Can Mobile Tools Help Ease the Safety Manager’s Job?

In a day and age where news outlets can cite a Tweet as a source or share cell phone footage alongside production video, many safety professionals are unsure of how to optimize their job through mobile tools and their related applications, including social media platforms. After all, no one wants to broadcast potential safety risks. Many companies with safety professionals on board have programs in place that ban the use of personal cell phones altogether, while others simply prohibit the use of common platforms such as Facebook or YouTube. Other safety pros are still wondering how the instant gratification of a mobile tool and the chaos of social media can be tamed to something that can be useful in the case of safety management.

“The lack of alignment between how great of an idea mobile and social media for safety are, and how it actually gets executed in the real world when you hand people the tools is amazing to me,” says Matt Airhart, president and CEO of KMI, a software company based in Oakville, Ontario. This is at least in part because many people are still exploring how to use these tools in a safety world.

Mobile Immediacy

Smartphones, tablets and other mobile tools are making an impact on safety management as new programs are developed to make the most common processes quicker and easier than ever.

“We are definitely seeing more buzz around mobile tools and their use in the health and safety functions, including audits, incident reporting, etc.,” says Eric Morris, solution manager of environment, health and safety and quality risk for Intelex Technologies Inc., a Toronto-based provider of safety business performance software.

For Morris, mobile tools such as smartphones and tablets can be powerful allies in crisis situations, “because they enable business continuity management (BCM) systems to push detailed instructions directly to responders, no matter where they are,” he says.

It’s the immediacy of mobile tools—and social media—that are the hallmark of their appeal. And as Morris points out, “In emergency situations, quick actions can mean the difference between a near-miss and disaster.” In today’s world, immediacy is key, and it’s the rare safety professional who can’t be reached even when working in the field or factory.

“Everyone thinks [mobile tool use] is a good idea,” Airhart agrees. “However,” he continues, “in practice it is a lot more complicated of a subject than you would think.” He points to three factors that can make mobile safety software difficult to employ across the board:

  1. Device compatibility/support: Many companies’ IT departments still can’t or won’t support mobile devices in the field, Airhart says. He adds, “The reasons for not supporting the devices range from security or lack of policy/knowledge to deal with the devices and their real or perceived security issues, to intrinsic safety/explosion proof certification—only certain classifications of mobile devices can be used in potentially explosive atmospheres, so many companies do not allow personnel to carry cell phones or other mobile devices into precisely the production areas that they would be used for reporting or auditing safety performance.”
  2. Usability: “Working on a small screen seems like a great idea until you actually do it,” Airhart points out. “Many companies find it hard to get their operations people to actually use (and not lose or destroy) mobile devices.” He adds that this has become less of an issue with the advent of tablets. “[Tablets] are very field-usable, but they are less mobile and more subject to damage or theft so they still have real world limitations when trying to actually roll them out into a manufacturing environment,” he says.
  3. Cost: “Not many companies are ready to invest in the number of mobile devices required to empower everyone that should be reporting on and managing safety in the field. There are definitely exceptions, but the majority of heaving industry (the biggest users of safety software) are behind the curve in investing in mobile devices such as tablets,” Airhart says.

Running on Mobile

In general, smartphones and tablets make use of applications (or apps) designed to run specifically on the device. These may range from simplified versions of commonly used software for incident reporting, for example, to simple tools that offer a single function, such as the Fall Arrest Clearance Calculator, FallClear, or the Job Safety Analysis app.

“There are a handful of really great safety apps out there, but the vast majority of them are nothing more than a way of trying to make a quick buck, a glorified advertisement for a company’s products and services and a free dumbed-down version aimed at promoting a paid version,” says Dave Weber, CSP, founder and owner of Safety Awakenings LLC, an online forum of free safety and OSHA training resources. “You can waste a lot of time checking out all the hundreds of safety apps.”

For his part, Weber includes a feature on his company’s web site that features a “safety app of the week” review to help safety professionals sort through these tools. “Since the first of the year, visitors to my safety apps review page have increased over fivefold,” Weber says, attributing this to the fact that more safety managers are going mobile. He adds, “The interest in safety apps by safety professionals is really high and growing.”

Social Media Apps

Among the most commonly used apps on personal phones and tablets are social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and others. When it comes to social media, there are countless avenues that safety professionals can explore.

For Weber, it’s all about LinkedIn, the social networking site that connects business professionals. “I can't say enough about LinkedIn. It's a great way to communicate with fellow safety professionals. You can get lots of quick responses to any question or concern you might have,” he says.

The networking site can be a great tool for getting specific questions answered by leading safety experts from all over the world. In addition, a number of forums exist on LinkedIn dedicated to bringing safety professionals together to discuss topics relevant to the field.

With its stream-of-conscious approach that invites users to post 140-character-long snippets of information in conversation with other posters, Twitter has a more social feel to it than the business-oriented LinkedIn. Many organizations use the forum to get news out instantly, often by linking to news or other resources, or to promote their company culture. However, many safety pros find the social aspect and limited message size of Twitter to be off-putting. For example, Weber says, “In my opinion, Twitter has little or no value for safety professionals. I tried it for a year or two and found it to be a waste of my time.”

Certainly, this forum can mean sorting through a lot of personal information from users. However, if Twitter or Facebook is used by a company’s employees, regular updates can keep a safety culture at the forefront of employees’ mind and provide easy access to a wealth of resources. A safety tip tweeted daily through the company’s official Twitter handle might show employees that the company places value on an integrated safety approach. A safety manager who regularly posts Facebook links to articles about safety risks to avoid or sends out accolades about safe actions from employees could encourage workers to refocus on how to perform their job more safely.

In addition to these commonly recognized platforms, some companies are simply trying to connect employees through proprietary platforms that allow coworkers to communicate instantly from their respective desks. For example, enterprise social applications allow for company-wide collaboration by allowing employees to create a profile and share, follow and ask questions within the confines of the corporate network, making it a social equivalent of email. In addition, some programs are beginning to provide a social functionality to the application that they’re serving. As the so-called Millenial generation enters the workforce in increasing numbers, this group is replacing email with texts and other forms of faster communication, the way email previously replaced phone calls or a quick trip down the hallway to talk to the coworker next door.

Getting Engaged

To date, KMI has not had clients requesting social integration into their mobile tools, but Airhart concedes, “It is potentially a good idea.” He adds, “I personally think it is a great medium and opportunity for pushing the message, provided you know your workforce uses the platform and, maybe more importantly, will engage their employer over social media, i.e. actively follow the company Facebook page, tweets, etc.”

In fact, the key to effective social media integration is engagement from both the poster and the reader. For a Facebook or Twitter page to be effective, one must use the right channel for the built-in audience.

To best understand where a company’s audience is engaged, safety managers can perform some simple research, such as a brief survey. Once the appropriate platform has been targeted, it is crucial to post regularly in order to create, and maintain, an audience. It’s also important to review the reaction to company posts. When used effectively, social media should provide the opportunity for a dialogue.

Encouraging Adoption

While mobile and social tools are becoming more ubiquitous, not everyone is eager to jump on the bandwagon.

“I think it's a function of worker age, worker education and the industry type,” Weber says. “The safety professionals who are most ‘into’ apps and social media are the younger professionals and those who have college degrees. Many safety practitioners, especially at smaller companies, are older and/or don't have any college. I don't foresee them ever embracing mobile devices, apps and/or social media.”

Weber adds that heavy, rust-belt type manufacturers, especially the smaller ones, are more “old school.” They'll be the last to adopt social media in the workplace. The cleaner light industries (e.g. service, healthcare, assembly, offices, etc.) are probably more likely to adopt newer technology,” he suggests.

“I would assume a large, high-tech company probably has a much higher percentage of its workforce actively engaged in social media than [for example] a mining company,” Airhart agrees.

Simple training sessions on the available tools, and their potential benefits, could go a long way toward guiding more companies to social solutions.

“I think safety, operations [and other] managers want and believe in mobile, but real-world success is a lot more limited than desire to make it work,” Airhart adds. However, as he points out, “I assume we are moving inevitably toward a day when all data collection is mobile. Paper forms, laptops, web-based software: all the tools we use today will be replaced by tablets that are robust and cheap enough to be ubiquitous in business down to the factory floor and field operations level. How soon that occurs is probably a factor of technology/costs and the age of the workforce.”

Just as safety managers are always working toward the day when safety is second nature and no employee is injured on the job, so too are software companies moving toward the day when processes once consumed by lengthy paperwork are performed in the field with the rapid touch of a few buttons. The use of increasingly more online tools is becoming inevitable, but it’s up to the users to drive the direction they want these tools to take.

About the Author

Megan Headley is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached at