Last reviewed 15 February 2016

Recent significant advances in mobile information technology include a growing number of mobile apps. Sebastian Mazurczak considers their value and limitations for workplace compliance and health and safety management.

Smart mobile technology is a fairly new addition within information technology, which to date has made impressive advances reaching all corners of the globe. Millions of people now own smartphones and tablets, and mobile technology in the workplace has massive potential in terms of compliance and health and safety, as follows.

  • By delivering results and reporting in real time, it improves overall efficiency and accuracy in data capture for monitoring, investigations and auditing processes.

  • Almost unlimited cloud space at your fingertips is far more effective than pen and paper.

  • Real-time intelligence capture increases efficiency in performance monitoring to support decision making.

  • With wireless technology, a person has access to regulatory documents and guidance without needing to carry around or waste time referring to reference books.

  • Tools can run the technical calculations for you. With access to reference protocols, assessments of potential risk can be done in on-site for quick decision making, letting you know immediately if urgent actions are required.

With professionals looking for more faster and streamlined mechanisms to document, retain and report findings, mobile app technology can have a positive impact on work. These apps are being developed and are evolving on a daily basis with a variety of degree and quality.

Mobile app types can be summarised into three categories.

  • Standalone apps: with no links or ties to any other systems. These are mostly used for standard advice and for initial assessments with no tracking or enhanced features. These are generally free.

  • Companion apps: with specialised features that collect information from multiple users. Live information is available, usually requiring some form of subscription that provides the user with help and constantly updated software.

  • A combination of standalone and companion.

The benefits

Current smartphones and tablets feature text, photos, videos and voice recording, and the ability to attach documents. This allows for interviews with witnesses and the ability to report in almost real-time on all incidents and investigations, which gives an extra edge on decision making.

Tool features are available that can assist with comparing collected data to known references. Additionally apps can make technical calculations and measurements that allow a person to simulate results, compare performance and assess risk to determine optimal protocols.

Data collection and entry on-site is much more efficient than taking notes on paper and photos with a camera which then need to be loaded onto a PC to produce a report. Data is also far more accurate, with a greater level of detail when entered and checked in real time. With mobile technology and wireless connectivity to the internet, collected data can also be stored safely in the cloud to be retrieved whenever needed.

A wide range of inspection surveys and audit templates loaded into one app saves time and money, and increases work efficiency. These templates can also be bookmarked to quickly identify issues that need clarification or action. Set templates enhance data integrity, as the template prompts users to fill in all details required before moving onto another section. This prevents key data being omitted due to human error or neglect and the process walks the users through the necessary steps to ensure a consistent standard format of data capture.

The limitations

Many of the apps available on today’s market are nothing more than a glossary of risks and safety terminology. However, true intelligent capture and assessment apps are a powerful tool in the right hands.

It is important to note that for the purpose of compliance and health and safety management, these apps are designed with the professional in mind and should only be used by a competent person who has the full understanding, training, knowledge and experience. For certain subjects such as asbestos or legionella risk assessment, competence is still a legislative requirement.

Also, the apps are designed to be used by competent professionals to support their reports and are not meant to be used as a standalone safe system of work. They are not intended as a replacement for true professional advice.

Other factors that should be considered include the following.

  • No software in world will ever replace competent human vigilance in the workplace when carrying out professional assessments and evaluation.

  • Apps are not official and accredited by third parties. Therefore they cannot be used to demonstrate that minimum national standards have been met to ensure compliance.

  • App tools used to take technical measurements of the environment are not universally calibrated and should never be relied upon other than as an estimate or guide.

  • One of the major deficiencies of technical apps is the lack of a manual or help screens: they are targeted at professionals with presumed existing knowledge.

  • Many apps require internet connection to access references, which is not always practical in field assessments. Therefore you cannot be sure that you are accessing the most up-to-date legislation or advice.

  • Many assessments contain confidential information about a site or person which is stored in iCloud or other web-based platforms. Security of data and data transfer should be addressed.

Deciding on a mobile app

Before deciding on which app to use, ask the following questions.

  • Does the mobile app have a good blend of applications which includes auditing, relevant tools and availability of updated references in real time?

  • Is the app from a reputable, safe and secure developer?

  • Is the app easy to navigate, intuitive, and will it actually help with tasks and save time and money or just add another layer to tasks?

  • Are screenshots and user reviews available for comparison?

There is enough evidence to prove that mobile apps in the right hands can be a powerful tool if their limitations are managed. Companies and professionals who take advantage of this modern safety solution may get a competitive edge over their competitors.