Microsoft SharePoint: A Powerful Solution for Environmental Health and Safety Programs

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1 Microsoft SharePoint: A Powerful Solution for Environmental Health and Safety Programs Prepared By: Robert Foster, M.S. Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc.

2 Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) programs, especially those supporting programs for laboratories, can be very complex, involving compliance requirements that demand a great deal of data collection, review and documentation. Typically a single person or small group will be responsible for managing/administering the completion of tasks by many individuals (including third parties) to ensure continuous program compliance. Software applications for managing and sharing information become increasingly important as the EHS program grows. Such applications may include those to manage accident/incident reporting, safety inspections, chemical inventory, and training records. As these separate solutions multiply, EHS program managers require a single software solution that can address the expanding (and specific) needs of their program, absorb current program information, automate administrative tasks, and ultimately provide a single program dashboard. Many third party software packages focus on single functional applications (e.g., safety inspections, chemical inventory) and the result is several separate products that do not communicate. A comprehensive software package poses a significant investment that is often an option only for large commercial and institutional clients. Individual modules are sometimes available to make the purchase somewhat scalable, but this also makes the total system price significantly higher. This white paper discusses an often-overlooked yet powerful and commonly available Microsoft platform that can address the needs of both small and large EHS programs in a customizable, scalable and costeffective way. Microsoft SharePoint offers EHS program managers a multi-functional organizational solution that may already be present on their internal servers. THE POWER OF SHAREPOINT SharePoint is a web-based management platform that allows the user to build customized sites to enhance communication between groups of people. Built-in tools such as document libraries, task calendars, meeting workspaces, and customizable data lists allow non-programmers to create fairly elaborate web sites to share and track project schedules and documentation. SharePoint is also tightly integrated with Microsoft Office, so it can easily absorb Word and Excel files, and can synchronize calendars with Outlook. The basic functionality of SharePoint will be familiar to users of Office, and therefore ease the learning process. FIGURE 1 SharePoint combines a great deal of functionality that can be accessed as needed by the user. Environmental Health & Engineering 1

3 SharePoint is scalable to any size organization, and will link information throughout. Documents or information placed on SharePoint can be made accessible to any group or individuals, and SharePoint s advanced search capabilities make finding information or files fast and simple. SharePoint also offers integration for electronic forms processing using InfoPath (part of the Microsoft Office Suite) or mobile device (ios, Android) forms as data entry interfaces. This feature offers tremendous potential in helping companies go paperless, and skipping a manual transcription process associated with moving data from paper to computer. Once submitted to SharePoint, data from forms or mobile devices can trigger multi-step workflows that can eliminate many administrative hours. Workflows, which can be created without code, can automatically initiate processes such as reviewing data for significant patterns, sending documents and forms to responsible parties for review, and ensuring that reports are properly completed in the required time. This capability to auto-administrate work processes presents the opportunity to vastly improve operational efficiency in most organizations. SharePoint offers a substantial benefit to companies that have already adopted the platform. Building an EHS management solution on a platform that is already connected to people and facilities throughout the organization saves a great deal of time and implementation cost, and in yearly maintenance and/or licensing fees. HARNESSING SHAREPOINT FOR EHS MANAGEMENT When applied to EHS program management, the features outlined above offer powerful tools to collect, analyze, process and display information across the organization. One of the most compelling attributes is the close integration with Microsoft Office. A common hurdle with other third party packages is the transfer of existing program data into the required format of the new software (and, of course, getting it out again). Existing EHS program information almost always consists of Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, Access databases, and perhaps Outlook schedules. All of these are entirely compatible with SharePoint, and in the case of Excel and Access can be absorbed within SharePoint entirely or synchronized such that information entered in either program will automatically be shared with the other. This seamless transfer of existing program information, in and out, of SharePoint saves a tremendous amount of training and roll-out time. While SharePoint s user-defined web interface provides an excellent way to visually organize and display program information, arguably the most powerful capability with respect to an EHS program is its ability to selectively act on any of the information it houses (auto-administration). When broken into its individual components, the typical EHS program contains a large number of individual tasks performed on a regular basis by a number of individuals. Tracking the due dates and the completion of these tasks is a huge administrative burden in itself, and frequently consumes much of the manager s time to the extent that beneficial program initiatives often lay dormant as efforts are focused on maintaining basic compliance. Environmental Health & Engineering 2

4 Transferring program documents and information into SharePoint immediately benefits the EHS program by allowing associated due dates (or review dates) to be automatically tracked and managed. Similarly, regular tasks associated with program maintenance (permit renewals, safety inspections, etc.) can be monitored and tracked automatically within task lists, alerting the responsible party (and even external third parties) via of the requirement, and notifying the EHS manager when tasks remain incomplete past the due date. This automated administrative functionality will immediately result in a more efficient use of the manager s time, and also provides a real-time view of program status (Figure 2). FIGURE 2 Tasks can be rolled up to charts and dashboards to give a real-time view of program compliance status. Another example of auto-administration is in the interpretation and management of data collected by the program. Safety inspections are a critical function of every program, but the administrative time required to analyze and process the information often results in a lack of effectiveness. Using customized workflows, SharePoint is capable of managing (via alerts) not only the inspection process, but also the incoming data from mobile devices or electronic forms. If inspection findings warrant attention, responsible parties can be notified and the response tracked entirely without manual intervention. Using calculation and charting features, program metrics are automatically generated in real-time, allowing the program manager to spend their time on program improvement instead of on sending s and manually tracking issues (Figure 3). Environmental Health & Engineering 3

5 FIGURE 3 Example of an automated workflow within SharePoint. In this case, the workflow is automating the processing of safety audit findings. PROCESSING SECURE AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION As shown in Figure 3, information collected by SharePoint (tasks, electronic and mobile forms, etc.) can be processed with workflows to provide oversight of information review and approval within the program. Another example of the use of workflows, with the addition of permissions, is the review of accident and incident reports. Submission of these forms typically requires input from several groups and initiates an investigative and corrective action process within the organization. The process requires coordination among a number of people in a timely manner. The automated workflow functions within SharePoint can be triggered at the time of form submission, and can sequentially notify all parties within the system when their input is required. Permissions can be used to withhold sensitive information from parties while still obtaining their input to specific sections of the report. The person responsible for the approval process now has a single window into the entire process and is alerted automatically when an item/issue requires their attention. Information is processed in a timely manner with a minimum of administrative oversight, and program summaries and reports are available real-time via dashboards and printable reports. Environmental Health & Engineering 4

6 FULLY UTILIZING MOBILE DEVICES FOR DATA CAPTURE Microsoft SharePoint: A Powerful Solution for Environmental Health and Safety Programs Environmental health and safety compliance programs require collection and analysis of large amounts of field data in the form of site and equipment inspections. Electronic data collection systems are typically expensive and do not allow customization to match the exacting needs of many organizations. SharePoint can be easily configured to utilize mobile devices such as iphones, ipads and other tablets to collect field data for analysis and processing. Examples of applications that lend themselves to this approach include: Site safety inspections Equipment and fuel tank inspections Laboratory inspections Building inspections FIGURE 4 Example of an inspection form on an ipad. The form will save data directly to SharePoint where the data can be analyzed and processed with workflows. Environmental Health & Engineering 5

7 Existing forms can easily be adapted to a mobile form, and data can be collected remotely (no Internet access) and transferred when the device is connected to a network. Secure data transfer is maintained using SharePoint s security protocols. The data transferred to SharePoint can be instantly analyzed using client criteria and routed to those individuals or groups requiring the information. ADDITIONAL SHAREPOINT BENEFITS Additional attributes inherent to SharePoint that are very useful for constructing EHS program solutions include: Site and system security via usernames and passwords. Microsoft web user interface is familiar thus minimizing training. Wide range of permission options to control access to site content. Customized views for user groups. Finally, SharePoint is economical when compared to third party software. The platform is already available within most institutions with some level of IT familiarity and support. In many cases, it s being used behind the scenes by a single department and may be readily available to use for application development; therefore, the cost of software and support can be leveraged across the entire institution. The SharePoint platform is fully supported by Microsoft, a key benefit to many who have in the past purchased specialized software only to see the product discontinued and support dry up after a short time. CONSIDERATIONS FOR DEVELOPING SHAREPOINT APPLICATIONS SharePoint can be customized to meet your EHS program needs but developing applications is a process and there are a few considerations you should take into account before you begin. Several are discussed below, with practical advice and suggestions for navigating your way through them based on our direct experience developing EHS solutions using SharePoint. 1. While the development of EHS applications can typically be performed using standard SharePoint tools without the need for custom (or managed) code, they will require the involvement of an experienced developer to take advantage of the most time-saving features. We have come across many cases where companies have given up on SharePoint as a solution because they tried to develop the applications themselves. Use a developer for the initial effort, and your in-house staff for subsequent maintenance and support. 2. These are not canned solutions. Since each application you develop will be designed for your specific program needs, it will be a project involving planning, development, testing and implementation. We recommend identifying a project manager to serve as an interface between the EHS group and the IT group and the SharePoint expert. An option is to partner with a person or company who has knowledge of both SharePoint and EHS compliance programs. This dramatically reduces the time required to communicate your needs to the developer. EH&E has served in this role for numerous client projects. We are experts at EHS program support and also Environmental Health & Engineering 6

8 have the SharePoint expertise (and access to application templates) necessary to perform this translation efficiently. Filling this role is key to the ultimate success of the application. 3. Do not underestimate the time required to communicate your specific EHS program needs and goals to the application project manager. This is a discovery exercise for the EHS manager and staff who will often find program gaps during the documentation process which is a good thing. The result is a better defined program. The EHS manager should be prepared for this process at the onset of development. 4. The most common challenge during development is to stay focused. Once the user realizes the potential SharePoint offers, they have a tendency to become overly enthusiastic about the possibilities and start to branch off in many directions before finishing the first application. This so-called scope creep will have a negative impact on both the project manager (the project never ends), and the EHS staff who never realize the full benefits and eventually lose interest. Plan small development projects at first and gain some team experience and success before tackling a large project. SHAREPOINT IMPROVES EHS PROGRAM EFFICIENCY AND EFFECTIVENESS The recent growth and widespread acceptance of Microsoft SharePoint as an application development platform offers an EHS manager a compelling alternative to the purchase of third party software to improve the efficiency of maintaining program compliance. In our experience with EHS application development, Microsoft has already built in at least 90% of the internal functionality that most programs will ever use. This frees up SharePoint developers to focus on solving client problems and delivering highly customized EHS applications without writing a line of code. If you haven t yet investigated SharePoint as a way to improve the efficiency and visibility of your existing EHS program, we highly recommend that you do. There are ways to immediately reduce your workload by better organizing and administering many of the documents, tasks and data collection requirements that are part of maintaining program compliance. This in turn frees you up to take on those important program initiatives that you just can t find the time for. Environmental Health & Engineering 7

9 ABOUT EH&E Microsoft SharePoint: A Powerful Solution for Environmental Health and Safety Programs EH&E has provided an extensive range of environmental and engineering consulting services for 25 years. EH&E s environmental health and safety compliance teams provide management oversight for several large research and healthcare institutions. Based on this experience, we offer our clients a unique series of compliance software solutions designed entirely on the SharePoint platform. EH&E s content experts (Environment of Care, Industrial Hygiene, Biosafety, Occupational Health, Sustainability) consult with you to determine the best way to apply software to support your program goals, and then design a solution utilizing the wide range of SharePoint features and functionality. Our approach is both unique and sustainable. We use a Microsoft framework to link our consulting expertise to your needs without a software programmer in the middle. You ll have lower cost of ownership, complete control of how your product grows, and a scalable system that you re not likely to outgrow. Environmental Health & Engineering 8

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