Automating Safety Inspections

AFFORDABLE Palm computers and software have given rise to a new family of tools for reducing paperwork and automating safety and other routine inspections. As with most new tools, the major advantage is reducing labor costs and saving administrative time, however, automating your inspection process can mean more than simply saving money. Careful planning during the automation process can transform routine inspections into an enhanced compliance process.

The simplest automated inspection tool can be just a personal digital assistant (PDA) connected to a Microsoft Access database. More advanced systems use wireless technology to access historical inspection results or follow up items for future inspections. Complex inspection systems coordinate inspectors across continents, bringing the inspection results to a central place for analysis.

PDAs eliminate the need for manual data entry. Interactive software design guides the inspector based upon answers to previous questions, ensuring better information is collected. This gives safety officers new and affordable ways to use the inspection information. For example, more details about recurring problems can be collected for later analysis or to ensure corrective actions are completed.

A central repository of historical data facilitates compliance audits, as well. Auditors easily can see the performance of your compliance operations. Also, historical trends can show that you?re committed to a zero violation environment. Before starting your inspection automation upgrade, a few steps can help simplify the process.

Standardize Your Equipment
PDAs are the main input tools for safety inspections. These are getting more powerful and have great features, such as e-mail and scheduling. If you move your inspectors over to PDAs, standardize the software and hardware for your whole team. Like the Mac versus PC debate, PDAs come in two flavors. The most common is the Palm operating system, but recently the Microsoft operating system has seen increasing sales. Both offer full-color screens and wireless connectivity.

Involve Your IT Group Early
Probably you will need some help from your IT group. Depending on how many inspectors you have and where they are located, the IT group might need to be only minimally involved. Most IT groups are overworked these days, and a new product may trigger resentment. If you outsource your inspection automation, have the vendor contact IT as soon as possible. They can help to minimize fears the IT group has about the scope and length of the project. Early buy-in from IT will ease the process and ensure your inspection goals are met.

Make It Easy on Your Inspectors
If the new inspection process is more difficult than the older paper-based one, your project will fail. Design for ease-of-use at every stage. For example, reduce the need for data entry using handwriting recognition (commonly called graffiti). Use pull-down menus wherever possible so the inspector can select what he wants to say and not have to try to write it in graffiti.

Good screen layout can minimize data entry errors. Use care when deciding what field data is required. In the real world, there are always situations where the inspector cannot get the required information. Inspection software must be forgiving in these situations.

Review Your Clerical Operations
Your clerical staff probably will be the primary user of the reporting side of the inspection automation software. Here you will see the most noticeable office efficiency improvements. As you implement your new system, analyze the steps the administrative staff now goes through to meet your requirements.

Are they all necessary? Often the reason clerical staff does things is because they've always been done that way. With automated inspections, data is stored in a database and can be viewed quickly by whoever needs it. If possible, eliminate your paper reports by having the results posted to an in-house Web site. This way all the users can access the information, but your clerical staff doesn't have to send it out individually. Software also can automatically e-mail the reports to the key players in your organization, saving clerical time.

Get the Most from Your New Data
With inspection automation there may be new ways you can slice and dice your data. For example, you can look for trends in the data indicating future problem areas. You also can display the data in a manner that promotes compliance. A graph showing departmental compliance might encourage department heads to pay more attention to their compliance activities. A little friendly rivalry between departments can result in better overall compliance for your organization.

Toot Your Own Horn a Little
Inspections usually are not simply reporting functions, but are training functions, as well. Make sure your new software allows for tracking the training and corrective action operations of your inspectors. If your team is fixing problems in the field while they perform the inspection, make sure this is noted on the PDA. You can use these data to show the inspection process itself is integral to your overall compliance operations. Instead of seeing an inspection as a nuisance, your departments will see your inspection as helping them stay in compliance.

If you follow the steps above, your inspection automation process will go smoother and you should see a quicker return on your investment.

This article appears in the May 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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