Electronic health and safety inspections using handheld devices

Over the past few years, automation has become an important aspect of complying with codes and regulations. However, the task of collecting and managing the information is taking time and resources away from assessment activities and decision-making. Can handheld devices be used to collect the required information electronically?

Answered by Eitan Shibi, CTO, Techs4Biz Corp., Toronto.

In order to "free" inspectors from this information management burden and allow them to focus on inspection tasks and compliance issues, inspection management solutions must include electronic data collection devices. Let's first review the components of an effective inspection management system:

Enabling effective electronic data collection. Field inspectors need to efficiently and effectively collect data using an electronic device – eliminating paperwork and subsequent data entry. Electronic devices need to be portable, be easy to use and use de facto standard technologies without dependency on continuous wireless Internet connection, as field inspectors may be performing their work in areas with no connectivity.

Easy transfer of data to a central database. Once data is electronically collected, field inspectors need to transfer the data back to a central database. The method in which data is transferred to the database should use established technologies and should accommodate for in-house inspectors as well as field inspectors and remote/wireless connectivity.

Effectively organize, standardize and structure data. Standardized data ensures all field inspectors within an organization can perform their inspections in the same manner and record consistent results. This enables the organization to focus on exceptions, identify trends and view statistics.

Flexibility. The user should be able to define different types of inspections and use custom sets of answers – hence the same system can enable inspectors to conduct any type of inspection.

Data management and access to information. Software should turn the data into information, enabling management to focus on exceptions, generate a variety of reports, and receive automatic alerts through database searches and filtering. Users also must have easy access to information from their desktop and/or Web browser.

Focusing on the handheld

The handheld software should be able to run on multiple hardware platforms, providing flexibility and future utilization of technologies without unnecessary software upgrades. Screen navigation is quite important – it allows the user to choose the most convenient way to view the information.

The user should be able to see his or her pending activities based on priority, date, location, description, etc. This is equivalent to users "sorting" their paper inspections so that they can access the desired inspection quickly. When viewing a list of addresses or areas, it is useful to include a summary screen that lists the number of inspections for each location.

Handheld devices should reflect, improve and enhance on what already exists on paper forms. For example, if a user is filling out an inspection form including specific information, the handheld should provide the exact same function. As with paper forms, a handheld user can pick from a list of possible choices, or write or type in information, according to the organization's preferences. Handheld applications should be designed to minimize unnecessary keystrokes by incorporating a variety of techniques, including pick lists, check boxes and lookup lists.

Handheld devices offer many additional benefits, in contrast with paper-based processes. The handheld device can include data validations and can provide the user with historical information pertaining to previous inspections. PDA applications also can include formulas, reading thresholds, images, voice tags, time stamps and electronic signatures. Most importantly, PDAs can be carried in your pocket and used quickly during your inspection process.

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