Companies switching to digital safety management for improved compliance, training tracking

But do electronic systems hold up in court?

Companies switching to digital safety management for improved compliance, training tracking

As a safety consultant, Kent McNeill is seeing more of his clients make the shift to electronic safety management technology — some have even put together their own electronic management software. He sees the advantages of the new software in the way it saves contractors time and effort. But he warns companies have to do their homework.

“I’ve done audits with companies who have the electronic tracking. When they have done it well, it has made the audit fantastic and super easy. But if they haven’t implemented it well, it makes it a challenge,” says McNeill, owner of Winnipeg-based Serenity Safety Consulting.

The way companies manage safety is changing rapidly. Many are turning to new and sophisticated software systems to help them with all aspects of their safety program, from documentation to incident tracking to even improving the safety culture. Safety managers must consider a variety of factors — including number of employees and site locations — when deciding which technology and features are best suited to their company.

McNeill, who works with small- to medium-sized companies, most of them in construction, says safety management systems (SMS) put documentation, including certificates, all in one place. Another advantage is they allow for automatic communication — of hazard assessments, inspections and toolbox meetings, for example — between prime contractors and their subcontractors.

“A prime contractor managing a site, who’s got eight subs, doesn’t have to go around asking each one for their paperwork. It just flows,” says McNeill. “For a site supervisor, half his day is spent running around getting his subs to comply with paperwork. Now, he can be doing his job. He can supervise the site.”

However, McNeill finds that success with SMS software largely depends on whether the company implements it properly. The key element here is making sure workers are sufficiently trained.

“In our industry, not everyone is tech-savvy. Not everybody is computer aware, especially in the construction industry. The guys like their tools. Even though the (SMS) technology is as simple as using a cellphone, a lot of guys are intimidated by it,” he says. “You need to do that training aspect. You need to make sure the user understands how to enter the information properly. It is a fantastic database, but it’s only as good as the information you put in.”

Safety managers, McNeill adds,  must make sure they design electronic forms to suit their company’s needs. They must capture all the necessary information, such as identifying when tasks have been completed.

“On paper you can initial, sign and date that the deficiency was corrected (for example). If the electronic form isn’t designed right, you may forget to include that step. You need to be able to document that deficiencies were corrected and when. And you need to have signatures. A big part of safety is due diligence.”

Sheri Mathieu, project safety manager at Lethbridge, Alta.-based Onsite Safety Management, says SMS technology saves companies a lot of time. However, many people are reluctant to make the shift because they don’t want to learn new technology.

Cost is also a deterrent. These systems are still expensive, she says, and may require the purchase of new equipment, such as iPads and smartphones. In addition to the initial cost, companies are often charged monthly fees.

“Every one of these digital programs has a monthly fee if you have an app. If you have 50 users, it’s this much. If you have 100 users, it’s a little bit less. The fees range; they can be $5 an app per person or it might be $30 a month per person. It depends on what program you decide to go with.”

SMS systems in court

As evidence presented in court, information provided by electronic safety management systems is considered as legitimate as that acquired by paper and pen, says Jeremy Warning, partner at Mathews, Dinsdale and Clark in Toronto.

However, he adds, whether the information is presented in an electronic or hard-copy format, various rules of evidence may apply, and the person supplying the data will have to show it meets the required stipulations. In Ontario, the Evidence Act contains provisions that deal with electronic records and how a person can prove their integrity; for example, the person may show the storage system used to keep the records prevented them from being altered.

“Electronic records could have been manipulated, so there’s often a burden on the party using electronic documents to establish that these are in fact accurate records and they are what they purport to be,” Warning says.

Jamie Alyce Jurczak, partner with Taylor McCaffrey in Winnipeg, says documentary evidence may be challenged in court by the opposing side on the basis of authenticity. With electronic documents, the court may look to other ways to prove accuracy, such as time stamps. Where electronic documents are challenged, it is also common for the court to call witnesses to testify about the challenged document, to say, “This is the test, the job hazard analysis or the training sheet I signed off on.”

Companies should also remember, she adds, they will need to keep electronic documents and be able to access them several years after they are recorded, with the length of time depending on the limitation period of the jurisdiction.

“Is the technology going to be preserved? You find that old floppy disc at the bottom of your desk and realize you have absolutely nothing to put it into on your new computer. And are you storing it on a good quality item that isn’t going to deteriorate?” Jurczak says. “The trick sometimes with electronic documents is that the technology can change so fast. Paper, however, if it isn’t damaged by fire or water, stands the test of time.”

Assessing the options

Morgan Douziech, director of Edmonton-based SET Safety, says his company’s SMS covers most aspects of safety management, including compliance and technical training, certificate tracking, training matrix integration, digital paperwork, electronic policy sign-off, equipment tracking, driver management and digital proctoring (user ID is validated through a webcam). Users can also access a library of hundreds of training courses through the system.

The features customers buy depend largely on the industry they’re in, Douziech says. Many companies want training record management software. Typically, safety professionals have used an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of employee training. With employee names on the left and training courses along the top, the safety manager would click through to see what each worker needed. In contrast, the training record management software determines what training is required based on roles (on the left) and topics (on the top). The matrix, or grid, can be layered based on location, job and other specifics.

“That instantly gives you things like gap reporting analysis and expiry alerts and it’s available from any mobile device. Anywhere with an Internet connection, you can see what a worker needs in training and see what they have,” Douziech says.

This training record software is particularly useful for companies with field workers, he adds.

“They might be taking a course online from their cellphone out in the field. Maybe they’re doing a digital policy sign-off on the new drug and alcohol policy. It is sent to them, they get an alert, open their phone and log in. When finished, they answer questions and sign off.”

Safety First Training, based in Mississauga, Ont., has developed cloud-based software designed to keep track of compliance and training, something a lot of companies find difficult, says Allan Nolan, president.

“There are so many different scenarios. You could have an individual who took the training yesterday and it’s good for three years. Someone else is coming due next month. It can spiral out of control if you don’t have the proper management system, especially when you have lots of employees,” he says.

Nolan says his system is designed to be “a la carte”: there are different features and services and thus a wide price range. Equipment maintenance records can be input and easily accessed. A company can also upload employee performance reviews, resumés, driving certificates and training certificates from past jobs as well as from the current job.

“From a tracking standpoint, there’s no stone unturned. You can look at all your employees, equipment, safety inspection, audits and certification expiry dates,” he says. “We’re finding, for the HR role, this saves them a huge amount of time. Instead of relying so much on manpower, they can automate a lot of these tasks.”

Safety First Training’s system includes a large library of WHMIS and other standard safety courses embedded in the safety management program that workers can take any time.

“They can take a three-hour course online at home, which saves the employer lost productivity time for a training class. So there could be some cost savings and more flexibility for the employer.”

Nolan says some training is still best done the old-fashioned way; for example, when workers are being trained on machinery, such as aerial or scissor lifts.

“Whenever a hands-on approach is needed, we want to be at the employer’s place of business, where we can work with their employees on their equipment, so we can see a typical day and flag safety issues and help them become safer in their own workplace.”

Toronto-based Medgate, which sells mainly to large, multi-national companies, focuses on three areas, says David Poole, product marketing manager. One is risk management. The safety manager conducts job hazard analyses using built-in audit and inspection templates.

“You can go around the site with a laptop, an iPad or even cellphone and complete the questionnaires associated with the template. When you hit submit, it will all go to one centralized place,” he says. “Once you’ve gathered the information, you can plot out the various risks you’ve identified on a matrix. That will allow you to prioritize where you are going to go from there. So, if you have a situation that’s both high likelihood and severity of risk, that would be a great place to start.”

This function gives companies with many distant sites the ability to send the information into a central EHS manager, where the software analyses the data.

The second area is compliance: the SMS helps safety managers keep track of current legislation and regulation relevant to each site’s jurisdiction, Poole says. The SMS is integrated with a database, created by four EHS regulation data service companies that is constantly updated to reflect changes in OHS regulation. Companies that subscribe to one of those services can get a list of all the regulation that applies to each of their work sites.

“You can track that into a compliance calendar and make sure all the tasks associated with those pieces of regulation become part of your day-to-day operations. You’ve assigned someone to ensure compliance in a particular area. The person who’s assigned gets automated reminders: ‘Go out and do this,’” he says.

Thirdly, the SMS tracks programs aimed at improving safety across an organization. The incident management module provides a way to track an incident — from collecting details of the investigation to determining the root cause and putting in place some corrective action, Poole says.

“If your recourse is something to do with a process, rather than just ‘machine was faulty’ or ‘human error,’ then you change the process as well, so that it rolls out across your operations. You can learn from one incident something that may be applicable to a wide variety of situations.”

Through the SMS, employees can also log in quickly and document a near miss or record a suggestion they have to improve safety.

“It’s an easy and powerful way to make employees think more about safety. It’s a good way to drive safety culture, and it allows you to be proactive,” Poole says.

People are often focused on safety culture, he adds, but find it is a vague goal and difficult to measure. They need data to be able to know whether measures they’ve introduced to improve safety are working. SMS helps them do this by providing information on leading indicators, measures put in place to prevent and control future incidents.

“As people build their sophistication with software systems, they are more interested in tracking leading indicators. They get a richer view of the risk landscape if they are able to build in more and more of these risk indicators,” he says.

Calgary-based SafetyTek specializes in replacing paperwork with digital safety forms, such as a pre-job hazard analyses, says Ryan Quiring, president and CEO. The cloud-based file system stores PDF versions of the forms and holds any other historical documentation the safety professional might need. Safety manuals, safety data sheets, OHS legislation booklets and work procedures can be uploaded to the system.

The SMS tracks key safety information, such as whether unsafe work situations have been corrected, as well as worker compliance and incidents to determine trends. It has a cloud-based training matrix, which flags expiry dates and training gaps.

In addition to time and money, Quiring says, SMS can help a company improve safety, citing a client whose workers’ compensation board claims had decreased by 88 per cent.

“The system itself doesn’t do that. What it does is give the safety co-ordinator time so they can focus on ‘What do I need to do today?’ They’re not sitting behind a desk with stacks of paper trying to input the data into a reporting tool or filing cabinet. Because the system manages all that automatically, it becomes a simple retrieval process.”

Apart from note-taking, Quiring cannot point to any safety management task that is still better done using paper and pen.

“What use is a piece of paper if you read it once and file it away? If you want to see a trend, how do you do that on a piece of paper? You can’t. If I am a roofing company and I want to see how many slips, trips and falls there were during the last six months and I want to correlate that trend to weather, I can do that with a digital system. On paper, just the task of grabbing that data is daunting,” he says.

Linda Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of COS.