By Alina Libkind
Imagine yourself in the safety manager's shoes going to a substation to conduct a field audit. You take your iPad and go through the audit checklist. You tap a few spots on the tablet screen: all the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) is being used - Pass; the protective fence is in place - Pass. Then you see there's no safety sign placed between your crew member and the energized part of the high voltage equipment - Fail. You tap a note into your audit and, perhaps, capture a photo onsite to attach to your audit. Once you're finished, you move on to finding a safety sign to fill that gap. And before you get back to the office, your supervisor has reviewed the audit results.
Ten years ago, without smartphones and cloud-based software, that process could have taken days and involved much paperwork and data entry. But the scenario described is not a hypothetical projection into the future. Digital safety management is something more utilities are practicing.
Technology is changing the safety game across many industries, leaving old ways of doing things behind. From fall protection and sling inspections to lockout/tagout and switching procedures, it revolutionizes ways to manage safety and compliance-providing new opportunities for professionals in the utilities sector.
Embracing New Opportunities With Technology
Paper-based processes are complicated because of the inherent manual work involved. With pen and paper, it may take a long time to get from the field audit to the complete report. First, you have to handwrite everything when you're in the field, and it may then take a day or more for data entry and writing up. By the time the organized report goes to other managers, three or four days may have passed. By then, new issues may arise; if an outside inspector knocks on your door, you may be in trouble.
Technology such as mobile devices and the Web can give your safety manager access to the cloud and change the process. Performed digitally, work that once took three or four days is cut to only an hour or two spent in the field. In addition, this provides real-life information about what's going on in the field at any time. As you read this article, do you know if your crew is using proper PPE? Can you easily find which tools are in good working order and which may need service or replacement? Are your workers following proper work procedures? Do they have the safety resources they need onsite? Being able to record and access this information provides you with complete traceability and lets you answer these questions at any point in time for yourself, your team members or an outside safety auditor.
If deficiencies are identified during the inspection of harnesses and lanyards at the plant, something as straightforward as getting those issues fixed can become a paper trail nightmare: documenting the deficiencies in a report, recording who is assigned to fix them, communicating with the crew, making sure everything gets fixed, storing those records somewhere and then trying to find them if you need them. Conducted digitally, all this can be done with a few entries on your tablet. Your actions sync to the secure cloud where other designated team members can access them and take action. Technology streamlines the process of assigning corrective actions and tracking when, how and by whom the issue was fixed, eliminating any inefficiencies.
Safety Procedures Going Digital
It's not just audits and inspections. General and specific safety procedures are changing with technology. Lockout/tagout (LOTO) is one example. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), "compliance with the lockout/tagout standard prevents an estimated 120 fatalities and 50,000 injuries each year." It remains, however, one of the most frequently cited safety violations. Managing LOTO safety can be a complex process where many things can easily be missed or go unnoticed-with severe consequences. Because of the vast differences between equipment types, how they need to be locked out and the knowledge required to work on or service each machine, some complications cannot be removed-but technology can empower companies to streamline every aspect of their LOTO program and gain greater visibility. And, it all contributes to safer workplaces in the end.
A procedure about how to isolate a piece of equipment step by step is entered into the cloud, along with any pictures of the specific energy isolation points or parts to identify when locking out the machinery. The system operator can then take his or her iPhone or iPad and the radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag-reader, go to that piece of equipment, tap through each isolation point (or scan tags with an RFID reader), and record all the necessary information as he or she is guided through each step.
Scheduling and completing the LOTO procedures digitally can ensure the work is done properly and on time, and it can give managers an accurate view of equipment downtime and what equipment is currently offline. Digitizing such work can save much time for organizations that go through lockout/tagout processes on a regular basis.
Make Your Safety System Foolproof
"The Field ID program makes the lockout/tagout process foolproof," said Buddy Manring, safety manager for PowerSouth Energy Cooperative. "PowerSouth began using tablets and cloud-based safety software for inspections and audits, and expanded its digitized safety system to include other safety procedures this year.
"Once we put everything in the system and we've got our radio frequency identification tags applied, it's going to be foolproof. We can go back and identify deviations from the written program because the software actually timestamps when each of the assets would have been scanned and who scanned it. With the use of the radio frequency identification tags, the software won't let an employee skip a step or leave a step in the process out."
When your crew needs to take a substation offline, paper trails for switching procedures are one more example of a paper-based process that can be digitized to eliminate inefficiency and delays.
First, before a crew can de-energize a line or piece of equipment and begin work, they must request and be issued a switching order. The employee in charge at the work site calls the energy control center and requests a switching order. Energy control verbally issues the switching order to that employee. The employee in charge then repeats the switching order back to energy control. Once energy control verifies the switching order that was repeated back is correct, they inform the employee in charge to perform the switching, apply tags and begin work.
Technology eliminates inefficiencies involved in this process and guides your worker through the procedure. With Field ID, energy control could issue a switching order in the cloud, and the employee in charge at the worksite would be able to open the switching order with their iPhone or iPad and have a documented switching order. The radio frequency tags would allow the employee in charge to scan each tag attached to the switch handle and verify they are operating the correct switch. This can save much time and reduce misunderstandings that could be caused with verbal communication.
All the benefits that come from improved productivity, traceability, minimizing human error and inefficiency ultimately leads to improved safety.
"I can see it saving us an exponential amount of time, and I can see the safety factor being increased tenfold," Manring said.
And that's priceless.
About the author: Alina Libkind is a social media and communications coordinator at Field ID, a provider of cloud-based safety and inspection software for the Web, Apple iOS and Google Android. For more information about Field ID, please go to http://www.fieldid.com/.