Lost Opportunities

Paper systems can rob you of your ability to employ trend analytics, which can help to reduce workplace incidents.

Work can be a hazardous place. Accidents happen. Employees can slip, trip, or fall. They can be exposed to harmful chemicals or toxins. They can physically overexert themselves in strenuous situations. And the list goes on. Workplace accidents are the byproduct of unforeseen but, fortunately, often preventable causes.

According to the most recently available information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million nonfatal workplace-related injuries and illnesses were reported in 2007. While the most frequent injuries cited were minor sprains, bruises, cuts, and fractures, nearly half were of a more serious nature and entailed days away, restrictions, and transfers (DART). Also significant to note: 5,488 workplace accidents in 2007 were fatal. The good news, however, is that workplace injuries appear to be on the decline. From 2006 to 2007, the number of reported nonfatal injuries and illnesses decreased by about 100,000 reported cases. Correspondingly, fatal work injuries decreased by roughly 6 percent.

In an effort to raise awareness of occupational safety and reduce overall workplace incidents, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration instituted the occupational injury and illness reporting standard. 29 CFR 1904 requires a business to record work-related fatalities, injuries, and illnesses and post a log of those incidents for its employees.

Businesses that are partially exempt include those with 10 or fewer employees and those in industries classified as low-hazard. (OSHA lists these exemptions at www.osha.gov.) All employers, regardless of size or industry, however, must report incidents involving a fatality or an accident where three or more employees required hospitalization.

While 29 CFR 1904 has helped shed light on the enormity of workplace incidents, compliance with the standard is still an area of concern. With a limited number of inspectors, OSHA cannot inspect or audit every business, which makes enforcement of compliance a difficult task.

Most businesses are left to the honor system of keeping up with recordkeeping—especially those outside the manufacturing and construction industries. But is merely maintaining compliance enough of an effort to see a long-term decline in workplace incidents?

Not really.

For most business owners, the fear of inspection or even the potential fines associated with non-compliance are not the primary drivers for improving workplace safety. No, most businesses today are motivated by the bottom line, and incidents—especially those that result in time away from the job—can have a significant impact on a company’s profitability. Ultimately, employers want to create a work environment for employees that is as safe as possible and to decrease accident-related costs, worker’s comp claims, higher insurance premiums, or, worse, litigation costs.

Also, more and more businesses are paying closer attention to their overall corporate social responsibility, which brings employee safety to the forefront of their strategic thinking.

As a result, businesses are asking their safety professionals to take a more strategic role in identifying opportunities to reduce risk, lower costs, and improve efficiency. Like all departments, safety managers are being asked to do more with less. They are looking for ways to streamline many of their manual, traditionally paper-based compliance recordkeeping and reporting processes. Practically every industry survey today suggests safety managers are spending more and more on electronic tools and systems to phase out costly paper processes.

The Problem with Paper
Managing any business process on paper is generally tedious and time consuming, and that’s the case when it comes to OSHA recordkeeping requirements. We continue to see the vast majority of companies—large, medium, and small—that have optimized their operations to align with changing technologies and processes but still use conventional paper methods for many compliance and safety-related issues.Yes, if used and reported correctly, a paper system will meet OSHA compliance requirements. But the primary problem with paper can be summed up in a word: inefficient.

Consider all of the documentation required to record a single case. First, there are the OSHA forms (300, 301, and 300A summary log). Then there are the associated documents, such as accident investigation reports, photographs, video files, doctors’ reports, insurance claims, and so on. Each of these documents can exist in different formats and may be stored in disparate systems within various departments. Typically, a spreadsheet or file index is created to track and manage the information.

Another significant drawback to a paper-based system is that files are misplaced, accidentally destroyed, or never filed correctly in the first place.This can be especially problematic at posting time when the OSHA 300A summary log needs to be filled out. This is traditionally done by hand, writing in details from the 300 and 301 forms.

Now, consider a multiple-location business where each location uses a unique process to file, track, and manage its cases. The problem compounds, making it extremely difficult to locate, update, and manage these records from an organization-wide perspective.

The more important disadvantage, however, to paper-based systems is that each case file provides only a singular view of an incident. Lost, or more difficult to analyze, are the important data collected and contained within the paper documentation that can provide insight into trends or potential “hot spots”of hazardous activity.

Benefits of Electronic Systems
Emerging software- and Web-based electronic recordkeeping systems are designed to help businesses streamline the entire compliance process, from the initial creation of a case record to managing updates and associated files and notes, to reporting recordable cases and posting the required 300A summary form.

Perhaps most obvious are the immediate time and cost savings. Whether software or Web-based, an electronic recordkeeping system provides quick and easy access to case files in one centralized location. Inherent in any electronic system is the ability to locate a case based on multiple keyword searches. This eliminates wasted time locating and amending case files and significantly reduces the cost of having to maintain multiple, and often redundant, systems needed to complete the same tasks.

Most electronic applications include case management tools that enable a user to enter the specific data surrounding an incident. This information then becomes the basis for keyword searching, generating completed OSHA forms and running basic analytics. Others feature built-in logic that virtually takes all of the guesswork out of entering the data. Applications can flag cases that are recordable to OSHA based on the preliminary information entered and then prompt the user throughout the case creation process for pertinent, OSHA-required data. This not only saves time but also ensures compliance along the way.

Electronic recordkeeping has evolved from more traditional, software-based applications to Web-hosted solutions. While both types of solutions are generally designed to ease the burden of manual processes, Web-based systems have a few inherent advantages over their software counterparts. First, the data are securely housed externally on the service provider’s servers, which frees up internal data-storage needs. Second, service providers typically utilize state-of-t heart security protocols and multiple redundant backup systems. Therefore, the information is not only safe and confidential, but there’s no need to invest in additional hardware and system maintenance costs. Third, the application is available 24/7 from any computer connected to the Internet. Generally, all that’s needed are a username and password. Finally,new features and upgrades are immediately available without the need to reinstall software on one or multiple PCs.

The ability to run analytics may be the most significant benefit to using an electronic system. Having all of the data for all cases (recordable, non-recordable, near misses, etc.) contained digitally in one centralized location enables a business to run sophisticated analytics instantaneously, which on paper could take hours or longer.Rather than having a single view of an incident, a business can get a broader view of all incidents, identify hazardous trends, and begin to implement corrective measures to prevent accidents from recurring.

While accidents cannot be eliminated entirely,many can be prevented or mitigated, directly influencing and reducing injury-related costs. Improved analytics to track injury data and pinpoint accident-prone areas empower businesses to gain a critical management-level view of all incidents within their organizations.

Electronic recordkeeping enables businesses to focus on injury prevention and better identify trends. So many work-related injuries (and the costs associated with them) are preventable. Challenged with doing more with less in the current strained economy, there is an increasing trend among businesses to adopt intelligent and robust electronic safety recordkeeping solutions to improve the bottom line and positively affect profitability.

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

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