Environment, health and safety (EHS) software is unrecognisable from the limited systems launched in the 1990s. New innovations will further enhance compliance and performance improvements, but EHS professionals will maintain a critical role overseeing safety.
When Brian Welch CMIOSH, founder of On Safe Lines QHSE Software, began his career in OSH in the 1990s, there were very few environment, health and safety (EHS) software systems that could collect, manipulate, process and retrieve data efficiently. ‘It was still a paper-based approach, and the software systems available were expensive,’ he recalls.
They also took up time and were cumbersome to operate, as Bridget Leathley CFIOSH notes. Back in the mid-1990s, Bridget – who is now a health and safety consultant, writer and trainer at The Safer Choice – reviewed software sent to her on floppy disk for Health and Safety at Work magazine, starting with Croner’s electronic Health and Safety at Work for Windows.
Looking back, Bridget remembers the painstaking process of loading the disks and the amount of memory needed on her PC to run them. ‘When these systems started, they were all on a desktop computer and there was no ability to do anything mobile,’ she says.
EHS software has changed beyond recognition since then, and Bridget credits customers for driving the industry’s growth and diversification. Technological advances have driven customer demand further.
‘Nobody is going to buy a system now that they can’t access on their phone, using wi-fi,’ she says. ‘Quite often, people want to be able to do it when there isn’t wi-fi, so they can download the data on their phone and use it. More distributed working means you need a cloud-based system.’
Another step forward is the focus on data capture and analysis, whereas at the outset it was more about record-keeping, says Billy O’Brien, director of customer success at software provider EcoOnline Global.
‘Information should be readily available,’ he says.
‘The software will develop risk assessments and do audits, checklists and incident reporting. It’s capturing all that fundamental information, but powerfully.’
Trevor Bronson, strategic development manager at Toronto-based software provider Intelex Technologies, says EHS software has evolved into a tool that primarily provides customers with compliance and performance. The four most common uses, he adds, are incident management, document control, training management, and audits and inspections.
Many companies use client case studies to show how EHS software has enhanced performance across a range of metrics, such as carbon emissions and waste reduction, near misses and injury tracking, employee health monitoring, or sustainability and governance reporting. A big win is how EHS software has helped companies structure programmes around international standard requirements such as ISO 45001 and ISO 14001.
Case study: Joy Dean
Training and resource manager, Energi Cable Services
When did you start using new EHS software?
Not long after I joined the company in 2020. We have started using the training software in the last six months.
Why did you introduce the new software?
It is vital that we monitor all of our operatives’ training and certification
for health and safety reasons. We also use it for productivity because without required certification in place our operatives are not allowed to enter many of the client sites.
What are you using it for?
To record and book all required certification, to monitor when refreshers are due, and ensure that we have the courses booked in plenty of time.
What benefits has it created for the business?
It has streamlined the training process and has improved the tracking of expiring certificates. It ensures that all our operatives have everything in place that they need to work for our clients on their sites and offshore.
What impact has it had on OSH?
It has improved the keeping of records.
What impact has it had on the wider business?
The software has improved the whole training process. It has sped up the recording of training. It has created more productivity, as utilising online training rather than having to send operatives away for courses saves us losing them from the workforce for several days at a time.
The ‘E’ in EHS
The environmental factor in EHS has grown in significance, as Amanda Smith, vice-president of solutions marketing at Toronto-based software provider Cority, explains.
‘A big part of the environmental component is tracking compliance, collecting information and timely reporting,’ she says. ‘Increasingly, organisations are working to improve performance and reduce waste and emissions, and in doing so cut business costs and reduce their environmental footprint.’
One way software can help is by supporting the response to unplanned events when they happen, including reports to the relevant authorities and advising employees on the next steps.
‘If there is a spill, employees need information about the material that’s been spilled, how they should manage and report on it, and what protective equipment they need to handle it,’ Amanda says.
‘Previously, only a few people on-site or an expert would interact with the environmental management system, but now we are seeing that expand in two ways: digital integration with other systems, and mobile front-line access. Together these create higher-quality data that employees can use in the field.’
Integrated management systems make it far easier for users to manage, track and report EHS data across a project.
‘Let’s say you are creating a method statement that says: “We’ve done this risk assessment and for this task, this person has to do this job in this way,”’ explains Bridget. ‘An integrated system can flag the person’s name, their training record and, if qualified, put their name on the permit. Unless you have that integration, it’s just words in the database rather than information.’
Case study: Nathanael Challacombe CMIOSH
Group health, safety, quality and environment (HSQE) manager at Barnwood Limited, and vice-chair of the IOSH Construction Group and IOSH Bristol and West Branch Chair
When did you start using new EHS software? Why did you introduce it?
We have been with our latest supplier since January 2020. We are digitising our processes to add additional controls to the business and to drive efficiency. Ensuring we have consistent processes across all our divisions and sites with quality and safety controls will help keep project costs down. Improving visibility for teams running projects will give better oversights.
What are you using it for?
Primarily site-based tasks: digital site inductions, site support tours and audits, and inspections. Also, making paper-based processes digital.
What benefits has it created?
We were already using digital site inductions before the pandemic, but COVID-19 pushed us to roll it out across our business. Our site teams have welcomed it as it saves time, makes information quickly available, and helps communication between site teams.
Our contractors like the system as it gives more information about the site. Digitising inspections, forms and processes means data is live instantly. The right people can be notified straight away, and actions can be delivered quickly and efficiently.
What impact has it had on OSH?
For my HSQE team, knowing that a consistent safety message is being communicated to our teams is important, and digitisation ensures clear visibility that safety standards are being met. It’s easy to check, and this can be done remotely if needed. As a bonus, our ISO auditors love our digital systems because it shows compliance.
A paper-based system often results in spending time finding and checking things that have already taken place. Digitisation frees up time by having data quickly available on dashboards – we now have time to support site teams on the ground by being proactive, looking at planning future tasks and problem-solving.
The holy grail of safety
Although providers highlight the benefits of EHS software, isolating a program’s contribution to safety improvements from other factors – notably the human element – is problematic.
‘It is hard to measure a negative because customers don’t want to tell you: “We had six fatal accidents last year, and four this year thanks to the software,”’ says Trevor.
‘What people are comfortable talking about is engagement. Every safety manager will tell you engagement in a safety programme is the holy grail. If everyone is engaged, things will get better – and that is one of the big value propositions of EHS software.’
David Orton CMIOSH, EHS regional manager at Pepsico, spent around 20 years working for a company where he implemented three different versions of the same software before briefly working for the software provider as a product manager.
He says that, with the right input, programs and basic software, there are no limits to the services EHS software can provide. However, David warns that if the correct information isn’t being gathered, then ‘it’s very hard for the software to deliver the needs of users’.
‘If the system is unusable, people will find ways around it – and the biggest “watch out” for what systems shouldn’t force users to do is to create back-up systems to make those systems usable,’ he argues.
This raises an important question: will the use of EHS software need to be tempered to avoid a kind of ‘computer says no’ frustration?
Aisling Miller, head of product for training and learning at EcoOnline Global, says flexibility is critical.
‘Software should be designed to cope with many combinations,’ she says. ‘Not all work is suitable to be done on a smartphone or be exclusively desktop-based. Software providers need to really understand their users and the environment they work in.’
Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the most talked-about innovations and opens up new possibilities for enhancing EHS compliance and performance.
Reflecting on his background, Trevor remembers spending about 100 hours deconstructing an air permit, extracting raw data and putting it into a spreadsheet. A major benefit of AI, he notes, is that it will free up EHS professionals to be more strategic.
‘It’s all about analysing and finding prescriptive outputs, and making it quicker and easier for EHS professionals or teams to do their job and spend more time thinking about the strategy behind improving their safety performance,’ he argues.
‘The risk is that people will rely on AI too much too soon, because while the technology is very promising, we are asking it to do a lot of technical contextualisation and manipulation.’
Case study: Frank Williamson CMIOSH
Quality, health, safety and environment systems manager, Nicol of Skene
Why did you introduce the new software? What are you using it for?
We introduced it in 2018 following a strategic business review, with the aim of streamlining our processes and improving the quality and consistency of information captured.
We currently use two separate cloud-based EHS software solutions, one for auditing and inspection that also includes accident, incident and near-miss reporting and analysis, and one for producing and managing our risk assessments, method statements and construction phase plans, as well as managing our training and personnel development, with the latest addition being an integrated e-learning function.
What benefits has it created?
The adoption of EHS software has significantly reduced the time spent on producing risk assessment statements and improved the quality of the content. The incident reporting system allows people to scan QR codes to report issues, which enables an instant response. Another major benefit is the ability to add photos to initial reports and any follow-up or close-out actions.
What impact has it had on OSH? What about the wider business?
It has noticeably improved compliance on-site and increased reporting of issues across the company. The instant notifications allow any issues to be reviewed and resolved far more quickly than with a paper-based system. We have had many positive comments from clients on the quality of documents produced and, although introduced as a purely EHS resource, the software is now used for a wide range of activities.
David also warns that if the software goes too far in self-populating forms and these aren’t checked by anybody, then you are going to ‘start reporting incorrect information’.
Most of the experts interviewed agreed that AI could make low-impact and low-risk decisions – for example, assigning employees to undertake audits – but were sceptical it would be applied to safety-critical decisions.
But what if EHS data management and interpretation AI start making automated decisions? Could this reduce the need for OSH professionals?
Aisling doesn’t see this happening. ‘AI should be seen to help rather than replace trained safety professionals,’ she says.
‘There are great opportunities with AI for trend-spotting within leading and lagging indicators of risk. If AI can be trained well, it can form the basis of an early warning system to alert businesses to risk trends at a lower threshold than a human might notice.’
And what about the role of research, and the data captured by these systems over time to improve safety?
As Aisling notes, some companies end up building datasets that are ‘a treasure trove of leading indicators and proof of the effectiveness of different control measures and interventions’.
She says cloud software providers are well placed to collaborate with participating customers to combine anonymised datasets and provide opportunities for learning that can be shared more widely.
Innovations: Advances in EHS software
Many EHS software providers are starting to explore the use of QR codes to improve operational efficiencies.
‘Let’s say I am going to do some maintenance on a piece of equipment,’ explains Bridget Leathley at The Safer Choice. ‘Rather than scrolling through a menu to try and find the correct checklist, I can scan the QR code on the equipment and up comes what needs to be done.
‘The very clever systems may also use global positioning systems and say, “While you are in this area, could you have a look at this equipment as well?”’
Another innovation that she feels has huge potential is the Internet of Things: the digitalisation and datafication of products we live with, work with and wear.
Billy O’Brien from EcoOnline Global concurs: ‘We still have a long way to go with this technology, but we are getting there quickly. For example, if you jumped into a forklift, it could recognise who is not authorised to drive and refuse to start the engine.’
Future sharing trends
Regarding further integration and functionality, David says that when he worked for a software company, an approach that went down well with customers was user groups.
‘We gave customers who wanted it a voice in the development of future functionality and modules within the software,’ he says.
Chris van den Belt, team leader for product management at Dutch software provider Ultimo, sees safety as increasingly connected to other management solutions – for example, enterprise asset management systems used by departments such as production and maintenance.
‘This will help organisations break down the silos between different departments and improve the way knowledge is shared, stored and accessed,’ he says.
‘When a platform can be used across an organisation to manage a host of critical processes, with safety being just one of them, recording and supervising all EHS activities becomes easier.’
Amanda also favours a more holistic approach, adding that this would include linking data across the entire value chain.
‘It’s about being able to track that full lifecycle so you can really understand where you are having an impact,’ she says. ‘That way you can intervene at key points in the system to reduce that impact. If you don’t have that granular data, it’s very difficult to know where to take that action.’
For OSH professionals looking to get started with an EHS software system, David’s advice is to first decide at a strategic level what their company wants to use it for and start small. It is easier to add than take away.
‘Always consider at least three providers, and make sure they can deliver the software in a format and in a way that is user-friendly for you. Wherever practicable, have inputs that are mandatory and on drop-down menus so there is no ambiguity on what is being entered,’ he says.
David also advises OSH professionals to get employees used to the basics, and add modules over time as users become more confident in operating the software and how it can help solve their problems.
‘Don’t buy multiple modules initially – they will cost a lot of money and it will take a lot of training and after-launch support,’ he warns. ‘Before you sign on the dotted line, check out the aftersales support, help and guidance. This can make all the difference in making the launch a success.’
For those already using EHS software, Helene Melby Brodersen, head of PR, brand and communication at EcoOnline Global, has this takeaway: ‘Megatrends in the future of work – such as digital transformation, hybrid working, the increased focus on sustainability, worker wellbeing and mental health – will require additional attention from businesses of all sizes, across all industries.
‘In the past few years, several initiatives have been introduced to anticipate and manage change, causing a shift in the EHS landscape towards people and social issue management.’