A Cure for Healthy Computing

Like Picking a Good Doctor, Selecting the Right Environmental Software Takes Work

Did you ever notice that advertisements for environmental, health and safety (EH&S) software products sound like commercials for pain relief?

Every product seems to be the leading solution that alleviates the burden, meets your unique requirements, comes from a trusted provider that knows exactly why you hurt and how to fix it, and, of course, is easy to use. Isn’t that what everyone wants when they purchase an information management system? But did you read the fine print? Note: implementing this system may cause nausea, loss of sleep, or the occasional shutdown of a vital system.

A Specialist for Every Problem
All systems have certain characteristics in common – whether you’re talking about the human body and its internal systems or a company and its EH&S information systems. Just like the body, the EH&S software industry has many parts and there is a specialist for each part. We have neurology (corporate EH&S management), pulmonary (clean air compliance), gastroenterology (waste tracking), urology (water systems), etc. Some specialties overlap (like waste often produces air pollution – oops, pardon me).

It’s complicated – so the world is full of specialists to address your every complaint. The problem is that every specialist sees the world from the perspective of his or her own specialty. For example, mention that your head hurts to a neurologist, a psychiatrist and an optometrist and you're likely to get three different preliminary diagnoses. You’ll get similar results if you contact a software developer who offers an environmental management system (ISO 14001), another who specializes in regulatory compliance data management and a third who views environmental compliance as a component of overall business performance. While each of these vendors offers a product that the consumer might describe as a corporate environmental information management solution, these products have different objectives and meet very different needs. Ultimately, only one is likely to be the right solution for your particular problem.

Say you want it all. A doctor who treats the whole body and all patients – young and old – is a general practitioner (GP). An EH&S management information system (EMIS) is like a GP; it addresses the whole of EH&S information management, providing the most common functions needed by most companies. And, as with a GP, you’ll still probably need a specialist for some things.

Healthy Living
Some people are health-conscious – they exercise, eat lots of organic fruits and veggies and practice preventive healthcare. Likewise, some companies are eco-conscious – they have pollution-prevention programs, are proactive in green initiatives like energy conservation and sustainability, and they institute behavioral safety and healthy-living programs. A company's culture reflects its commitment to protecting human health and the environment.

But we all know that talk and action are two different things. In reality, U.S. companies that are truly eco-conscious are about as common as Americans who are consistently health-conscious. We like to think that we are a nation preoccupied with healthy living and a concern for the environment. But the truth is we are a nation of consumption. By contrast, Europeans tend to be more health-conscious and European Union companies are more likely to adopt voluntary environmental performance initiatives.

The U.S. company that is considering software for sustainability or environmental performance metrics would do well to consider whether the company’s EH&S program is characterized more by a culture of eco-consciousness or the more common – a pragmatic desire to comply.

Cause and Effect
Regulatory compliance still rules in the U.S. Whether you’re talking about healthy living or environmental protection, governmental regulations continue to be the main line of defense to protect us from ourselves. Every pain pill has to satisfy the Food and Drug Administration, every doctor has to be approved by the medical licensing board, and every company has to comply with Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. We all want to do what's best for the environment and the health and safety of our workers, but it is more often laws and regulations that push us from talk into action. The U.S. demand for EH&S software responds more to new laws and regulations than anything else.

How we choose to meet those requirements is a more complex subject involving a number of factors such as cost and feasibility. A medical treatment that isn’t approved by the major medical insurance companies is not likely to be widely accepted. Likewise, a major software system that represents a significant investment but doesn't have the support of a company's IT department is going to be more difficult to sell to management. This is one reason why so many EH&S software products are highly specialized – designed to be implemented on a single machine or Web-based system and to be accessible only by the EH&S staff (often bypassing the need for IT department approval).

The trend toward enterprise-wide solutions is making it more difficult for an EH&S department to operate autonomously. This has opened the door for general business software companies, like Microsoft and IBM, to invest in environmental software development. Given that many mainstream IT professionals have been blissfully unaware that EH&S software even exists, this kind of interest from software superpowers promises to add a measure of validation to the EH&S software industry. This could pave the way for more integrated solutions.

In the meantime, your choice of the right EH&S software package should consider the extent to which it is going to involve your IT department and their degree of EH&S enlightenment.

The Miracle Cure
We are also a nation infatuated with technology and frequently under the spell of some clever advertising campaign or marketing fad. What if you could take a pill and feel better? Don't you owe it to yourself to see your doctor to find out if this pill might be right for you? And, how can you manage your chemical inventory without implementing a global positioning satellite (GPS) system using a sensor network to monitor container location and environmental conditions tied to a wireless network of mobile devices all communicating via the Internet? Hmm … maybe I do need that.

As technology evolves, so does our terminology – sometimes as a matter of necessity and sometimes merely to impress or confuse. Why say something that people will understand when a confusing acronym can make you sound more innovative? The developers of some Web-based applications tell us that the concept of “software” is obsolete. They avoid using the term as if it were socially unacceptable. Unfortunately, a more suitable, trendy alternative doesn’t exist. What word describes the commands that tell a computer what to do (whether on the Web or not) better than software? How silly to dispose of a word without a better one to take its place.

You should learn as much as you can about a product before making your purchasing decision. It's essential to look beyond the technology, clever marketing slogans and buzzwords to figure out exactly what a particular product or service really accomplishes and how.

The Real Cure
Most of the time we deal with pain by treating the symptoms – we reach for the first pill that claims to alleviate pain and hope the pain disappears. Most companies purchase EH&S software the same way; they purchase the first product they encounter that promises to alleviate whatever pain they might be experiencing, with little research into alternatives that would better meet their needs.

It's human nature to look for a quick solution – the best EH&S software. But the best software is like the best doctor – it depends on your specific requirements. After all you wouldn’t settle for the best optometrist if you needed brain surgery.

Treating the pain doesn’t generally solve the real problem – it takes some research and often a specialist to find the right solution. As the pain gets worse, you may end up wondering if you should have done a little more checking into credentials and capabilities – maybe you could have gotten 24/7 service, a reasonable price and a pain-free guarantee.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Elizabeth Donley has been analyzing and reporting on EH&S software since 1988. Her company, Donley Technology (www.donleytech.com), publishes the EH&S Software News, the Environmental Software Directory, the Safety Software Directory, and in-depth reports such as the EH&S Management Information Systems Report. She can be reached at (804) 224-9427.

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