Low-cost applications can generate high ROI

Using technology to help meet legislative health and safety requirements

HR technology doesn’t always have to be expensive. When it comes to health and safety, a few hundred dollars can help companies meet legislative requirements.

A simple example is the management of material data safety sheets. Under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers have specific obligations to provide information about any hazardous materials (see box page 24.)

In addition, a copy of every material safety data sheet must be readily accessible to all workers who may be exposed to hazardous material. The act anticipates the use of technology in meeting its requirements by specifying that an employer that makes material safety data sheets accessible on a computer terminal at a workplace:

•shall take all reasonable steps necessary to keep the terminal in working order;

•shall give a worker upon request a copy of the material safety data sheet; and

•shall teach all workers who work with or in proximity to hazardous materials, the health and safety representative, if any, and the members of the committee how to retrieve the material safety data sheet on the computer terminal.

The data sheets are readily available from most manufacturers in portable document format (PDF). This format allows documents to be reproduced on computers in the way they were formatted despite the type or kind of computer being used. Adobe Acrobat Reader, the software needed to view PDFs, is available free online at www.adobe.com.

PDF-formatted documents are often used on the Web to present information and are easily integrated into an intranet site. All that is required to put them onto an intranet are the material data safety sheets and inexpensive Web content software such as Microsoft Front Page.

The material data safety sheets are available from the manufacturer or online from sites such as www.ilpi.com/msds, which provides an extensive list of free sources like not-for-profits and various manufacturers. Another list is available at www.msdssearch.com/DBLinksN.htm.

Using the Web content management software and the PDF files for all hazardous materials in the workplace, organizations can quickly assemble a Web site for the sheets. By using an older computer and printer, companies can reduce the costs and then it is simply a matter of ensuring employees have been trained to use the Web site and can print the materials they need.

To create the Web site you can place the name of the chemical on the Web page (much like you do with a word processor) and then insert a hyperlink which will call the PDF file to the screen in a separate window. The employee can use the standard browser functionality to browse the Web site and the relatively straightforward Adobe Reader controls to print the materials.

Companies with a highly diverse workforce can provide employees the option to get the material safety data sheets in the language of their choice.

Through the use of a few hundred dollars in software and a few hours to learn how to use it, an organization could build a highly useful application which could be used in multiple sites. The data sheets can be easily monitored from a central database to ensure each is less than three years old and each new purchase can be easily added.

As the Web site is used, more and more information can be added to the site such as health and safety committee minutes, incident reports, safety educational materials and information on workers’ compensation.

The return-on-investment on such an application could be extremely high when you take into account what would occur if, during an inspection or following an incident at work, an organization is found not to have met requirements under health and safety or workplace hazardous materials information systems (known in Ontario as WHMIS) legislation.

John Johnston is a principal in Human Resource Management Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in HRMS strategy, systems selection and change management. He can be reached at (905) 825-4127.

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