OHS Canada Magazine

Safety Goes Wireless

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April 21, 2015
By Jean Lian

Health & Safety

Today, there is an app for everything. Apps with workplace safety functions are no exception — they are becoming must-have tools for safety professionals and workers alike.

“Apps are definitely a big part of today’s safety environment,” says Jonathan Brun, co-founder and chief executive officer of Nimonik, a company offering safety and environmental mobile tools in Montreal. “Companies have tremendous competitive pressures, so anywhere they can save time and avoid accidents at work is a huge gain.”

Improvements in technology on smartphones and tablets have made these devices more powerful and able to accommodate added features, says Matthew Ross, media manager with ProntoForms Corporation in Kanata, Ontario. The company offers the ProntoForms app, a mobile-form solution used by 3,000 business customers to receive dispatched forms from the office, collect vital work data in the field and submit complete, media-rich forms in real time.

The bring-your-own-device-to-work trend and more companies using cloud services are also driving increased app usage. “It is our largest growth space right now,” Ross says about safety apps.

For Brun, one of the biggest advantages of a mobile app is that it can be used offline. “Mobile apps are quite useful when you are working in an environment that does not have a strong Internet connection and where people need to move around, visit different parts of a plant,” he says, adding that Nimonik’s clients include mining operations, mills, warehouses, logistics companies and remote operations.


Nimonik offers the Monik Audit, a free app primarily used for safety inspections. It is available from the Apple app store, and an Android version was released in March. Formerly known as the EHSQ Reporter, the Monik Audit has been on the market for about four years and has incorporated new features and updates over time.

“If a company or person wants to conduct a workplace-safety inspection, they can use one of our checklists — we have 1,500 checklists in there based on industrial standards, laws and regulations,” Brun explains. An inspector or a site supervisor can refer to the standards in the Monik Audit to determine if a workplace is compliant with regulatory requirements, issue a report or action item and manage the entire inspection process. “That is a big part of our business — helping companies do inspections on mobile devices.”

Likewise, the ProntoForms app can be used anywhere, even underground. “You can collect data in the field wherever you are; you can text your signatures, including photo and barcodes,” Ross says. As the app works offline, the collated information or completed forms can be saved and sent when the user gets the network connection back.

The ProntoForms app, which costs approximately $20 per user (depending on the carrier), works on any smartphone or tablet with Windows, Blackberry, Android and iOS operating systems. “We run on a subscriber budget,” Ross says. Additional charges may apply if a client makes specific integration or form-building requests. Users can either build their forms from scratch or use one of the templates provided.

He adds that the ProntoForms app is a “hugely popular tool”, because there are many forms to fill out when conducting safety inspections and writing action reports. “It has been quite successful in eliminating the time to process critical and crucial data related to health and safety,” Ross says. “People can’t afford to fill up forms on paper anymore.”


A Tab Away

Given the plethora of regulatory requirements surrounding workplace health and safety, “having a safety app at your fingertips is incredibly convenient and usually results in the user using it more,” says Warren Bailey, director of marketing with Danatec Educational Services Ltd. in Calgary. “If it was a physical book or something, it might be harder to pull up in times of need.”

Danatec, which specializes in workplace-safety and compliance-based training, provides a range of educational and compliance training tools. The company offers two apps — the Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) Handbook app and the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) Handbook app — which are digitized versions of the TDG and WHMIS handbooks.

“Even though the handbooks are quite small, a lot of truckers put them in their glove compartments or what have you,” Bailey says. On the other hand, “lots of people have their phones on them 24/7.” The TDG and WHMIS handbook apps, which work on Android and Apple devices, cost $7.99 each and are available from Apple’s iTunes store.

According to the company’s website, the content in both apps is easy to understand and provides hyperlinks to important websites and relevant contact information. The TDG Handbook app includes a handy class guide, placarding guide and checklist for quick reference to TDG requirements. Employees can use the app during a TDG training program and refer to it for details about classification, shipping documents, labels, placards, containers, special situations or reporting an emergency.

In the last few years, there has been increasing competition in the app world, Bailey notes. The initial uptake of the TDG and WHMIS Handbook apps, which have been around for more than two years, was a bit slow. “But every month, we see an increase in sales. The more people get technology on their hands, the more phones people have on them, the more we see people buying [the apps],” he says. Users of the TDG and WHMIS Handbook apps include those employed in transportation, oil and gas and sectors involving lone-worker operations.

There is even an app to help those tasked with purchasing safety equipment. 3M’s Safety app, launched last year, provides access to more than 2,400 3M personal-safety products. Jason Grouette, business manager of the personal-safety division with 3M Canada in London, Ontario, says the app helps distributors, end users and safety managers choose the appropriate products for their needs.

Unlike other safety apps that provide an extensive list of products that users have to plough through and figure out what are the best options, 3M’s Safety app compiles a list of products and accessories that meet a user’s needs in any safety category. The user’s responses to various questions refine the search options from what could be in the hundreds to a manageable amount.

“We provide the information, but we make that information active by asking the user questions that allow them to select the appropriate product,” Grouette says of the app, which is free and built for the Canadian market.


Streamlining Information

While many workplace health and safety apps provide information, others help manage information and the incident-reporting process.

“Apps really help customers to manage the data that drive safety,” says Mark Jaine, chief executive officer with Intelex Technologies Inc. in Toronto. “That also allows them, more importantly, to aggregate data and better understand their process in the organization, so that they can make positive changes to policies and procedures.”

Intelex’s web-based Safety Incident Reporting software provides a comprehensive and user-friendly tool to record, track and report all types of safety incidents, near-misses and dangerous conditions. “When a customer has an incident, they can follow up on it immediately and track preventive actions,” Jaine says. “On a long-term basis, they can try to analyze common causes of incidents.”

According to the company website, the app offers safety-incident-reporting forms, fields and workflow that can be easily configured to fit an organization’s incident-management process and make reporting safety incidents fast and easy. The app assigns to employees follow-up corrective and preventive action tasks related to reported incidents and near-misses, while automated e-mail notifications and reminders drive employee accountability and task completion.

As well, real-time performance dashboards and reports make it easy to benchmark safety-incident data and view a firm’s incident-performance metrics at a glance. Users can also fill out mandatory employer injury-reporting forms and print or electronically submit the forms to the respective regulatory bodies directly.

Depending on the level of sophistication required, the app’s capability ranges from providing the basic function of capturing and managing incidents to delivering more sophisticated functions, such as conducting deeper root-cause analysis and event reporting.

“Our software and pricing is really built to scale from the smallest organization with 100 employees or less, to large, global Fortune-500 companies,” Jaine explains.

Speed is one of the key advantages that safety apps offer, says Ross, citing the ProntoForms app as an example. The old way involving filling out forms could take days. “Now it takes approximately an hour, and everything is done.”


Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

While workplace safety apps come in a range of prices, many of them are free. What does the price — or the lack thereof — say about the quality of an app?

Brun advises companies to think hard about what is most important to have on a mobile device, given the business they are in. “Often, companies will be tempted to use the lower-cost or the free apps as a cost-saving tool,” he says. But some of these free apps may not be supported by a company, the data contained in or transmitted via the app may not be secured, the app may not be serviced or it may no longer work a few years down the road.

“Companies that are looking to do safety on a mobile device should take a close look not only at the app itself, but the company behind the app and make sure that the company is there to offer support and training and has a high data-security system in place,” Brun says.

He adds that an app that is not being updated regularly and is connected to the Internet can quickly become a liability. He recommends buyers check how frequently the provider is updating the app.

Bailey concurs. “If you are getting something free, you always have to be wary of its quality,” he says. “A lot of times, there are in-app purchases, which will eventually make the app not free.” As well, there could be a hidden agenda behind a free app. “They may be promoting something, they may be pushing you to an online service,” he explains, “or it may be very limited information [that is being provided].”

Jaine contends that while his customers are by and large cost-conscious, they are unlikely to compromise on the quality of safety solutions. “I think people understand the necessity of having sophistication of a product, so they will spend money on it to make sure they get the right solution.”


Location Matters

Workplace safety in various industries is governed by complex regulatory frameworks and applicable safety standards with jurisdictional differences in legislation. For apps that serve primarily as information providers, such as those relating to safety legislation, consideration should be given to whether the provider is Canadian or American.

Brun says many of the larger companies down south offer Canadian regulatory information on health and safety and the environment without necessarily understanding the regulatory framework in Canada. “In the United States, a lot of companies will copy and paste things from the government and do not necessarily understand them. On paper, they offer a regulatory service, but in reality, all they are doing are reprinting government communications, which is not value-adding to it.” The same could also apply to Canadian providers, Brun adds.

As well, the country in which the data is being hosted could become a relevant factor in the event of a workplace incident. “If the data is sitting on United States-based servers, there is a bunch of legal implications in terms of who can access it, subpoenas and things like that,” Brun adds.

“It is very important that the information you are looking at has been tailored for your geography,” Grouette advises. “With our app, we are very careful to make sure that it does meet the needs of the users in our marketplace,” he says of the 3M Safety app.

That said, apps cannot replace stand-alone devices when it comes to the detection of dangerous gases like hydrogen sulphide. “I don’t think you would trust a phone app for that, plus it would not have the technology in it for certain things like that,” Bailey says.


Where to Start?

The best place to begin when selecting safety apps is to identify the safety problem that needs to be addressed and determine what needs to be achieved.

“Most of our clients come from the compliance perspective, so they have got regulatory requirements, they want to be in compliance,” says Elie Mouzon, vice-president of environment, health, safety and quality solutions with Intelex Technologies Inc. in Toronto.

As a company matures, its safety needs might evolve and it can look at more proactive apps that offer safety and job-hazard analysis. “So they will start reinforcing their training-management process, and maybe, they are going to buy apps around that,” Mouzon suggests.

Involving end users in the selection process is also key, says Jonathan Brun, co-founder and chief executive officer of Nimonik in Montreal. He encourages companies to try out different solutions in the app store and obtain references from app providers to see if there are others in similar industries who use the app. This, Brun says, will help determine if the app is a good product.


Jean Lian is editor of OHS CANADA.

Follow us on Twitter @OHSCanada


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