For better or worse, there is no arguing that mobile devices and applications have completely transformed our culture and redefined the way we manage our lives, access information, purchase goods, and communicate with each other. So, what does this transformation mean for EHS - does mobile technology have the potential to completely disrupt and redefine our EHS processes? If so, what should you consider when thinking about mobile technology for your organization?
This article explores these questions and others as we analyze the application of mobile technology to organizational EHS business processes. We will look back at what we have learned, examine the potential opportunities, and identify the key success factors and risks associated with mobile technology deployments for EHS.
Mobile Solution Components
A mobile solution really comprises two parts: device and application. Today, a mobile device can include a variety of smart functions that provide users with convenience and accessibility from anywhere, at any time. The most common mobile devices are hand-held smartphones and tablet computers, but can also include other smart devices such as scanners and cameras. The availability and cost effectiveness of smartphones, tablet computers, and other smart devices is growing rapidly with no signs of slowing down. A mobile application, or "app," enables a specific activity or set of activities and engages a user much like any traditional computer-based software application, except a mobile app is designed to interact through unique features of the mobile device. Although the proliferation of mobile applications cannot be overstated, it is important to understand the different types of mobile applications.
- Applications developed for use on a specific operating system platform (e.g., iOS or Android) to leverage built-in mobile capabilities specific to a particular set of devices, for instance, the interface controls specific to an operating system or specific camera functions.
- Cross-Platform (Hybrid) Mobile Application: Applications developed to be available on multiple operating system platforms using either specialized tools or taking a more basic design approach, and often both.
- Web Application: Applications designed to be accessed on mobile web browsers that will work across all operating platforms. Because they are not a locally installed application, web applications often lack some basic device-specific functions, such as use of the camera.
- Progressive Web Application (PWA): Applications designed to be accessed through the mobile web browser and which leverage native device functions. This is a newer approach to mobile development, and most PWAs can be added to the home screen of a mobile device without being installed through an app store.
There are numerous advantages and disadvantages of the mobile application types, and organizations should consult their IT professionals when selecting a mobile solution to help determine what is best for their specific needs.
The History of Mobility and EHS Business Processes
Trinity Consultants was one of the first companies to recognize the unique way in which mobile devices could impact EHS business processes. In the early 2000s, Trinity developed and launched one of the very first EHS mobile solutions, called "Pocket Solutions." This first-generation solution was built on the now-extinct PalmPilot in order to support EHS field data collection processes.
As with most first-generation ideas, early mobile solutions had their share of successes and lessons learned. The first ten years of EHS mobile solutions were a bumpy road as the mobile device and applications world evolved, but EHS service and technology firms continued to incorporate mobile solutions into their offerings and mobile devices are now a much more ingrained part of organizational enterprise technology.
Today, technology companies are mobilizing to meet client demand as organizations move quickly to leverage the latest mobile technology. Major EHS technology providers - such as Enviance, Intelex, Cority, Enablon, GenSuite, Sphera, and Dakota - have mobile applications to complement their traditional web applications. As cloud-based technology has become more mainstream, we have also seen costs decline for the technology infrastructure needed to support mobile application development and deployment.
In today's mobile technology market, there are many options to meet an organization's EHS management needs. Organizations can choose a low-cost solution that leverages existing applications such as Microsoft-based solution methods. Or, if companies want to make a more significant investment to meet unique needs, there are providers that can develop a completely custom mobile application or deploy a full enterprise EHS solution with mobile capabilities.
Mobile EHS Solution Capabilities
Mobile technology for EHS data management traditionally has focused on specific areas of EHS data collection often performed by field personnel with no access to their office-based computers. However, as mobile strategies evolve within an organization, numerous other uses for mobile solutions become viable. A few examples of such uses are provided below.
- Routine EHS Data Collection
There are numerous permit conditions, regulatory requirements, and other drivers that require organizations to collect compliance-related information at a specific location. Mobile technology enables users to capture and digitize real-time qualitative and quantitative EHS data into configurable mobile forms. For many organizations, these data were previously captured on paper and then possibly (but not always) transcribed into digital format. With mobile technology, those data are easily captured digitally not only for compliance purposes, but also for use in other business analyses such as EHS improvement project data mining. Furthermore, mobile technology can provide an offline ability for digital data capture in remote locations. Typical EHS processes that lend themselves to this approach include regulatory inspections, process and job safety reviews, and operational data collection.
- Event-Driven Data Collection
EHS events require various impromptu information collections, analyses, communications, and reporting. For this type of non-routine or event-driven data, mobile technology provides two important functions: 1) initiate the event workflow for automated and immediate notifications, and 2)capture the information required for the initial reporting. For instance, in the event of a spill, specific mobile capabilities such as recording geolocation, audio, video, and pictures allow personnel to quickly obtain rich data that facilitate immediate remediation. They can also provide audio/video evidence from witnesses at the scene of the incident, which is more reliable and defensible than eyewitness accounts after the fact. Also, for near-miss reporting, safe/unsafe observations, and other behavior-based safety programs that depend on high volumes of data, mobile technology is a potential game-changer for organizations.
- Task Management
Task management is a staple of EHS information solutions, as ensuring EHS compliance depends on people completing their tasks on time. Mobile solutions provide a new means to facilitate and improve management capabilities using familiar approaches. First, mobile applications provide a quick way to view and complete an individual's EHS task list from anywhere, at any time. Second, mobile applications can integrate the mobile device's alerting system to send task reminders, alerts, and other notifications. Mobile notifications and alerts, if properly configured, can be used to replace email reminders and reduce the problem of email overload. “Geo-fencing” is an additional enhancement, as some reminders can be sent when users arrive in specified locations to ensure the tasks specific to that location are completed.
- EHS Actionable Information Distribution
The power of any information management system lies in the information that it collects and organizes. While early systems struggled to produce useful output beyond regulatory reports, today's business intelligence and other innovative data mining technologies have given organizations the power to produce meaningful information from their EHS data. Mobile solutions provide immediate delivery of such information to decision-making personnel in the corporate setting, as well as on-duty personnel in the field that may need to utilize it immediately. A good use for this is to disseminate key lessons learned from preventable accidents or non-compliance events based on data obtained from real-time incidents, near misses, and observations. Using the native alert functions on a mobile device, organizations can quickly provide key information to an audience at a time when their users are most likely to read and react.
EHS Mobile Solution Deployment Challenges
In the last decade, certain overarching issues have kept mobile application deployment for EHS purposes from progressing as quickly and widely as in other processes, although these issues can frequently be overcome. From a hardware standpoint, there has often been a lack of highly durable, non-standard mobile devices as well as a means to remain current with software updates after deployment. In addition, smaller companies often rely on a "bring your own device" strategy, which makes it difficult to control the deployment and regular maintenance of the organization's EHS mobile solution.
Another mobile challenge is network/internet connectivity. There are many instances in which an “offline” mode is required with the mobile application in order to function in areas where data must be collected but there is no Wi-Fi or mobile connection available to transmit data. Therefore, mobile solutions must be able to record and store data correctly while offline, then sync the data with corporate servers. The issues seen today in such circumstances tend to relate to storing the data and then syncing correctly once connected to a Wi Fi or mobile service. Many times, the process for diagnosing data issues under such circumstances can be quite complex and time consuming.
By far though, the most challenging area for successful EHS mobile solution development has been the unique user base and their expectations and needs for a niche solution. Field- and facility-based users for EHS mobile apps are often not proficient in managing or maintaining a more complex technology platform that meets EHS management needs. Although comprehensive training could address this issue, typically this group of users also has a high turnover rate. With both of these factors being prevalent in the industry, any mobile solution that is deployed must be highly intuitive and well-designed. This issue, combined with the need to be cross-platform (e.g., iPhone, Android, and Windows phones) and relevant to clients in multiple industries, has made it costly and difficult to develop effective mobile EHS solutions that address all these variables.
While the evolution of mobile solutions for EHS management has come a long way, there is still work to do to fully leverage mobile technology to best serve organizations' EHS information management needs. With such a broad reach of potential users, organizations should adequately invest in both planning and quality assurance/user acceptance testing. Rolling out solutions slowly to allow a pilot user base to uncover glitches can save organizational resources, as can working with IT and the technology provider to stay on top of reported bugs, device changes, application updates, and other system maintenance tasks.