Managing Your Most Important Asset

Companies are increasingly adopting an innovative approach to OH&S information management.

THE effective management of occupational health and safety (OH&S) information remains a significant logistical challenge for many businesses. Most large organizations create, collect, and store vast amounts of OH&S data to meet regulatory requirements, to reduce absence, to improve workplace productivity, and to safeguard an organization's most important asset: its workers. Despite these common requirements, many organizations take different approaches to the management of health and safety information.

Typically, OH&S data is not kept in a single repository. Instead, it is spread across independent OH&S functions, separate computer systems, and various business units, regions, and facilities. This approach has meant that many companies have not kept pace with the volume and complexity of OH&S, business, and compliance data. While this gap continues to widen for some, others have embraced an innovative, integrated approach that is beginning to reap significant rewards.

New Challenges, Old Solutions
While no two organizations are alike, health and safety professionals are faced with many of the same challenges when it comes to managing OH&S data, including the need to:

  • Efficiently document health and safety data;
  • Improve the tracking of required regulatory information;
  • Generate reports that turn that data into useful management information;
  • Identify trends, problem areas, and root cause analysis;
  • Protect sensitive content;
  • Automate manual processes where possible; and
  • Carry out all of the above in a manner that is cost effective and meets the financial and operational goals of the organization.

To meet these challenges, the majority of companies continue to rely heavily on paper-based systems interspersed with a variety of independent computer systems, most of which are not well maintained. However, the international expansion of operations and the pace of regulatory change have created a shortfall with this approach. How can an organization efficiently track, manage, and coordinate high volumes of data from a variety of functional areas while at the same time consolidating information from global operations subject to their own respective legislative regimes (including medical, safety, industrial hygiene, and case management)? Efficiency concerns aside, without a complete picture of their world in real time, how can OH&S professionals be sure they are making accurate and useful recommendations to senior management?

Analyzing the Risks
In 2003, a leading U.S.-based biotech company examined some of the risks associated with not investing in OH&S information management systems by conducting an independent business case analysis. The ensuing report noted that the lack of proper data management systems could lead to lost business opportunities because the pertinent information would not be available to managerial decision-makers. Additionally, the failure to invest in OH&S systems could negate the company's ability to seize opportunities for improving performance and realizing cost savings.

From a compliance perspective, the company noted that robust data management systems are essential in preventing poor-quality compliance data and late delivery of OH&S information to key constituencies (i.e., government agencies), which could lead to increased risk of financial penalties, enforcement action, and major inefficiencies. Improving the company's systems would help to reduce these risks, as well as provide the ability to track leading-edge compliance indicators.

The potential for negative publicity directed at the biotech company and its customers, suppliers, or partners was another risk identified in the analysis. The company risked the inability to either prevent a non-compliance or quickly mitigate a non-compliance after it had happened. Finally, risks associated with accurately reporting and filing information related to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 were identified.

An Innovative Approach
Effective management requires OH&S professionals to speak a common language. They need a single, integrated system that can share information, not just across the functional areas but also across the enterprise. That way, when a medical practitioner is treating a worker for, say, lung disease, he or she has access to the air sample results collected by the industrial hygienist and the results of the safety facility audits conducted in the work area.

"[This innovative approach] enables us to focus on the issues rather than guessing what they are," said Peg Rivedal, Employee Health Services manager at Mutual of Omaha. The system also has enhanced her team's ability to communicate effectively with upper management, which can then use this information for strategic planning.

"It has helped us develop proactive communication and reporting tools that ensure occupational health personnel are kept up to date," said a wellness manager from a Fortune 100 company. Using an integrated system has allowed him to support the company's doctors and nurses at the clinic level while providing the statistical, reporting, and front-end input tools needed by safety, risk management, worker's compensation, and return-to-work groups. "Having the OH&S management system has facilitated process development and enhanced manager participation in safety and health," he said. What's more, the improvements have been well received by employees at the company who have benefited from more rapid and thorough treatment.

While improved internal communication is a great asset, Paul Moss, vice president of Global Health, Safety & Environment at Dade Behring, values a single integrated system because of the ease of distribution of that information. The system is Web-based, which has enabled the company to open up its database to worldwide reporting. "It enables us to report from sites outside of North America and allows us to focus resources based on actual global data," Moss said.

Making the Most of Your OH&S Data
With more information and improved internal communication, an organization can move far beyond the traditional realm of OH&S management. It can identify problem areas, lagging sites, and root causes; implement corrective actions; and modify behaviors in order to reduce the risks of workplace injury or illness and contribute to productivity.

After reviewing its approach, the U.S. biotech company now boasts improvements across the board. For instance, while increased visibility for senior management related to OH&S risk has been a welcome benefit, the company has been able to take a series of measures, based on the data, to dramatically reduce its injury rate and worker's compensation costs. The company projects these measures alone will account for a 32 percent improvement in its Total Recordable Injury Rate and a concomitant reduction in comp costs.

Moss said the incidence data that is generated by the system can be studied for trending and enables his company to focus resources and budget on the most critical prevention areas. The same can be said for OSHA recordable information, which is now reported at Dade Behring by classification, nature of injury, type of accident, and by site.

Rivedal and her team at Mutual of Omaha have expanded their goals with the increased flow of information. They are now building a wellness program using the data to target specific areas of importance. They can then analyze how many people are using their wellness center and in what capacity. The enhanced tracking and reporting provided by the system has made it easy to demonstrate in real time the correlation between a reduction in the number of lost days for those actively using the wellness center and days lost for those not using it at all or only infrequently.

Embracing Change
For an organization to meet today's demands of OH&S information management, it must be prepared to employ a common, integrated approach. Information must be shared in real time across functional areas and the enterprise so everyone is on the same page, including senior management. The alternative is the price an organization pays for poor OH&S performance, which is measured not only in government fines, but also in lost business opportunities, negative publicity, and lower employee productivity.

This article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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