quality. An improperly calibrated device could lead to invalid data from sampling tasks, leading to costly rework and delays in completing sampling plans.
One of the most tangible benefits that technology can afford your management system is the elimination of tedious, error-producing manual data-entry tasks. EHS software solutions provide the ability to import data directly into the application, eliminating any need for data entry or the errors it can create. As many software applications are cloud-based, data is stored on the host’s server, making data generally less susceptible to loss or corruption when compared to local PCs. Software solutions also provide integrated workflows with auto-notification options. These customized alerts can let you know when tasks are due, so you never again forget that important equipment calibration.
Process Efficiency: How to Best Use Your Valuable Time
McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that adoption of digital management solutions can increase productivity, on average, by up to 25%, largely by efficiency gains realized through improved communication and knowledge sharing.2
These communication gains result from integrated workflows that allow information to be shared from a PC to a mobile device quickly and seamlessly. As a result, the H&S professional is never again forced to chase paper or manually enter information from paper records into their management system, since the required documents can be created, assigned, collected and uploaded digitally.
Technology also assists in managing change in the business. Change management is often one of the areas that businesses struggle with most. Imagine a new chemical agent is brought into the workplace as part of a manufacturing process change. Based on this change, the H&S professional may need to assess the product to determine whether additional controls are necessary for its storage, transport and intended use. Its import may trigger the need for additional workplace surveys and quantitative sampling to assess exposure. Changes to Similar Exposure Groups (SEGs) may be necessary to ensure medical surveillance testing regimes can be created.
Using a paper-based management system, the H&S professional would be responsible to ensure all these elements are appropriately updated so the organization’s ability to manage risk remains effective. If we imagine several changes occurring at once, this task can seem that much more daunting.
Integrating workflows with a digital solution means that changes made to one aspect of a process immediately flow to all connected processes, resulting in more streamlined process outputs and improved worker health.
Data Security: How to Protect IH Data from Prying Eyes
Governments across North America and many other regions globally have enacted legislation concerning the protection of private health information. Under these laws, employers must protect a worker’s private health information from unauthorized access and cannot share this information without the worker’s consent. Non-compliant companies face steep penalties.
In 2018, UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass., agreed to a $230,000 settlement with the State’s Attorney General who alleged that UMass “failed to implement sufficient measures” to prevent employees from improperly accessing patient records, in violation of federal privacy legislation. Following the settlement, UMass indicated that it had since “implemented additional technical tools [to] safeguard patient information.”3
Total worker health programs involve the intersection of industrial hygiene and occupational health. As a H&S professional managing IH, you could reasonably come into contact with private health information from medical surveillance programs, health screens or pre-sampling questionnaires. Consequently, you are responsible to keep this information secure and confidential. While computers can be password-protected and filing cabinets can be locked, computers can also be stolen and filing cabinets mistakenly left open—data breaches that can erode trust between the company and its employees—and result in considerable legal issues.
EHS software solutions provide numerous options to help safeguard our most valuable and sensitive information. First, software enables companies, through administrative roles and security features, to limit individual access to sensitive records, so that confidential information cannot be improperly accessed. Only those individuals that need access are granted access, and once that need is gone, access can again be restricted. Many solutions also provide options to encrypt data, so that, even if private data is accessed, it cannot be read.
Vigilance is always required when handling any private health information. Yet, options afforded by software are much more reliable to stop prying eyes than remembering to lock your filing cabinet when you leave to grab a cup of coffee.
Regulatory Compliance: Staying on the Right Side of the Law
Industrial hygiene is a constantly evolving field of study. Research studies are continuously updating our understanding of the impact of physical, chemical, biological and psycho-social agents on human health and well-being. As new data becomes available, regulators may be prompted to consider changes to the limits of exposure currently deemed acceptable. It generally falls upon the H&S professional to stay apprised of these changes; to understand what these changes mean; and whether they apply to their business.
In addition to knowing what regulations apply to your business, understanding how well your business complies to current regulations is equally vital. Searching your IH data and comparing it to permissible limits can be tedious and difficult, especially when it is buried in hardcopy reports, massive spreadsheets or complex databases. But, failing to assess and manage your organization’s compliance can result in real negative impacts to the business.
The allowable exposure level to lead is at 50mg/m3 air, per OSHA 1910.1025. Under the Standard, an employer is required to take necessary measures to reduce lead exposures in excess of permissible levels, and to quickly notify workers in writing of air monitoring results applicable to them. In December 2014, OSHA inspectors issued 19 citations totaling $42,800 against an employer in Ohio, claiming that the employer “failed to implement engineering controls and maintain areas free of lead dust and accumulation.”4
Many software solutions offer regulatory compliance suites, which assist organizations in not only identifying regulations applicable to their business, but also updating the user when regulations change and by providing insight on how those changes could impact their IH programs. Leveraging integrated workflows, a legislative change to an Occupational Exposure Level (OEL), for instance, could immediately be reflected throughout the entire management system. New exposure data would be immediately compared to these new limits, identifying areas of non-compliance. If over-exceedances are found, automated workflows can ensure notification letters are immediately sent to affected workers, and corrective actions assigned to supervisors. These solutions ensure the H&S professional can stay on top of compliance issues and limit associated legal liability risks.
Ownership & Accountability: Making Sure Things Get Done
While identifying and assessing the impact of IH risks to worker health is vital, what we do once we know we have a problem truly determines whether our IH program is effective. Often, when companies fail in addressing hazards, it is due to leaders not being provided with accurate information to assess the status of their program. As a result, business leaders are challenged to set priorities, allocate budgets or hold persons responsible for resolving IH issues.
In paper-based management systems, it is often left to the H&S professional to pull data from multiple sources; analyze it; and prepare metrics and presentations to help advise business leaders on where the real issues lay. Apart from being overly time-consuming, it is frustrating when we consider that usually, by the time the data is assembled, it is already outdated. Without real-time data, it’s difficult to get a sense on what’s really happening. And failing to act on known issues can create huge problem for organizations.
In 2005, a 30 year-old former Samsung worker in Korea died from brain cancer, which her family alleged was caused from her regular exposure to toxic substances, including formaldehyde, benzene and phenol, over a six-year period.5 While all information concerning the exposures has not been made public, reports indicate that there were often no records available that documented worker exposures to hazard agents at the workplace. Reports indicate that 27 other Samsung employees are claiming their exposures contributed to cancer.
Software can help provide visibility to your data, which can in turn help leaders quickly understand where things are going well, and where improvement is needed. A fully digitized management system, accessible to authorized employees via computer or mobile device, ensures information can flow freely and quickly. With automated notifications and task lists, employees will immediately know what they are responsible for and can provide leaders with real-time updates on progress and task completion—directly from their mobile device. As a result, busy supervisors need not return to a computer terminal to provide updates, thus better utilizing their time to manage H&S issues in the field.
Advanced analytics features also enables key performance indicators to be shared across the organization via real-time dynamic dashboards and metrics. As a result, H&S professionals and business leaders know that they are looking at the most current data available, allowing them to make informed, data-driven decisions to drive their IH program forward. Now management can hold the appropriate people accountable, ensuring that actions needed to address potentially harmful exposures are corrected in a timely manner and not left to fester. Bringing all IH data in one place provides a single source of truth, thereby giving leaders confidence in their data and the decisions made from it.
Technology Can Help
With growing workloads and areas of responsibility, H&S professionals need to become more efficient to enable them to manage the diverse risks of their business more effectively. It’s important to do your research first—define your key challenges; evaluate solutions that meet your unique needs; and consider providers that have a clear track record of success in getting businesses up and running. While not a panacea, digitally transforming your management system can be another step forward in improving the efficiency of your H&S processes, leading to higher overall effectiveness, and ultimately, better worker health outcomes. IHW
About the Author
Sean Baldry, CRSP, is a Product Marketing Manager responsible for Cority’s Health and Safety solutions. Sean has over 15 years of experience working in occupational health and safety in the construction, mining and manufacturing industries. Prior to joining Cority, Sean was the Director of Health and Safety for LafargeHolcim’s Eastern Canada Division. Sean is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP).
1 IHSN. (2000, May 15). “Will Industrial Hygiene Disappear in the 21st Century.” Retrieved from https://www.ishn.com/articles/83745-will-industrial-hygiene-disappear-in-the-21st-century
2 McKinsey Global Institute. (2012, July). “The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies.” Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/the-social-economy
3 HIPAA Journal. (2018, September 24). “UMass Memorial Health Care Pays $230,000 to Resolve Alleged HIPAA Violations.” Retrieved from https://www.hipaajournal.com/umass-memorial-health-care-pays-230000-to-resolve-alleged-hipaa-violations/
4 US Department of Labor. (2014, December 18). “OSHA investigation finds workers exposed to
lead, copper fumes at Republic Metals in Cleveland”. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/news/newsreleases/region5/12182014
5 Associated Press. (2017, November 14). “Samsung worker’s family wins brain tumor case.” Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/samsung-south-korea-lee-yoon-jung-wins-compensation-brain-tumor/