Asbestos management goes digital - Mobile solutions for asbestos tracking
Compliance with new regulations is nearly impossible using only paper-based systems, especially for owners of large numbers of buildings. A critical component of any asbestos management strategy is the effective application of technology – but selection and implementation of systems can mean a large investment of both time and money. The objective of this article is to provide an explanation of the various components of typical management systems, analyze their relative benefits, and give you the information you need to make the right choices.
Doing more with less
The transition from antiquated asbestos management systems has become a requirement for many governments, agencies, and companies. Justification for the investment of time and money includes both a financial component and a qualitative component that addresses the ability to comply with regulations on an ongoing basis. To calculate return on investment (ROI) and fully appreciate the non-financial benefits of going digital, one must first be aware of the solutions available, their features, and how those features will be of benefit in a specific context.
This article will help you to understand and evaluate those features, assist you in creating your own business case for automation, and warn you of potential pitfalls along the way. We’ll discuss how properly applied technology can positively impact operating costs, compliance, and perceived value of a service. Finally, we’ll summarize what to look for when you are ready to select a system of your own.
The new rules
For years, asbestos was seen as a useful, naturally occurring mineral that was mined and used in a long list of construction and other products. The fire-resistant, insulating, and good reinforcing properties of asbestos-containing materials (ACM) made them popular in a variety of applications. In the past few decades however, asbestos has become a health and litigation nightmare.
Ironically, the removal of ACM may be responsible for much of the dangerous exposure, as disturbing the materials releases airborne particles. Widespread use of ACM stopped nearly 40 years ago, but perhaps no other obsolete substance makes news and impacts the economy like asbestos does today. It is deemed responsible for thousands of deaths, yet some research shows that a vast majority of legal claims are filed on behalf of people who are not sick and may never become sick as a result of exposure.
With financial reserves in the tens of billions of dollars, the cost of dealing with asbestos cases is onerous and is borne by many parts of our society. Companies have gone bankrupt, thousands of jobs have been lost, pension plans have suffered, and the litigation continues. The RAND Institute for Civil Justice estimates that the overall projected business cost of asbestos litigation could total $210 billion or more.
Unless you work for a law firm, the case is clear that parties in the line of asbestos liability need a strategy to manage the risk of exposing people to the substance, and thus minimize their financial exposure. Any hazmat management program should aim to set up and maintain a set of procedures and processes which will be followed for the entire life of each location or property, and should ensure the safety of the tenants, contractors, staff, and citizens who use or visit those properties.
Typical conditions required by law for the management of asbestos include:
- All ACM must be identified and labeled
- An inventory of all ACM must be prepared and kept current
- Records of ACM inventories, risk assessments, inspections, and air monitoring results must be maintained for periods of 10 years or longer
- Any work that would possibly disturb asbestos-containing materials must not be conducted unless necessary precautions have been taken to protect workers and the general public
In the past, the management systems devised to address these regulations were created with manual processes involving creation and storage of physical documents, and perhaps some degree of secondary data entry and storage. Today there are a number of ready-made software applications available to make management and compliance much easier and more efficient.
Anatomy of a digital solution
When transforming a materials management process from manual to digital, the primary goal is to ensure that the new system will be both comprehensive (captures at least all the components of the manual process) and accessible (people that need to use it can do so easily).
Organizations who implemented enterprise management software in the 90s learned the hard way that simply putting a system in place did not mean that people would actually use it, and millions of dollars have been spent worldwide on applications that never make it out of the shrink wrap.
Typical components and features. Our first step is to look at the components of a typical asbestos management system, which would probably include:
- Property List - A master list of all properties under the jurisdiction of the owner
- Inventory - An inventory of all known ACM by property, with specific location information
- Data Archive - Stored records of ACM inventories, risk assessments, inspections, and air monitoring results
- Process Documentation - Documented processes and procedures outlining who would do assessments and inspections, how frequently they would be done, and how they would be done, etc.
- Scheduling - A scheduling tool to plan near term inspections and assessments
- Data Search - A procedure for searching records to ensure that any pending work that would possibly disturb asbestos-containing materials would not be conducted unless necessary precautions have been taken
- Reporting - A management reporting system that would assist with ongoing assessments of risk and liability
In a typical manual system, much of this would be done using paper records, although many organizations may have implemented simple spreadsheet or database tools to assist with record keeping and searches. Inspections would be done with pencil and paper, and thus may be subject to issues related to legibility, loss of documents, accuracy of data entry, and correct physical filing and retention of documents.
Computer-based solutions come in two flavors – packaged systems which have already been developed for materials management, and custom systems which are built from scratch to meet specific needs. Packaged systems range from quite generic (thus requiring a lot of customization and configuration) to more comprehensive solutions. In some cases you might see organizations use a combination of both packaged and custom systems, as many commercially available systems may lack required functionality.
Others may attempt to modify a similar system they already own. A digital solution should automate many of the manual functions discussed above. For example, the master list of properties and most stored records will be accessible and searchable by computer, thus simplifying the process of finding information quickly and accurately. Unless the system is digital from end-to-end, getting this information into the system may still involve some data entry.
Rules can be built into the processes so that some degree of consistency can be maintained in how data is collected and organized, but never underestimate the ability of people to work around a process as they see fit. Scheduling is another component of most computerized systems.
The frequency of various tasks, such as inspections, assessments, archiving, and others may be designated up front, and the system can generate daily, weekly, and monthly schedules of what needs to get done. Ownership of tasks can also be assigned, and unfinished tasks may be flagged to simplify management of objectives.
Inspections and assessments may still be done on paper, with key data entered after the fact to be stored electronically. If this is the case, original paper forms used to complete the inspections may need to be archived separately to meet regulatory requirements. In more modern systems, tablet computers, laptops, or even PDAs and smart-phones may be used to capture the data during the inspection, thus eliminating the need for data entry later.
Management reporting is facilitated greatly by computerized systems, as the data may be kept in one location, and queries can be issued as needed for management to assess the state of affairs at any given time. Monthly reports can be automated, and in some cases dashboards may be created to give a real time view and alert management to problems as they arise.
Finally, domain content may or may not be a feature of a computerized system. For example, some systems are quite generic – providing basic digital functionality to automate parts of the asbestos management process, but without features specific to asbestos inspections. Systems which are developed specifically for the task of asbestos management are available, and these take many of the tasks and required features into account when they are designed.
As previously stated, the benefits of moving to a digital system, especially those that include the option of using mobile platforms for data collection, impact both financial and non-financial aspects of the management process.
Some typical benefits of going digital which have a direct financial impact include:
- Provides a value added service for your clients – If you are a provider of management services, use of a digital system makes it easy to share information with you clients, giving them access to their data as they need it. Using a well-designed system can set your inspection and management services apart, which if presented properly will provide new revenue opportunities for your organization.
- Eliminates all or some data entry, and a reduction in data errors – if data is entered at the point of inspection, this eliminates the need for someone to transcribe the data from paper at a later time (transcribing is a major source of data errors). • If a mobile solution is used, inspectors spend more time in the field – when inspectors do not have to return to the office to drop off forms or enter data, they can spend more of their time doing what they have been trained to do.
- More inspections get done, and done on time – accurate scheduling and increased inspector efficiency will mean that all required inspections can get done on a timely basis, which has the added benefit of reducing risk of liability.
- Comprehensive, consistent, and accessible data – eliminate the time spent cross checking illegible notes and inspectors using their own terms or way of filling in forms, as digital forms can only be completed as designed. This has a huge impact on searching for and sorting data after the fact.
- More effective asbestos management due to better reporting and data access – having access to the right information when needed will allow building owners to be more effective at managing the risks of ACM in their properties.
Calculation of ROI can be more an art than a science, but mostly it depends on having a good understanding of your own operation, and how a change might impact it. Quantifying the impact of any given change can be done by estimating incremental revenues or effort hours saved.
An example of this with some typical estimates is outlined below. Let’s say for the purpose of illustration that we are talking about an environmental engineering firm who employs 4 engineer/inspectors who are paid $20 per hour, and 1 office staff paid $10 per hour. Assuming conservatively that you get one new client per month based on your new service offering, a calculation of ROI for implementing a typical system might look like this:
- Incremental revenues per month: $2,000
- Savings on data entry per month (10 hours @ $10 per hour) = $100
- Increase in billable hours for inspectors per month (4 X 8 hours X $20/hr) = $480
- Monthly cost of purchasing and maintaining system = ($600)
- Total incremental financial benefit = $1980 per month
This is a very basic calculation of ROI, and it does not even consider the impact it will have on retaining existing clients, new revenue opportunities with existing clients, and compound revenues from annual inspection services – nor does it factor in the financial benefits of improved risk management and reduced exposure to liabilities. In any case, it is reasonably easy to ascertain that implementation of a digital solution for asbestos management should be able to pay for itself in a short period of time.
What to look for
With litigation continuing unabated and regulatory demands increasing by the year, it is perhaps inevitable that most organizations will transform their existing processes to take advantage of the benefits technology can bring. It is likely that you will have to start looking for system alternatives sooner rather than later – especially if you want to get ahead of or at least stay current with your competition. So what should you look for in a system?
Here are some basic qualities we would suggest:
- Ease of use – is using the software easy to learn and intuitive? Is it well designed? Does it run and synchronize quickly? Slow, tedious applications will not be accepted by field staff, and the paper process will prevail. • Up-to-date – is the application based on current technology? Are frequent upgrades included in the price or are they extra? Beware of hidden running costs.
- Flexibility – is the application easy to customize and configure for your needs? Custom applications often mean a future of time consuming and costly future modifications as your needs evolve.
- Training options – are training materials documented, and is training available?
- Support options – is it well documented? Is there online and human support available? You probably don’t want to be the help desk for your clients when it comes to supporting the system.
- Compliance – is the application designed to be in line with current regulations? Can changes in regulations easily be added to the system?
- Accessibility – is the data available over the web?
- Mobility – can the application be run from mobile platforms such as tablet PCs? Can full datasets easily be carried with you? Can data be synchronized remotely or wirelessly?
All of these features are essential components of a modern system, so you need to choose wisely. Selecting a system that does not provide the flexibility you need today – or might need tomorrow – could prove to be a costly mistake. Before looking at applications in depth, make a list of requirements and anticipated requirements, prioritize those in order of importance to your business, and then set about your analysis of which available solutions meet your needs.
It is clear that mobile solutions offer the best return on investment for asbestos management systems. Deciding which solution suits your particular needs involves taking a good look at your own needs and priorities, and estimating the impact that this transformation will have on your business.
If you compare bidding on a project with your existing manual process, you will probably find that if you had a computerized system in place, you could bid lower and still make higher profits based on the increased efficiency of a mobile data solution.
Custom solutions both from vendors or in-house staff are a tempting option – after all, they are designed from the ground up for you - but their expense, maintenance costs, and lack of solid track record in the industry make them difficult to justify.
Finding a quality commercial package that has been designed for your business and proven in the field can be a great way to go, as long as you have a good understanding of your own priorities and make sure that the mobile solution you choose meets or exceeds your anticipated needs. About Basebridge Basebridge.com is changing how inspections and tracking get done.
With liabilities running in the billions per year, governments making inspections mandatory, and constant pressure to do more with less, our clients are finding they can’t keep pace without innovative technology. We’ve created a suite of products that streamline operations and facilitate compliance - saving governments and companies hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
We have two main offerings – a suite of inspection tools used mainly by governments to automate the inspection process for boilers, elevators, amusement park rides, and about 15 other areas where safety and liability is an issue. The second offering targets inspections and management of hazardous materials that must be tracked, like asbestos and lead. Of course, we are constantly developing new modules in line with client demand, and we can create functionality that meets your specific needs. Our team has decades of experience in engineering and software development, and our products are designed by the people who use them. Many of our competitors offer custom or partial solutions – but unlike these, our products are much easier to implement and manage, as they were built for the industry and not a single organization. We are very hands on with our clients, so people who work with us stay with us.
Contact us and find out how we can impact your business.
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