Operations Management Articles

How Energy Companies Are Using Mobile Forms to Improve EHS

by Suzie Blaszkiewicz
Published on 18 January 2016

For field service workers in energy companies like oil, gas, and utilities, EHS (environment, health and safety) is a huge concern. Surveying the field and making sure that it's safe for workers and compliant with health and safety regulations is an important part of this process.

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This is why it comes as a surprise hearing that roughly 80 percent of health and safety professionals rely on outdated and risky data collection, storage, and reporting tools. These tools are predominantly paper-based, and can cause major problems when it comes to health and safety compliance.

Consider the gravity of some of the more well-known health and safety compliance disasters in recent memory. The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused 11 deaths and cost the company more than $60B, while the 2013 Lac-Megantic train disaster killed 47 people, spilled 5.5 million litres of oil into neighbouring rivers and lakes, and saw all three railway companies involved file for bankruptcy. These are extreme examples, but they demonstrate the potentially disastrous results of failed health and safety compliance in the energy sector.

With mobile taking hold of almost every industry, field service health and safety reporting has huge potential to benefit from this trend, providing a more efficient, accurate, and most importantly, safer way to conduct health and safety reporting in the field. Here's how.

The problem with paper

A recent study by BLR (Business & Legal Resources) shows that almost half of companies surveyed still use paper forms for health and safety checks, while another 50 percent use Excel to report on monthly safety trends.

While not all paper-based reporting leads to disaster, it does cause inefficiencies that can snowball and have a big impact on business, workflow, and ultimately, safety.

Practically speaking, forms filled in hastily by field service inspectors can quickly become illegible. Once that happens, reporting is more prone to errors. Information may not be captured accurately, and it can get lost before it's been put into a record using Excel or other legacy reporting software, causing further inaccuracies and delays. Manual recording and data entry also make for a more time-consuming process when the two must be done separately. It slows down the workflow between the field and the back office, and this can be an issue when necessary data isn't readily available.

Inevitably, poor EHS can have even more serious consequences. Once these reporting errors occur, dangerous situations arise that can threaten a worker's safety. If someone's been injured, there will be additional costs for time lost or damaged tools and equipment, reduced efficiency from missing crew members, and big impacts on employee morale and productivity.

As we've seen with the examples of BP and Lac-Megantic, when it comes to energy companies, the potential cost of making these mistakes can be even more damaging: legitimate environmental impacts, lawsuits, tarnished brand image, and fatalities are not beyond the realm of possibility.

The magic of mobile

Mobile may not be the magic wand that solves every EHS concern, but it can certainly have an impact on the accuracy of reporting to help save time, reduce costs, and improve compliance for safety inspectors.

Many of the best field reporting systems now live in the cloud, providing seamless access across mobile devices that can send, collect, and store data. According to a 2014 study by IDG Enterprise Cloud, almost three quarters of enterprises are already using cloud services to support their business operations. Having a solution based in the cloud, and one with a native mobile app, is imperative not only for access and convenience, but also to make sure that data can be collected offline and synced later where a connection isn't readily available.

When a connection is available, the benefits of mobile forms solutions for EHS inspections are endless when compared to paper forms.

Primarily, the amount of time spent recording and entering data can be significantly reduced with a cloud-based mobile solution. With connection to the back office, you'll not only be able to send data back immediately, but can also access necessary information from the office while offsite. This includes part numbers or the equipment necessary for a job. Mobile also provides the option to add pictures to more accurately record an EHS issue, with some solutions offering a way to annotate or draw on the image to bring attention to problem areas.

Mobile solutions also provide additional benefits like being able to capture signatures when authorization is needed, GPS localization to help locate job sites or timestamp work completed, and barcode readers that can scan equipment on site. Robust analytical features, which are now being included to help aggregate large amounts of data and show trends, provide an overarching look at data, and confirm compliance.

Ultimately, all of these features lead to more accurate and timely reporting, better compliance, and a safer environment.

Another thing to consider, however, is security. A recent study by Dimensional Research shows that more than three quarters of IT professionals surveyed report mobile security incidents over the past year, while almost half of businesses with less than 1,000 employees spent over $100,000 on security-related incidents. Having a secure mobile solution that protects user data is essential for any field service solution.

Real-world example: PG&E Corporation

As one of the largest utilities providers in the US, PG&E is one company that has seen the real benefit of switching from paper-based and legacy software to mobile-based solution ProntoForms, a mobile forms builder for field services.

Having used a combination of custom-built applications and paper-based reporting methods for its meter inspections, the company was struggling to organize all of its data in a manageable way. Using several disparate legacy systems to track and audit services and equipment, as well as for quality assurance, meant a delay in the speed of reporting as well as less reliable data. The risk of not being able to properly track or repair faulty meters meant potential costly damage to customers' homes, as well as potentially negative brand perception if any accidents did occur.

Once the decision was made to switch to mobile forms provider ProntoForms, the company was able to more accurately complete its inspections of over a million gas meters, avoiding potentially damaging repercussions, and saving costs on having to use its own problematic custom-built application.

Conclusion

Oil & gas and utilities companies have an especially important task when it comes to compliance, and that's not only to keep its employees safe, but to mitigate the risks to customers and the environment caused by safety and compliance errors that could lead to disaster.

Without accurate EHS reporting methods, these risks are much higher; paper-based and manual systems are prone to errors that could escalate before being properly managed. As one study by Visioneer Inc. states, 7.5 percent of all paper documents are lost altogether, and the cost to recreate them is immeasurable. The potential human, environmental, and monetary costs when an error occurs, however, are powerful incentives to adopt a mobile solution.

With mobile forms solutions for field service data collection in EHS, the benefits are apparent: decreased time spent inputting data; increased accuracy of data; improved connectivity for real-time access in the field or office; and as a result, time and costs savings for a company. All of these benefits counterbalance every risk associated with traditional, legacy methods of data collection in the field, not to mention mitigating even greater environmental and safety disasters.

If you're still using old methods of field reporting, your biggest risk is not switching to mobile.

This post was brought to you in conjunction with mobile forms provider ProntoForms.


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