December 20, 2016 by Jacob Stoller
One of the most ubiquitous requirements for contractors in all sectors of the industry is fulfilling their duty to keep workers safe. The issues are widely publicized, and training resources and safety tools are readily available. Maintaining a comprehensive safety program, however, can be an administrative nightmare.
The challenge is tracking and maintaining the large amounts of information that such a program requires. Most contractors rely on improvised systems based on paper, spreadsheets, hard copy manuals, and phone calls to manage their information flow. As a result, many are struggling just to meet minimum regulatory requirements.
The shortcomings of these default methods are the same deficiencies that have driven many contractors to adopt dedicated software for other aspects of their business such as accounting and customer relationship management. Symptoms include inconsistent records, inaccessibility of key information at jobsites, lack of follow-up for incidents, difficulties with auditors, and administrative overload.
Safety management software (SMS) systems are no magic bullet. What they can do, however, is help companies that are committed to maintaining safety programs do so more efficiently and effectively.
“Most companies that come to us have adopted a safety culture,” says Linda Findlay, director of business development and client services at Vancouver-based Spence Software. “They just want a better way to manage it, and make sure everything is within their standard for compliance.”
The baseline for safety programs is determined by minimum federal and provincial requirements, typically resulting in a thick policy manual kept in a binder. Often, that binder never sees the light of day on a jobsite. “If you give a huge binder to a project supervisor, the odds of them actually looking at it are slim to none,” says Findlay.
Software puts safety policies on-line, and gives supervisors the information they need in manageable chunks. If a safety violation is suspected, the supervisor can not only check policies and view past incident reports, but they can also see notification records, minutes from safety meetings, or an employee’s safety certifications. When problems are discovered, software can also trigger follow-up actions, ensuring that deficiencies are addressed.
Making workplaces safer
Software doesn’t just make safety programs easier – it improves them too. Comprehensive tracking helps contractors move from fire fighting mode, where the focus is on covering themselves for government auditors, to a proactive stance where they mitigate circumstances that lead to injuries.
“Our software allows you to log the root cause of an incident,” says Matthew Wall, product manager at Calgary-based SafetySync. “Then you can run reports. You might learn that a number of injuries occurred because people didn’t know the correct procedures for operating certain pieces of equipment. So you can then build a program to tackle those shortcomings.”
Another proactive measure is connecting the dots between equipment maintenance and potential hazards. “If you didn’t change your oil, and you engine has seized and you’re in the middle of nowhere, that’s a safety concern,” says Findlay. “So we include the asset management side as well.”
Technology adoption has never been easy in the construction industry, and an, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude still prevails. When working with clients, Findlay starts with a small group of key stakeholders, and keeps the changes as manageable as possible.
“We never see two clients that are exactly the same, even within a sector like road construction,” says Findlay. So we look to replicate the programs they already have. When somebody fills out an electronic form, they will be looking at the same questions that they had before.”
Pushback from the jobsite is also an issue. “Workers might think, ‘are you doing this because we’re doing a bad job at safety?’” says Wall. “But that’s clearly not the case.” SafetySync offers a novel solution that injects a little fun into the program. The software supports a rewards program where employees qualify for gifts from a catalogue based on meeting safety requirements.
Wall hopes wider adoption of software will lead to better portability of workers’ safety data. “Construction workers tend to go from project to project with different employers,” he says. “So it’s a pain for them to have carry a wallet full of certificate cards.”
Perhaps the greatest long-term incentive, however, is that when safety is addressed proactively, it is closely linked with continuous improvement. Tightening up processes to make workplaces safer, therefore, tends to have a spinoff effect where those processes also become more efficient. “Safety software, by its nature, tends to improve workflow patterns, communication, and accountability,” says Findlay.
Jacob Stoller is principal of Toronto-based consultancy StollerStrategies. Send comments to email@example.com.