OHS Canada Magazine

What’s Appening?

January 18, 2011

Human Resources Legislation Occupational Hygiene Indoor Air Quality Injury, Illness Prevention Noise - Exposure/Exposure Limits Training/Professional Development

The idea came to John Holtan while he was attending a week-long training event in Atlanta about five years ago. A refinery and power plant operations instructor in North Dakota at the time, Holtan made the trip to Georgia Tech hoping to beef up...

The idea came to John Holtan while he was attending a week-long training event in Atlanta about five years ago. A refinery and power plant operations instructor in North Dakota at the time, Holtan made the trip to Georgia Tech hoping to beef up his health and safety skill set.

As part of a gas-monitoring exercise, he found himself clad in a bulky Level A hazmat suit, staring down at a six-gas meter with a cracked screen and no battery. Post-it notes attached to a wall supplied the imitation readings. “All of a sudden, the wind came up and blew all of the Post-it notes away,” he recalls.

Later, on the flight home, it occurred to Holtan that there must be a better way to learn about gas monitors. And though the solution would evolve over time, it ultimately involved creating an application (better known as an app) for a mobile device that would not hit store shelves for another two years.

Fast forward five years to October, 2010. Holtan, now a resident of Spring, Texas, is discussing his company’s Gas Monitor Simulator, an app available for all three members of the Apple triumvirate: iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

“All of these products are going to revolutionize the way that we get data for safety,” suggests Holtan, president of LightsOn Safety Solutions. A smartphone or other mobile device, he points out, can easily play host to a multimedia library – potentially bursting with occupational health and safety information – right at a worker’s fingertips.


The simulator is welcoming new players to the party, as oh&s apps come online for use on iPhones, BlackBerrys and other devices. Still, despite the crowd, there seems to be no end to the possibilities.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of potential,” David Blais, senior manager of e-business for WorkSafeBC in Richmond, British Columbia, says of safety apps. Late last year, the board test ran an app that allows iPhone users to view and search the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulation, policies and guidelines.

“It is inevitable that more oh&s bodies will embark on the path of adapting to mobile delivery. It’s the future of the web,” says Blais, who adds that versions of the WorkSafeBC app for the BlackBerry and Android operating systems are expected early this year.

For those who may be somewhat tech-challenged, important questions need answering. Sure, “smartphone” has become a ubiquitous part of the vernacular, but what does it really mean? What health and safety apps are available? And why are they needed?

Open any dictionary and it may define a smartphone as a cellphone that can interact with computerized systems, send e-mails and access the web wherever and whenever a person chooses to do so. Add to this the availability of thousands of apps – software programs for smartphones or other mobile devices – and possibilities abound.

Apps range from the pointless yet fun (consider the array of games) to electronic depots brimming with practical information. Able to function with or without an Internet connection, depending on their design, many apps are created as smartphone-friendly versions of traditional websites whose layouts do not jibe with relatively small screens.

Consider, as one example, the new WorkSafeBC app. Created in partnership with a leading app developer based in Vancouver, Blais notes that it “is designed to optimize the user experience on a mobile device in a way surfing the existing website cannot.” Navigation, page layouts and functionality have all “been completely rethought to enhance the user experience on a mobile device,” he points out.

Remember the predictions about how the Internet would revolutionize the way that people access information? Nowadays, few people would tend to disagree, and similar arguments are being made about mobile devices and apps.

Still, the same cautions apply: these tools only benefit those who have access and, more significantly, those who choose to use them.
Oh&s apps range from sound level meters to hazardous material guides and largely fall into two broad categories – tools and reference materials.

“When I got into it, everyone said, ‘No one is going to want to buy your apps. Guys want to buy [app] games,” recalls Mike Bennett, managing partner of phoneflips.com in Ottawa, which offers an Emergency First Aid & Treatment Guide app. Now, however, Bennett suggests that “people are starting to look for more value out of their apps.”

Holtan’s app could be slotted into both the tools and reference categories. It offers facts about hazardous gases, lower explosive limits and exposure-related health effects, but it also seeks to transform how training is conducted. The program does away with Post-it notes or instructors who announce gas readings, and replaces them with mobile devices that receive and display readings.

Here is how it works: an instructor using any one of the three Apple devices – the app is not yet available on other platforms – can create and wirelessly send simulated gas readings to students’ devices. The instructor can alter readings to reflect changing environmental conditions, and can also enable or disable the app’s visual and audible alarms.

Holtan suggests the changeable environment forces students to think critically and pay closer attention to the readings being received. During one training exercise, about 20 of the 23 trainees failed the task when alarms were deactivated.

The app does not run through the Internet, but rather a WiFi network, meaning that the instructor and students need to be in the same vicinity. Holtan says it would be difficult, although not impossible, for a student to use an iPhone to join a session from a remote location. He suggests the type of training offered by LightsOn works best when the teacher and students are in close proximity.

But sometimes a worker has company, sometimes he does not. Blackline GPS, a Calgary firm that offers lone worker monitoring technology solutions, has both a wireless monitoring system called LonerGPS (a hardware product worn on the hip) and a new stand-alone Loner Mobile app for the BlackBerry platform, which was released last May.

The app has “all the similar benefits of LonerGPS, only it is within a smartphone,” says Clark Swanson, president and CEO of Blackline GPS. It can be used independently or together with the hardware product, Swanson says.

With the app, a worker can trigger a safety alert. A message is sent via the Loner Portal Internet browser-based monitoring interface, as well as through e-mail and text message.

Check-in, as simple as removing the BlackBerry from its holster, monitors whether or not a worker is present and alert. If the worker fails to check in, a missed alert is generated.

The app also publishes the BlackBerry’s GPS location periodically, based on how its configurable timer has been set. Locations can be viewed within the Loner Portal event history for interactive mapping.

Another feature is that the monitor can view the strength of the smartphone battery and signal, Swanson says. “I can know with a greater degree of certainty that your system is going to work,” he adds.

One possible hurdle preventing companies from warming to apps, Swanson suggests, is that many have not standardized the smartphones used by all of their employees. This can be problematic if an app operates on only one platform, say, a BlackBerry. As well, smartphones require data plans from cellular providers, further increasing costs, he points out.

Holtan says an instructor and trainee can run the gas monitor app – available free through the Apple app store – for five minutes to get a feel for the program. For actual training, anyone who is interested would need to contact the company to buy training time. The starter kit, which costs US$1,500,
consists of three iPod touches, training time and other resources, although time can be bought separately, he says.

The free-app-plus-upgrade business model is an approach adopted by many developers. Motolingo LLC of Bartlesville, Oklahoma offers MotoRiety GPS, a free driving safety app on the Windows Mobile platform, designed to monitor drivers who are texting, e-mailing or making phone calls while behind the wheel.

For a fuller array of features, these are available with the MotoRiety Connect app, which costs US$10 a month. “We’re looking for people to upgrade,” says Motolingo president Charles Nesser.

Still, the free version of the app has some interesting offerings. GPS on the smartphone detects when the device is moving, and the app determines if distracted driving has occurred. The phone records the monitoring results and broadcasts them on a Twitter account.

The app also keeps tabs on a driver’s location. If he travels outside of a defined geofence, or specified area, a company fleet manager would be notified via Twitter and be able to log into a secure web page to view the current location.

The main limitation of the app may be that it cannot distinguish if the monitored person is the driver or a passenger. Nesser responds that the service is aimed at fleet management scenarios, where typically the driver of a certain vehicle is a specified employee.

A growing number of free apps backed by non-profit entities, such as WorkSafeBC and the United Steelworkers south of the border, are finding their way into the oh&s realm.

“WorkSafeBC sees tremendous potential in mobile content and service delivery,” Blais says.

Apart from its mobile-friendly design, a big plus of the agency’s app is that once it has been downloaded to a device, it can operate without an Internet connection. Working at a remote site or in a building with poor cellular reception would render useless any app that requires that connection, he says.

The Steelworkers released the USW Safety app in September, 2009. Designed as an easy and accessible chemical safety reference, the app allows users to view and search the New Jersey Material Safety Data Sheets database and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards.

Jim Frederick, the union’s assistant director of health, safety and environment in Pittsburgh, cites a couple of motivations behind creating the app. One was to get oh&s information out to members (and anyone else with an interest) via the ever-expanding mobile device network. Another was to simply establish a Steelworkers presence in this new universe.

“It’s a way for us to pull in some younger members and provide information in a format and in a platform that’s more comfortable for them,” says Anna Fendley, a member of the union’s Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education, also in Pittsburgh.  

As with any information-based product, accuracy and credibility are key considerations for consumers. “It’s a little bit like the Wild West right now,” Bennett laughs.

His company’s emergency first aid app offers medical information based on guidelines from the American Red Cross and other health organizations. Eye injuries, CPR, burns and other topics are covered.

“The fact that I’ve teamed up with an established, bricks and mortar-type [publishing] company that has been in the business for 40 years, I hope that that gives customers some sort of peace of mind,” Bennett says.

Holtan agrees that consumers should consider carefully a developer’s partners, noting that his gas monitor app was further developed while under contract with NIOSH’s Office of Mine Safety and Health Research.

As well, buyer beware when it comes to an app seller’s background, advises Blackline GPS’s Swanson. A useful question to ask, he suggests, is if the seller is primarily a safety-related company. Consumers could call a company’s customer support line to gauge its depth of knowledge, he adds.

With regard to accuracy, Frederick says “users have to do quite a bit of that review themselves and make certain that it’s the real information that they’re looking for.”

Bennett cautions customers against assuming that if “they pay more, they’re getting more.” While many oh&s apps cost just a few dollars, some can run as high as $20.

Smartphone users on Google’s Android operating system can test drive an app for a 24-hour period before having to purchase, Bennett says. While this is great for customers wanting to check out what is being offered, it is less appealing for developers of information-based apps. “It’s like buying a newspaper, reading it and giving it back to the guy you bought it from and getting your money back,” he says.

Another concern may be the potential for an app to distract. “Just like in any other facet of life, there are appropriate times to be using your phone or mobile device and times that it’s not appropriate,” Frederick says.

Holtan wholeheartedly agrees. “In the safety field, that one distraction can take you away forever,” he says.

Blais suggests that “the vast majority of people understand the importance of using their phones under safe conditions, and we assume our customers will use the same discretion when using our mobile apps.”

But reminders here and there certainly don’t hurt. Employers should advise and re-advise employees about acceptable usage, Holtan suggests.

Although the focus of USW Safety is information sourced in the United States, the material is still relevant to Canadian members, Frederick suggests.

Strictly Canadian oh&s content can be hard to come by in the app sphere. For example, neither the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario nor the province’s Ministry of Labour (MOL) currently offer any apps.

MOL spokesperson William Lin says that the ministry does provide “online interactive tools for health and safety, including a tool to learn more about musculoskeletal disorders and how to prevent them.” Lin reports that more of these online tools will become available down the road.

Frederick suggests that it would be helpful if more government bodies were to create apps detailing oh&s laws and standards. “If the government entities were to put those out on free apps… that certainly would be an opportunity to help them extend their reach to many more workplaces and many more workers,” he argues.

Beyond reaching more people, the features of mobile devices should be fully explored to maximize potential benefits.

“There are a lot of unique tools that are already on the devices that we can use in unique ways,” Holtan suggests, citing one app (Camera for iPad) that makes good use of the iPhone’s camera function.

Pointing the camera at an object, the user can broadcast the live image from the iPhone to an iPad or iPod touch and can also snap a digital photo. In a workplace setting, Holtan notes that this would allow a worker in one location to film something – perhaps a damaged piece of equipment – and show it to a co-worker in another location.

Another potentially useful tool is the built-in microphone on a mobile device that, with the right app, can be turned into a sound level meter, says Frederick.

“It sure is a useful, quick read for a worker in a facility who is worried about noise exposure,” he says. This reading can then be compared to those from a professional meter.

Beyond information on work-related hazards is the potential to enhance services that can help foster health and safety. “Mobile delivery represents a big opportunity to connect and to provide service in a more meaningful way,” Blais suggests, noting that WorkSafeBC is currently developing an app for viewing safety videos, and another to provide clearance letters to mobile devices.

Nesser says he can see the day when workers with smartpho
nes will have on-the-spot access to all of a company’s health and safety policies/procedures and regulations. “Those are good opportunities and a mobile app is the perfect way to do that,” he says.

For all the excitement around mobile devices and apps, they should not be viewed as a replacement for existing health and safety practices.

As Bennett and Holtan point out, their apps do not eliminate the need for broader first aid and confined space training to take place. But they sure do complement workplace safety as a whole.

Dan Birch is assistant editor of OHS CANADA.

Apps of Note






WHMIS Training Course and



An audio/video training course, delivered by certified WHMIS trainers and displayed in high-resolution video.



HazRef 2008

Armageddon LLC

Allows users to browse and search a database of almost 3,000 hazardous materials identified by the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.





Performs minimum ventilation rate calculations for a variety of commercial buildings, based on ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 62.1-2007.



Safety Button

Sillens AB

With the press of a button, the app sounds an alarm and sends a text and an e-mail of the user’s location.



Pain Free at
Your PC by
Pete Egoscue

Iceberg Reader

Guidance is provided on how to avoid or treat debilitating repetitive stress injuries, and how to avoid postures and movements before they can lead to pain.



NIOSH Chemical Hazards Pocket Guide

ThatsMyStapler Inc.

Allows searches of the NIOSH Pocket Guide for chemicals by using any portion of the name or CAS/RTECs number, and offers access to International Chemical Safety Cards.



Calorie Tracker



Users can track daily calorie intake and exercise.





Faber Acoustical

Allows iPhone or iPod touch to be used as a simple sound-level meter, and to take photos with sound readings attached.



Gone Flying
Aviation Safety

LBS Wireless

Uses iPhone’s GPS, Google maps, calendar
and camera features to record departure,
destination and waypoint details, and to e-mail or post Twitter messages with flight information.




Integrated Safety Technologies LLC

Provides access to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regulations on worker oh&s for general industry.




Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories