In the past, many automation solutions offered 'paper-based' software, which produced paper work orders to perform safety inspections. The use of mobile devices such as tablets, smartphones and PDAs make the inspection process easier.
Once paper forms were returned to the office, they would be 'manually' entered and integrated with the software product. The same concept applied to web-based solutions, which required paper work orders and computers to enter the data back onto the system.
In recent years, the role of handheld devices and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant) has gradually evolved from 'toys' used by early adopters, to day-to-day tools deployed by organisations that want to improve their staff's productivity minimise unnecessary administrative tasks and maximise employee safety.
Can a mobile device automate OH&S inspections and reduce paper-based inspection?
Absolutely many handheld devices operate on the Pocket PC (Microsoft Operating System), and will easily handle mining OH&S inspection software.
Handheld devices should provide information that already exists on paper forms or on the desktop and at the same time improve one's ability to access and utilise the data.
For example, if a user fills out a periodic OH&S inspection report providing specific information, the handheld device should fulfil the same function.
A handheld user can pick from a list of possible choices and/or write or type in information, according to the organisation's requirements and policies.
Handheld devices make current, past, and future information accessible and easy to use.
Handheld software should also be tailored towards the mining inspection personnel who need to perform their tasks using easy-to-use screens and functions.
Furthermore, by simplifying navigation buttons and minimising keystrokes, inspectors can learn to operate their PDA software in a short timeframe.
Handheld applications specifically designed for OH&S Inspections should deliver the following functionalities:
- List all information required by safety inspectors, to perform their tasks, including, task list, activities, risk score, measurement and monitoring, instructions, etc
- Provide easy to use navigation, search capabilities and quick access to information
- Allow safety inspectors to enter as much information as needed
- Automatically track labour and apply it to timesheets (if applicable)
- Enable OH&S inspectors and to record recommendations and/or quickly create new corrective work orders
- Provide additional value added features such audit and risk assessment
- Produce reports as required using portable printers
According to Techs4biz, handheld devices can include validations that allow or disallow data entry. They can also provide the user with historical information pertaining to previous safety inspections.
Furthermore, barcodes, timestamps and scanners attached to handheld devices enable quick identification of equipment, identify points of entry and exit, maximise safety and efficiency, and minimise human errors.
Handheld applications should also be designed to minimise the amount of data entry and keystrokes required by incorporating a variety of techniques, starting from pick lists, through check boxes, to look-up lists and automatically generated results and shortcuts.
Minimising the amount of data entry that the end user has to perform is recommended to improve speed, accuracy, efficiency, ease of use and cost.
Hazardous environments such as mines, oil refineries and other industrial sites means that some PDAs are less safer for use due to their electrical use and therefore risk of sparking flammable vapours or gasses that may be present.
Hardware manufacturers have developed intrinsically safe (I-safe) and ruggedised PDAs that are suitable for use in these environments.
Finally, handheld software should be able to run on multiple hardware platforms, providing flexibility and utilisation of future technology without avoidable and costly software upgrades.
The desktop, database and server
To maximise utilisation and return-on-investment, handheld applications should not be stand-alone. They should be designed from the outset to collect information, display and manipulate information, and transfer information to and from a desktop or server database and back to the handheld seamlessly.
The desktop/server application should provide a variety of operational and management functions including scheduling, tracking, Key Performance Indicators (KPI), management functions and reports, and analysis tools.
The means of data transfer between handheld devices and the database can be made through a standard cradle, wired modem, infrared, Bluetooth, Email, or wireless communications.
Combining software with PDAs
Using handheld devices in conjunction with desktop/server software will automatically transfer data from the handheld to your database without the need for further data entry or data reformulation.
In addition, the use of such technology will:
- Improve operational efficiencies;
- Minimise unnecessary administrative tasks and data entry
- Increase productivity and profitability; Enable effective completion of tasks;
- Simplify repeatable tasks and provide staff with easy to use tools that focus on performing tasks
- Incorporate mechanisms to focus on exceptions and ensure proper execution of tasks, including automatic listing of activities, reminders, alerts, escalation procedures, and easy access to information
- Ensure that service is performed according to warranties, guidelines and regulations
- Improve controls and accountability leading to better quality of work
How to find the right solution
By following three simple steps, described below, OH&S inspectors/ can accelerate the selection process and ensure that their selection would fit their needs:
First, determine what you want the solution to do for you. Make sure you understand your current processes and information flow.
Try to answer the following questions
List the things that work well within your current process and things that can improve; focus on the process and not on software or computers.
Prioritise potential improvement areas
Describe a short scenario where improvements can achieve your objectives. For example, minimise unnecessary administrative tasks such as remembering and rescheduling recurring OH&S inspections and eliminating unnecessary data entry
At this point, you have gathered your requirements. Now try to answer the following:
- Who will use the system?
- How computer-proficient are the users? (Remember to separate field staff requirements from managers and supervisors)
- What are your procedures for paperwork flow? Will the software improve this flow or make it worse?
Next, evaluate features offered by different solution providers and compare them to your needs. Create a list of desired features so you can compare 'apples-to apples' without getting confused (or blindsided) by the different vendor presentations.
When reviewing brochures offered by vendors or when speaking with sales people, it is sometimes difficult to clearly identify the differences between the packages. However, certain packages offer significantly better value than their competitors, both in terms of functionalities, ease of use, and price.
The differences between the packages can be highlighted in the following areas:
- How comprehensive is their solution and their PDA software? Is it easy-to-learn and easy-to-use?
- How easily does the PDA integrate with the desktop/server component?
- Does the package enable efficient planning of work activities by using schedulers and alerts, and by automating repetitive tasks?
- Does the package enable multiple activities such as planning of safety inspections, preventative maintenance and general work orders?
- Is the solution easy to use? Does it offer different levels to different users related to their responsibilities?
Does the package enable efficient execution of activities? For example, adding a corrective work order 'in the field' should be quick, easy, and require minimal effort.
Does the solution minimise unnecessary administrative tasks such as reminders and repetitive activities? For example, alerts, escalation procedures and other exceptions should be automated and should alert users proactively. Service due dates should be automatically calculated based on maintenance schedules, etc.
Does it include management functions, reports, queries and exceptions? Can the solution help planning and can it highlight problem areas?
Finally, determine the perfect value and fit; Include in your evaluation important factors such as the ability to tailor a solution to your needs and the cost of the solution.
Once you have created your short list of potential packages, look at the following factors to choose 'the right solution for you':
- Is the provider willing to tailor the solution to your needs if required?
- Can you customise settings, such as field aliases and screens available to each user?
- Will you be able to expand the use of the package without 'hidden' module charges, costs and complexities?
- Does the package include future software releases, so when new and improved features are added you will be receiving these upgrades without excessive additional charges?
- And finally – is the solution within your budget?
Maintaining this focused approach is the ideal way to select mining OH&S inspection package that is right for your needs. By taking the time to systematically research and evaluate your options, you avoid regretting hasty decisions later.
How much should it cost?
The evaluation process described above should include cost estimates for such solutions.
However, you may also wish to evaluate the cost in terms of ROI (Return on Investment). Try to calculate your savings, in terms of minimising data entry efforts, speeding up information flow and information accuracy, easy access to OH&S queries and audits trails, etc.
Once you have estimated your savings (tangible and intangible benefits), you can evaluate the amount of money you are willing to spend on such system. ROI should be between 9 and 12 months.