Stop the Spreadsheets: It’s Time to Mature Your IH Program

Stop the Spreadsheets: It’s Time to Mature Your IH Program

Moving from traditional systems to newer software can lead to improvements in engagement and support.

Making industrial hygiene (IH) program information visible and accessible to stakeholders throughout the organization is a key contributor to achieving the primary program goal of improving worker health. It is also essential to demonstrate the value that IH brings to your organization. When stakeholders (especially those in the C-Suite) have clear insight into IH program performance and worker health outcomes, those programs will ultimately be better staffed, supported and funded.

Recent advancements in software technologies are helping to drive IH program success in protecting worker health while also making communication of IH program performance clearer and easier. In other words, IH software gives IH professionals the ability to further engage stakeholders in their IH programs and achieve stronger levels of support and recognition for their contribution to the business.

What’s the Status of Your IH Program?

Unfortunately, the systems many organizations use to manage their IH programs are still based on paper and spreadsheets. The inherent inefficiencies of these obsolete methods ultimately limit their effectiveness—both in terms of controlling exposure risks and protecting workers’ health, but also in communicating IH program performance to help secure buy-in and support for those programs.

For example, reliance on paper or spreadsheets to manage complex IH program functions means IH professionals are forced to spend an extensive amount of time and effort simply generating the basic reports and analyses needed to support an IH program. Simultaneously, many IH programs are facing budget and headcount reductions as paper and spreadsheet-based systems make it difficult to clearly communicate IH risks and program outcomes, and key stakeholders, including the C-Suite, have limited visibility of the value IH brings to the organization. It’s a terrible cycle of inefficiency and poor communication that can prevent your IH program from reaching its full potential.

Lessons Learned in EHS Management

Environmental compliance is one of the best examples of how software technology has helped raise the bar. Environmental managers were some of the first EHS professionals to move away from obsolete paper or spreadsheet-based systems and toward purpose-built environmental compliance software. They have recognized the tremendous time and cost savings compared to these older systems, as well as the enhanced visibility and communication of environmental compliance data.

Environmental compliance is a particularly challenging area of EHS management, relying on complex data collection, calculation and analysis and often incorporating emissions monitoring and control devices that generate a constant stream of data. Reliance on paper or spreadsheets for managing environmental compliance quickly became unsustainable, especially in an increasingly complex regulatory landscape, and purpose-built environmental compliance software systems evolved out of sheer necessity. The capabilities of these new software systems allowed environmental managers to automate data collection and analysis; regulatory reports were generated with less effort; important metrics were communicated to key stakeholders; and the value they brought to the organization became clearer to management. These enhanced capabilities are beginning to pay even greater dividends as many companies continue to roll out their ESG reporting programs since a majority of the data required is already being captured at the site level and can be easily rolled up to the corporate level to meet ESG reporting and disclosure requirements.

Safety departments were the next to recognize the advantages of purpose-built software systems. They stopped trying to reconcile spreadsheets and paper records from across their organization to generate their monthly incident statistics, inspection findings, near-miss reports and other essential safety performance metrics. As the technology continued to advance, new tools like mobile safety apps helped to further lighten the load on safety professionals by empowering employees to quickly enter their incidents, near misses, audits and perform other essential safety tasks. Safety software allows users to generate automated notifications and reports and establish a seamless, standardized workflow process for performing the full range of safety program functions, thereby reducing the amount of manual effort required by safety professionals. This has freed up safety professionals to focus their time and effort on more important program goals. Additionally, having more of the workforce engaged with the safety process improves the visibility, appreciation and perceived value of the safety program.

Breaking the Status Quo

Sadly, our IH profession is lagging far behind. We tend to like our spreadsheets and keep our IH program information tucked away in our black boxes. We fear we cannot empower the workforce through the program because they won’t understand it, and we perform most of our work ourselves or use consultants that only report to us so we can keep a tight hold on the data and the program itself. Even to this day, IH sample data is commonly entered into spreadsheets or worse, still captured and stored on paper. Professional IH associations still often advocate the use of spreadsheets for data collection, so it’s no wonder we have not evolved as our environmental and safety counterparts have.

Why are so many people still using spreadsheets? Well, they’re essentially free, involve minimal training to use and are normally quick to get adoption because we’ve been using them for 40 years.

There are, however, some big pitfalls that should be considered. Sharing a spreadsheet may be easier now with cloud file storage, but they are hard to maintain. There are issues with version controls, security and having a single point of failure if the data becomes incorrectly sorted or corrupted. Even if you add complex formulas, lookups and macros, spreadsheets are at risk for errors from users that could potentially corrupt, invalidate or even destroy years of historic IH data.

There are numerous documented cases where companies have lost millions or incurred significant liabilities due to an incorrect formula or from entering incorrect data in spreadsheets. Here are just a few published cases:

  • Public Health England (PHE): Tracking COVID-19. Data was supplied in CSV files, which PHE loaded into Microsoft Excel. The use of an outdated XLS format was limited to 65,000 rows of data. Nearly 16,000 positive test results were lost.
  • Fannie Mae: $1.1 billion error in accounting on a spreadsheet when implementing a new accounting standard.
  • University of Toledo: $2.4 million budget overestimation due to a typo when entering a formula.
  • Kodak: $11M severance error due to a typo on a field that did not have any outlier protection.

In most cases, these errors could have been avoided if the companies moved from a spreadsheet to a purpose-built software program that was specifically designed to manage the tasks being performed.

The core issue is that IH is still often done in a vacuum. There is not enough management reporting, corporate metrics or stakeholder visibility across the enterprise. This leads to an IH program that is underappreciated and predictably underfunded. It is no wonder the majority of IH departments struggle to justify investing in an enterprise IH software system.

What Can We Do?

We need to make our profession and our IH programs more visible, well-understood and appreciated. The best IH programs I have seen over 35 years in the field have a strong software system driving standardization, effectiveness and visibility with key stakeholders. It’s incredibly difficult to accomplish this if you continue to rely on paper and spreadsheets. The time wasted on menial tasks and report generation simply takes too long and puts your data at risk of corruption or loss.

We need to follow the lead of other successful EHS departments. How did your environmental or safety team justify their software project? How have they built the business case to support investment in their software systems? One option to consider is partnering with a third party to help identify and select the software that fits your budget and requirements. If you can’t afford a software consultant, reach out to peers, IH laboratories, or IH consultants for recommendations, or contact a software research firm for advice.

While an IH software system can help you significantly advance the maturity and effectiveness of your IH program, simply implementing a software system alone is not a silver bullet. Program success depends on a strong commitment to stick with and fully utilize your IH software over the long term. It can take some time, but I’ve seen first-hand how a commitment to accurate and consistent data collection can ultimately give users the ability to more quickly access that data, perform statistical analysis and complete their risk assessments. This is typically the inflection point for most users. Their data analysis and reporting become much easier, and they begin to truly see the fruits of their labor.

Final Thoughts

During a VelocityEHS virtual conference, attendees were polled, and 57 percent reported having no on-staff IH professionals employed within their companies. This is unfortunately consistent with a larger industry trend towards fewer in-house IH professionals, with IH programs lacking the resources and expertise necessary to responsibly manage all the requisite IH tasks.

What is valued receives recognition and funding. It is a bit of a catch-22, though. We will not be able to grow as a profession until we can show the value of a well-managed IH program, and it’s hard to communicate the value of your IH program if you’re still relying on paper and spreadsheets. IH software is the key to breaking this cycle and driving sustainable improvements in your IH program.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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