Does Safety-Specific Software Have a Place in Your Future?

Today, what it will cost is up to you and how much you want to do or can afford to do.

IF you have more work than time, then the answer to the question above should be yes. Today, almost all administrative, management, planning, and tracking functions of safety can be tackled with readily available and, usually, reasonably priced off-the-shelf software. The more complex and specialized it is, the more expensive.

Planning for, managing, tracking, and documenting the functions, activities, and results while maintaining required regulatory records, plus providing the necessary or required paperwork, requires an enormous amount of time and energy. Software gives you productivity tools to minimize the administrative time spent so you may concentrate on getting the job done, not just the paperwork.

Software tools enhance your productivity by making those processes faster, easier, and more efficient. More to the point, software allows you to keep your records in a structured, easy-to-manipulate or -locate format. With software, you can plan, communicate, report, and analyze with just a few keystrokes. And well-designed software never forgets something.

The Early Days
Just 15 years ago, there were only three software applications on the market for accident and incident documentation that could be considered off-the-shelf. Analysis of that data was sketchy, and OSHA recordkeeping was more of an afterthought than an objective.

One was published by a firm that understood human resources well, but not safety. Another was designed and published by a safety professional but was overly technical and complex to use. The last was designed by an old-time, injured-on-the-job-so-let's-make-him-in-charge-of-safety fellow in a manufacturing facility. While he had the right idea, he didn't have the safety management training and experience, nor software development knowledge to execute it very well. It was purchased and made more generic in order to sell to a wider audience by a large national safety organization that didn't understand software and, with greed in their eyes, grossly overpriced it--about $2,700 in the 1980s.

More Choices @ Lower Cost
Today, the least expensive perhaps will cost only a few hundred dollars. The most expensive still cost thousands but do a lot more and do it better and more easily. Most are designed for single PC use. Network and multi-user versions are often, though not always, much more expensive. It pays to Google around and check out what is available.

Other factors that affect overall cost more--known as TCO or total cost of ownership--are technical support, learning curve time, your network support, maintenance (updates and upgrades), etc.

Today, commercially available, off-the-shelf software is designed to help you with most safety and health functions. It falls into one of these broad categories, some of which may have overlapping functionality:

* Accident Prevention/Data Management Analysis
* Environmental Compliance
* Hazardous Material Management
* Lockout/Tagout
* Medical
* OSHA Compliance
* Personal Protective Equipment
* Regulation Resource
* Training Management
* Training Software

Using these specialized software packages saves time, effort, and money because the purpose and methodology has been thought out, planned, quantified, and designed to work in an efficient manner so that it is quicker and better than your trying to re-invent the wheel with a spreadsheet.

An analogy might be a house. The pile of lumber, nails, and tools are a spreadsheet. Build your own. With a pre-designed software application, it might be more like a finished house. Still, both will require appliances, furniture, and then all the things that make it your home.

Software is pretty much the same way. How much work and expense that will cost is up to you and how much you want to do or can afford to do, in both time and money. In the long run, if an off-the-shelf program will do 90 percent of what you need, grab it. If you have an unlimited budget and a lot of patience and time, build your own.

Many of these products are relational database applications. Unlike spreadsheets, these are pre-structured and designed to do specific things. The advantage is if they are well designed, it keeps the apples and oranges in their respective boxes so your data is valid and uncorrupted. They do, however, require a large investment of your time to further tailor them for your operations or needs, so plan on spending that time in advance. Generally speaking, the more time you invest in the front end before starting to use an application, the better is the result you will get down the road. The payoff is you now will have a tool that gets the job done with minimal effort and what you need is always readily available.

Do Your Homework
Do you need to find out what the regulations are? Go to OSHA's Web site, www.osha.gov. It is all there. Free. (Good luck on finding it in a timely fashion.)

Buying a CD from a company that specializes in providing the regulations with a good search function and timely updates will save you money compared to the time and frustration you will spend on OSHA's site. Remember, the greater the need for speed, the higher the frustration level. You get what you pay for. Like most products, some are better than others. Unfortunately, without any standards, it is caveat emptor, or, let the buyer beware. Some companies guarantee their products, some don't. Some offer great technical support, others don't do so well. Some offer free support, limited free support, charge reasonably or a lot for support, or just plain can't be found when you need them. It pays to do your homework. Ask. Get it in writing.

Tips:
1. Check with people you know from other companies about what they use, what they like, and why.
2. Take the time to research what is available in the marketplace.
3. Don't believe "slide show" demos that only show what the company wants you to see. Ask for a functional trial copy.
4. Don't buy if not it is not guaranteed.
5. Do take the time to read the documentation and review any tutorials available before purchasing or, at the very least, before using.
6. Check the company's technical support policies and--very important--what its response time is to a call. Many take days, which doesn't help if there is a problem and the OSHA Compliance Officer is standing over your shoulder.
7. Read the license. It should be clear, concise, and not all legal mumbo jumbo. If you can't understand it, it probably isn't very favorable to you.

Last but not least, take your time. After all, you have survived without it this long. A little longer to do the homework will result in a better and more satisfactory result for you. It will make your job easier and the administrative requirements more manageable. There really is an easier way, and it is cost effective.

This article appears in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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