Safety in the palm of your hand
How are safety professionals using mobile apps in the workplace?
As an environmental, health and safety specialist, Joe Limbeck is concerned about the safety and health of workers. As a father, he is likewise concerned about the safety and health of his family.
About a year ago, during a cheerleading routine at his daughter’s high school basketball game, Limbeck noticed extreme noise in the arena and did what any caring father – who also is a safety professional – might do: He brought out a sound meter to measure the decibel level.
But instead of an industry standard meter worth hundreds of dollars, Limbeck used a sound meter application he had downloaded on his smartphone.
“It was extremely loud,” Limbeck said of the noise. “I used that app … to see if it was damaging kids’ ears.”
Limbeck, based in western New York for Time Warner Cable, later began using that same sound meter app on the job to help him decide if noise levels at worksites were high enough to warrant hearing protection. He is one of a growing number of safety professionals turning to apps on their smartphones and tablets to help with their jobs.
Some safety experts have explicitly said workplace safety apps can help save lives, including OSHA administrator David Michaels. In April 2012, Michaels announced an OSHA public contest seeking the best apps demonstrating the importance of workplace safety and health.
“With a little bit of tech expertise and a lot of creativity, you can help us carry out our vital mission – you can help us save lives,” he said at the time.
Most safety professionals who spoke with Safety+Health for this article hesitated to suggest apps can directly save lives on the job, but did say smartphones and some workplace safety-oriented apps make their jobs easier.
Phoenix-based SWCA Environmental Consultants has employees working in remote areas all over the country. When a workplace incident occurs, employees are required to fill out – within 24 hours – a two-page report detailing what happened. However, workers in remote locations sometimes have a difficult time filling out the report, according to Jim Harris, environmental, health and safety manager at SWCA.
In addition, employees would sometimes neglect to include key information, forcing the company’s safety professionals to contact them for further details, Harris said. This led to the development of the company’s own incident-reporting app. The app, which employees can access from their smartphone, prompts employees to categorize the type of incident (e.g., injury or near miss) and fill out pertinent information about the incident – all of which can be filled out in about one minute.
“The advantage is … they don’t have to sit around and think about it. The app prompts them,” Harris said. SWCA receives real-time information from the field that allows the company to react accordingly to the incident reports.
Similarly, Kim Ohl, director of safety for Cincinnati-based plumbing company Roto-Rooter, has found that smartphone apps allow her company to operate more safely and efficiently. The company has implemented a mobile app that, as Ohl described it, “basically took our safety program and put it on our mobile device.”
Because Roto-Rooter employees can be involved in a number of potentially dangerous jobs that fall under OSHA regulation, the company requires managers to visit some jobsites to ensure they are safe for employees and in compliance.
Roto-Rooter’s operations can slow down or even stop while waiting for approval. But now, with the app, employees in the field can take photos of the scene and send the photos electronically for review and approval. Instead of waiting hours, work can begin much quicker, Ohl said.
The app also gives Roto-Rooter the ability to provide real-time coaching to employees in the field at worksites that do not need immediate management approval for work to begin.
“If there were issues with the job, we were not giving any coaching,” Ohl said. “They could work two months unsafely without ever knowing.” Now, that information is sent by an app and is able to be reviewed in real-time by the company’s experts, who then provide tips and advice to employees onsite, according to Ohl.
The real-time advantage of mobile apps extends beyond two-way communication. Stakeholders who spoke to S+H pointed out how apps have the potential to provide up-to-date safety information and be used as an educational resource.
For example, if an employee needs a quick refresher on safety tips regarding trench work, he or she could quickly use an app to pull up the information, according to Wendy Laing, manager of the Southeastern OSHA Training Institute Education Center for North Carolina State University’s Industrial Extension Service in Raleigh.
“You’re not waiting on a training event that’s once a quarter,” she said. “It’s right there in your hand.”
Christine Henry, a safety coordinator at SWCA, agreed and noted that employees can access information on various OSHA rules when needed. This convenience may make workers more likely to review the information, she added.
Mobile apps are intended to supplement workplace programs and measures – not take their place.
Employees at SWCA are still required to fill out the two-page report on incidents, Henry said. The app merely helps relay the necessary notification information about the incident. Harris hopes that, in addition to ensuring complete information on incidents, SWCA’s app will lead employees to submit more near-miss reports.
Despite Roto-Rooter’s use of an app that allows a manager to approve the safety of a jobsite without being there in person, managers still visit sites to ensure work is being done safely throughout the day, Ohl said.
“We don’t think it’s going to eliminate every single job or requirement for management, because there’s going to be some jobs that are more complicated,” she said.
Although Limbeck went from using the sound meter app at his daughter’s basketball games to the worksite, he still does not completely trust the accuracy of the technology. Only a few sound meters are available at his company for field workers, so the app is used as a “first pass” at locations that may have dangerous levels of noise. If the reading is close to an action level, Limbeck requests a calibrated sound meter to perform an accurate measurement.
This, he said, has much better results than the previous “first pass” that was used – gauging how loud one has to speak to be heard over the din of the worksite. “It’s a great screening tool,” Limbeck said of the app. “It’s certainly a lot less subjective than ‘How loud do I have to yell?’”
Similar types of monitoring, such as dust or carbon monoxide, may be on the horizon for smartphone apps, but Laing was reluctant to speculate on how useful they could be. Similar to Limbeck’s use of the sound meter, such apps could simply be considered a screening device.
Other potential limitations include needing good cell phone reception or Wi-Fi to function. For workers in remote areas, this can be problematic and could result in an unreliable app, Laing said. Additionally, some apps can quickly drain the batteries of cell phones or tablets.
Ohl has found that some workers dislike using apps, preferring instead to do things the “old-fashioned way” with a paper checklist and pen. “For some of our employees, the use of technology has been a challenge,” she said.
Even for employees who embrace new technology, it can be cumbersome to type a long report using a cell phone’s small keyboard, Laing said.
Some of these hurdles can be overcome, however. At jobsites with multiple workers, Harris said, it would be rare for everyone’s device to run out of power at the same time. Workers should keep a battery charger on hand – including a vehicle adaptor for remote users – to ensure the devices have enough power, Ohl said.
Although some apps require an Internet or Wi-Fi signal to transmit data, many can still allow the worker to plug in information and store it until a signal is found.
Distractions caused by smartphones have become a major concern in the workplace – both on and off the road. Laing recommends that companies develop a mobile device policy for smartphone and tablet use in the workplace and while driving for work. She also said work-issued tablets should have only work-related apps downloaded on them.
Henry stressed the need to research and question the authenticity of apps.
“Stay with organizations you know will deliver reputable information,” she said.