EH&S Compliance and Action Tracking

Using e-mail as the "process tracking system" for EH&S program processes is not your best bet.

A key aspect of any EH&S compliance program is to make sure that for every documented problem, all steps taken to correct the problem are also documented. It does not matter whether the problem arose as a result of an incident report or as a result of an audit; managing, tracking, and documenting the steps taken to handle and correct the problem are just as important as solving the problem.

Given that, what tools are out there for tracking and documenting all of the actions that took place to resolve the problem?

The straightforward answer is an EH&S management system, but in reality, that is only a partial answer. Even if you do have one, most of the tools for supporting EH&S compliance focus on providing support for procedures and guidelines, planning, and documentation. All of these are very important aspects of EH&S compliance, but many of them lack adequate support for the tracking and documenting of the resulting work processes. The processes involved in this type of work are collaborative, ad hoc, unstructured human processes, which means these processes do not have a predefined flow, or a fixed set of participants, but rather are handled on a case-by-case basis.

People are added to the process flow as needed, and there is a lot of back and forth between the participants. Even companies that use EH&S management systems revert to shadow processes outside the regular EH&S systems, which rely on spreadsheets, word documents, and plain old e-mail as the tools for follow-up and tracking these human processes. Of course, companies that do not have an EH&S management system have plain old email, documents, and spreadsheets as their only choice in tools for managing EH&S compliance programs.

The problem with using e-mail as the "process tracking system" for EH&S program processes is that e-mail really is not designed for tracking and process management.

Various tools are available that attempt to help with tracking and managing the actions associated with unstructured, ad-hoc human processes. These tools can be divided into three basic types:

      1. Basic personal action tracking tools
      2. Web-based social collaboration tools, such as wikis
      3. E-mail and office document process extensions, such as Human Process Management Systems (HPMS)

The basic personal action tracking tools are the easiest to get started with, but they also provide the least benefit.

Wiki-based tools are closer to a real solution because they enable participants in the process to collaborate through a wiki, rather than through e-mail. The wiki provides everyone involved in the process a shared space where they can collaborate with the rest of the participants. Th is approach requires wiki infrastructure, which is not a problem if your organization supports wikis or if you are allowed to use existing cloud-based wikis. The bigger problem is that wikis really are not built to support process flows (they tend to use e-mail for that), and they require a cultural shift from both the organization and the participants.

The final set of tools is an emerging technology called e-mail based Human Process Management Systems (HPMS). These tools provide a layer on top of plain, old e-mail and documents that allows participants to remain in their standard e-mail and documents environment but provide process e-mail capability.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jacob Ukelson is the CTO of ActionBase.

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