Did Excel spreadsheets replace safety professionals? Did the establishment of OSHA standards replace safety professionals? Did online safety checklists replace safety professionals? Did Microsoft Word put authors out of business?
The answer to all of the above is no. I like to use a commercial aircraft analogy to explain. Imagine looking to the left as you board the plane and not seeing a cockpit or pilots–technology has replaced them. The next question is, how fast do you turn around and refuse to board that plane? Even though the commercial aircraft could probably fly itself, we still need human involvement to provide direction and put the passengers at ease if an unexpected situation arises during flight. We expect to see a human being in the cockpit.
In the same way, we expect a human being to be in charge of an organization’s health and safety efforts. Being adverse to technology because of a fear of being replaced seems unlikely but not so ludicrous that it hasn’t crossed the old safety professional’s mind. Airplanes have advanced avionics, global positioning systems, vertical landing systems, and smart hydraulics that trim the plane during takeoff and landing. Do all of these eliminate the need for the pilot? No. These technologies were all invented to assist the pilot in the course of operating the aircraft. Prior to leaving, a pilot still has to set coordinates and ensure that all systems are properly working before, during, and after the flight. These systems allow the pilot to evaluate and react to conditions more quickly and safely.
Safety professionals are only as good as the systems that support them. We must not only be concerned with the quality of information we collect but also the efficiency in which that information is populated and distributed to designated personnel in the organization. I have seen many talented safety professionals who are terrific with their people but horribly inefficient at the administrative part of their jobs, especially record management and training efforts. Software is a tool for the safety professional, just as accounting software is a tool for an accountant. We still have to know the craft so we can direct technology to support our goals and efforts. Software doesn’t replace knowledge… it enhances it.
Are safety professionals more effective sitting behind a desk acting as a “safety clerk”, or would they be more effective when they are actively in the field or on a production floor promoting safety? How much time do they spend performing inspections, audits, training, and paperwork? A good deal of time! And it’s necessary. But how much time is spent duplicating those findings into various spreadsheets? Double the time! Wouldn’t you want to lessen the amount of administrative time in return for more field time?
If you are a safety professional, “continuous improvement” should not be an unfamiliar term It not only the preferred method of driving cost savings throughout an organization but also driving efficiencies in all aspects of the operation, especially health and safety. Many safety professionals put a lot of blood, sweat, time, and tears in improving processes, procedures, and protocols. Why would they ignore improving their own safety systems so they can better ensure optimal health and safety performance? It is definitely a question that needs to be addressed.
The bottom line is this: Our profession, albeit still somewhat behind the times from a technology standpoint, is evolving. The new generation of safety professionals will have a need (and expectation) for technology. This is a generation that understands the power of software. The “old guard” holds on to elaborate paper based systems to support their relevancy. But once they leave, this elaborate system is hard for successors to understand. An organization should not be concerned with satisfying the “status quo”. They need to think about their future workforce and the safety professionals who will enter their ranks. Each day that they delay incorporating technology in their health and safety programs, the deeper hole they are digging. I have seen it time and time again. A 3-foot stack of paper or large Excel files are impossible to translate or trend. It becomes a pile of “no good” information. And when the master architect of this system leaves, the health and safety program has to hit reset because the old way cannot be sustained. This madness should stop…yesterday.
Microsoft Word did not provide any guidance on the content of this blog but did help me with the speed in getting my thoughts together. This proves that a safety professional benefited from technology but also that the technology still needs my brain to work.