Given an appropriate tool, the employee is far more likely to record an incident or near miss, particularly when the relevant training and supporting processes are put in place. (SHE Software photo)

Facing the Future: How Innovative Software is Changing the Face of EHS Systems

Empowering employees to take responsibility and to get on board with the safety journey is a proven method of increasing engagement levels.

They're frequently referred to as the "Fatal Four"—the leading causes of deaths in the construction industry in the United States—and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's statistics on the number of such incidents make for chilling reading.

Construction consistently accounts for the largest number of total fatalities of any industrial sector: Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that, in 2016, one in five of the workers killed in the United States were employed in the construction industry. Of those deaths, the Fatal Four—falls, struck by objects, electrocution, and caught-in/between—were responsible for more than half.

Worryingly, figures also show an increasing trend in certain areas: The numbers of fatal work injuries from falls, slips, or trips continued a general upward trend that began in 2011, increasing by more than 25 percent since that time.

BLS estimates that eliminating the Fatal Four would save the lives of more than 600 workers in America every year, as well as saving the industry around $11.5 billion in direct and indirect costs.

Following an industry-wide review, the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA)'s Construction Sector Council has identified several areas of improvement that could help to increase the safety of construction workers and potentially reduce the number of fatal and non-fatal incidents in the sector. These include improved surveillance of hazards and outcomes; enhanced education and training; improved understanding of organizational factors in causing injury and illness; and, most critically, the implementation of improved environmental health and safety health management systems (EHSMS) and reporting tools.

However, construction faces many specific challenges when it comes to protecting workers' safety and health. Factors such as working at height or in excavations, or in remote environments and extremes of temperature, as well as other considerations—such as working at a fast pace on multiple sites on relatively short or episodic contracts—make the documentation of construction jobs and hazardous exposures complex.

Furthermore, in many instances, the management of EHS in construction is subject to some unique issues, particularly when it comes to on-site reporting. The nature of a site environment makes paper-based information collation difficult and impractical—attempting to fill in multiple incident forms in wet weather or a blizzard is practically impossible. As such, it's easy to understand how many incidents—especially minor ones or near misses—may well be chronically underreported. Compliance officers have a common, if rather rueful, saying: "If it's not documented, then it didn't happen."

Even if relevant data is captured, it is often hard to access—think of paper reports lost in filing cabinets—and even those organizations that effectively store data rarely have the tools available to turn it into actionable decisions that can improve safety in the workplace. This in itself creates a serious business risk. But to compound the challenge, this "black hole" is bound to negatively affect employee engagement, which is widely recognized as fundamental to delivering a safe workplace.

Indeed, employee engagement was the most pressing safety concern for environmental, health, and safety professionals surveyed for the 2017 Annual Safety Report published by the website EHS Daily Advisor. The report quizzed almost 700 organizations, of which more than half said employee engagement was their most common safety challenge.

Given the potentially highly damaging financial, reputational, and legal repercussions of a health and safety event, construction industry experts recognize that the widespread adoption and use of practical, effective EHSMS and reporting tools is vital when it comes to reducing, or even eliminating, the "Fatal Four." Accordingly, many organizations are now considering the introduction of innovative solutions to support effective EHS management, particularly regarding how technology can assist and encourage construction managers and employees in reporting, investigating, and sharing lesson learned.

Using Cloud-Based and Mobile Technologies
Recent innovations in cloud-based and mobile technologies have the potential to change the face of "traditional" management systems and reporting tools. Furthermore, as workplace practices and, indeed, the nature of the workforce itself evolve, the benefits of employing such tools has become compelling.

Let's look at the example of lone construction workers working in remote conditions. Perhaps they also work in multiple locations across several sites, or their first language is not that of the company's standard reporting system. The worker may be subject to unsociable hours, without recourse to office-based support staff, and unable to access paper or office-based systems, such as incident books. What's more, most employees just want to get their jobs done without the added stress of extra layers of work.

In this instance, traditional reporting methods, many of which are notoriously time-consuming at the best of times, are effectively useless, and the risk of an incident being unreported is high. The opportunity to collect data on an incident or near miss is lost, therefore increasing the possibility of its happening again—perhaps with more severe consequences.

However, given an appropriate tool—for example, a user-friendly mobile EHS app, with an intuitive user interface, which can be accessed offline when a data connection is unavailable—the employee is far more likely to record an incident or near miss, particularly when the relevant training and supporting processes are put in place. In some instances, apps also can be configured to provide additional relevant information and functionality, such as nearby reported hazards, or provide advice on precautions, such as for icy roads.

Empowering employees to take responsibility and to get on board with the safety journey is a proven method of increasing engagement levels. Furthermore, by removing "clunky," process-driven requirements, the workers become more efficient in their practices and subsequently more productive.

Additionally, data can be collected locally in local language forms and reported consistently worldwide. Work processes can be seamless, allowing central teams to review and approve locally generated content, such as incident investigations or risk assessments, as well as ensuring that all workers are included in an organization’s safety culture.

Good, meaningful data is the lodestone of an effective EHSMS. The mantra "what gets measured gets managed" should always be at the forefront of any health and safety professional's thoughts. Safety management software provides the opportunity to analyze, compare, and communicate data on near misses, the relative safety performance of branch sites and facilities, staff training levels, and much more. Therefore, the provision of an elegant data capture and business intelligence solution aids managers in applying lessons learned from incidents.

An effective digital solution can help to streamline this process before helping managers transition their EHSMS from a "reactive" to a "proactive" stance, where data can be dissected and trends identified. This, in turn, allows managers to track leading indicators (such as safe and unsafe observations) and predict where preventative measures will be most effective.

The Value of a Strong Safety Culture
Most importantly, however, providing workers with the tools to allow them to do their jobs safely and efficiently, through clear and open lines of communication, is the foundation of a strong safety culture. Good leadership provides clarity, in terms of process and methodology, which then leads to consistency and collaboration—safety stops being a checklist exercise or the sole responsibility of one individual and becomes an inherent part of every worker's role.

Embedding such a safety culture with positive enforcement through leadership and the provision of appropriate tools delivers tangible benefits. Software solutions in EHS address a fundamental psychological phenomenon and support "common sense." If a process is simple and straightforward, then an individual is more likely to adopt it.

Effective health and safety doesn't happen behind a desk, so by giving employees the tools and information they need to embed safety into their day-to-day role, significant improvements in safety performance will naturally follow.

Obviously, health and safety management software isn't a "magic wand" to solve every construction industry problem. However, when viewed as a catalyst to drive and monitor change, organizations that are open to software’s potential to radically improve construction workers' safety and health will reap rich rewards.

Safety management isn't just a financial or legal requirement; it has a very real moral element: The difference between an effective and an ineffective system could literally be life or death. If eliminating the Fatal Four would save hundreds of lives every year, then organizations have a responsibility to look toward the future and to embrace innovation as part of a wider commitment to improving and safeguarding the lives of their workforce.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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