Leveraging the Web for Environmental Quality, Health and Safety

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Courtesy of Intelex Technologies Inc.

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The principles of continual improvement from management systems such as ISO 14001 and Six Sigma are well known. Less clear is how these principles can be applied to environmental quality, health and safety (EQH&S) performance. In today's competitive business world, it's difficult for an organization to find time to proactively implement and manage EQH&S performance when there's barely time to react to the specific problems at hand.

Although there's no single solution to achieving EQH&S excellence, there are many tools available to help. For performance management there are international, association and industry EQH&S management system standards, the most common being the ISO 14001 environmental management system and OHSAS 18001 occupational health and safety management systems. ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 are excellent for performance management, providing a system for defining and documenting what, when, where and how to manage EQH&S activities and effects. However, these management systems have their limitations with regard to performance measurement and reporting on how well an organization is performing.

When addressing performance measurement, an organization must first manage and maintain compliance with the legal, permitting and other requirements that affect it. These include OSHA, EPA and other state agency requirements, as well as industry and stakeholder requirements. Organizations driven to go beyond compliance can also refer to other voluntary initiatives such as the Global Reporting Initiative ( www.globalreporting.org ), the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program or ISO 14031, Environmental management--Environmental performance evaluation guidelines.

By developing and implementing an effective EQH&S performance management system (e.g., ISO 14001 or OHSAS 18001) and then also implementing an ongoing system for EQH&S performance measurement, an organization is setting the stage for continual improvement. However, even with the benefits of these initiatives, the drawback is that the systems are time- and resource-intensive, and don't leave much room for seeking and implementing opportunities to continually improve.

Leverage technology to focus on performance

One key solution to bringing down the financial and resource barriers to EQH&S continual improvement is using Web-based technology to facilitate managing and measuring information for EQH&S programs. Web-based technology represents an opportunity not only to improve data management and record keeping but also to facilitate workflow efficiency, contribute to management planning, improve internal and external communications, and enhance visibility into performance measurement initiatives.

Using a Web browser's flexibility, a centralized relational database and an EQH&S portal, an organization can integrate its environmental, safety and quality performance management and measurement systems. This convergence of EQH&S performance measurement, management and record keeping provides many benefits, including:

  • Integrated reporting across initiatives, locations, workgroups, processes and other relationships
  • Improved visibility over all EQH&S performance objectives
  • Reduced duplication of effort through shared data sources and views
  • Improved user experience and reduced training through a common login and interface
  • A single calendar of all requirements, activities and events
  • Reduced cost through economies of scale
  • Reduced maintenance cost for server and user support

Web-based systems enable organizations to standardize processes, centralize compliance requirements, streamline data reporting and automate workflow life cycles. Processes ranging from risk assessments to incident reporting to training management to document control to air emissions sampling can all be managed in the same database, using the same locations information, employee information, calendaring systems and many other features.

Even with this integrated model, individual users, workgroups and departments don't have to sacrifice the specific functionality they need. Web technology provides scalability, user personalization and security capabilities that enable a single system to encompass an unlimited number of individual and highly specific applications. For example, these capabilities would enable an environmental manager to collect and report on waste management data in the same database where a safety manager can calculate OSHA incident rates or a quality manager can trend common root causes of nonconforming product.

Web technology can be leveraged to support several different types of EQH&S processes, including activity management, data collection, document control and risk assessments.

Performance management and measurement systems require a wide array of processes and initiatives. Leveraging the scalability and flexibility of Web technology to integrate most of these EQH&S data management requirements into a single portal provides significant efficiencies.

Organizations can also choose their priorities and implement a system that includes processes and modules to address their specific needs. Some examples include:

  • Document and records control. Automate approvals, distribution, review and archiving of all environmental, safety, and quality policies, procedures, work instructions and records. Provides easy access and search capabilities to all employees as needed.
  • Compliance management. Manage federal, state and local regulatory requirements and affected processes; consolidate permit renewals, activity and requirement tracking, data collection and reporting into a common database
  • Training Management. Automate the scheduling, tracking and reporting of training programs; measure results; link to related EQH&S documentation, requirements and processes
  • OSHA, environmental, integrated incident reporting and corrective/preventive actions. Decrease response times by submitting incident reports through Web forms, and automate tracking and delegation of investigations and follow-ups
  • Objectives and targets, management programs. Roll out site-level or organizationwide management programs focused on achieving objectives
  • Maintenance and activity tracking. Interactive and automated calendaring systems can notify staff of pending requirements and capture records of completion
  • Monitoring and reporting of performance indicators. Monitor incident rates, training effectiveness, energy usage, waste, air quality, behavior-based audits and other programs; compile and roll up multisite information for corporatewide reporting

There are many more ways that Web technology can drive cost savings and improve the quality of environmental and safety processes and procedures. It's most important for an organization to adapt the technology to the approach that's right for it, rather than having to adapt its processes to the technology.

Seamless collaboration and group management

One of the keys to a successful EQH&S management system is the ability for environmental and health and safety requirements, programs and progress to be easily communicated and recorded. However, EQH&S priorities often take a back seat to other organizational priorities, leaving limited time for management meetings and other collaborative approaches. Web technology can streamline communications with its "always on" nature, enabling business staff to view, share and update records as needed. This collaboration also leads to better retention of corporate knowledge through documenting activities, ideas and best practices.

Web-based information management systems help streamline communications, enabling organizations to set objectives and targets, and facilitate management programs to achieve performance targets. Utilizing Web technology streamlines the rollout of programs organizationwide by triggering personalized tracking and notifications for each individual stakeholder involved in the initiative.

With a continual improvement management system, the information flow must be bi-directional. Management representatives should be able to plan and implement performance-based programs as well as monitor and analyze metrics to find opportunities to improve. With a Web-based portal, performance data can be continually rolled up to personalized dashboards and then acted upon by the responsible person, providing both the ability to react quickly as well as the visibility to proactively implement improvements.

Technical and hosting flexibility

Almost all of today's computer users have a Web browser and an Internet/intranet connection, which means that they already have the tools needed to access and leverage Web-based performance management technology. Leading Web-based systems don't install anything on the user's computer, making them user-platform-independent. This further decreases the financial barrier to environmental and safety excellence by enabling IT staff to implement a Web-based performance management system with only a single installation.

Alternatively, several vendors provide Web-based solutions, with no installation, on an application service provider (ASP) hosting model, which enables clients to access the system via the Internet. This approach significantly reduces the cost of internal system maintenance and is entirely secure from unwanted access. Some vendors even allow their clients to transfer the Web-based application from an ASP server to an internal server at any time and at no additional cost.

If organizations do choose to host their environmental performance management information system in-house, they should look for technologies that are compatible with the infrastructure already in place. Expect your EQH&S system to be compatible with industry-standard operating systems as well as industry-standard databases such as MS SQL Server or Oracle. This flexibility typically enables organizations to leverage their current hardware when rolling out the EQH&S performance management system.

Getting started

For those just getting started with EQH&S performance management and measurement, there are many options available. Since the turn of the millennium many new vendors have emerged that offer Web-based solutions, most of which can be found by searching any EQH&S-related keyword on your favorite search engine.

Keep in mind that a Web-based solution should align and adapt to the needs of your organization, not the other way around. Many technologies are developed using a predefined management system framework that requires organizations to change existing or planned processes to align with those within the software. If possible, this inflexibility should be avoided. Even if the solution fits the current needs of your organization, priorities and processes change, and your solution should be flexible enough to adapt to these changes as you continually improve.

Prior to beginning the selection process you might also want to keep in mind the following:

  • Establish your requirements beforehand.
  • Involve a cross-functional group of team members (preferably from environmental, safety, quality and other management areas) to increase buy-in with the eventual solution.
  • Review your requirements continually throughout the selection process; don't be afraid to add to your initial requirements list as you learn what's available in the market.
  • Prioritize your desired system capabilities. Make a list of must-haves, nice-to-haves, and bells and whistles.
  • Look or a system that can be implemented gradually, and construct a project plan that begins with the priorities and can expand from there.
  • Know that in time your requirements will evolve, so seek a solution that's extendable and adaptable to your changing needs.

When you're reviewing systems you might also want to consider the following:

  • Do your databases and spreadsheets fit into the Web system?
  • Does the solution include management, measurement and reporting functions?
  • Define your user groups up front. Can the Web system address the unique needs of all of them? What will the user experience be like?
  • Brainstorm your future needs. Is the potential system designed to grow as your needs expand?
  • Does the solution provider have sufficient experience in your industry? Ask for references.
  • Does the solution conform to your current hardware infrastructure?
  • Will the system integrate with your existing ERP or other information system?

These are just some of the elements to consider when comparing Web-based EQH&S performance management systems and setting your own priorities as to what solution to choose. It's recommended that the organization conduct a cross-functional meeting between EQH&S staff to discuss each stakeholder's needs and whether they should be encompassed by the Web-based EQH&S system.

In the world of performance management, every organization has different priorities. Leading Web-based systems shouldn't force organizations to change their processes to adapt to the technology; rather, the system should provide sufficient configurability and expandability to support the processes of the organization.

Forward-thinking organizations must embrace EQH&S strategies as part of their core value system. By leveraging cutting-edge technology and shifting away from the mentality of continual improvement as just a theory, these organizations can make continual EQH&S performance improvement an achievable and practical competitive advantage.

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