The evolution of information and communication technologies (ICT) has led to the development of more and more online interactive tools (‘e-tools’), and the occupational safety and health (OSH) sector is no stranger to this trend. Many OSH actors have already shown an interest in these new technologies and the possibilities that they offer, and, over recent years, many OSH e-tools have been developed. The need for a simple and easy way to comply with legislation and to foster a safety and health culture has been a significant driver in their development — especially among micro and small enterprises (MSEs).
What is an e-tool?
An e-tool is a piece of software that can run on the Internet, on a computer or on a phone, tablet or any other electronic device. The ‘e’ — as in ‘electronic’ — differentiates these tools from traditional paper-based tools or publications.
E-tools are ‘interactive’. They require some input of information by the user, whether in the form of knowledge (e.g. through completion of a checkbox or data field) or measurement of the environment (e.g. smartphone measurement of noise or light levels). Based on this input, the tool produces tailored information for the user (e.g. by guiding the user through a decision-making process). In this sense, an ‘e-tool’ is different from a static or passive instrument such as a traditional factsheet, checklist or e-guide.
OSH e-tools should provide support and/or resources to organisations (particularly MSEs, as often these are the companies that need these tools most) to help them manage occupational risks. However, e-tools can be developed for a wide range of purposes, which can be very general and applicable to a diverse audience or much more specific and tailored. For example:
- to help implement OSH legislation (main OSH actor to fulfil their legal obligations);
- to help promote a culture of prevention (for increasing awareness, for information purposes);
- for training purposes (e.g. e-learning).
The benefits of e-tools
For organisations or individual users, OSH e-tools:
- empower MSEs, allowing in-house OSH risk prevention;
- facilitate business (data in electronic form can be more easily communicated and analysed than in paper);
- help to identify hazards and risks in the workplace;
- facilitate risk assessment process;
- illustrate potential solutions to OSH problems;
- support the implementation of preventive measures in the workplace;
- are easy to use, interactive and easy to access.
Unlike with paper-based tools, it is possible to monitor the use of an e-tool. You can also get feedback on an e-tool’s effectiveness and functionality. Moreover, the outputs of e-tools (e.g. statistics) can be used as project indicators and provide anonymous data to monitor OSH policy performance.
For intermediaries and policy-makers, e-tools can act as awareness-raising instruments (e.g. when used in the context of a campaign) and can mobilise actors (e.g. social partners, inspectorates).
Finally, e-tools are attractive to young people (workers, students), and, through online diffusion and dissemination (Internet and social media), can reach a very diverse audience.
Challenges associated with e-tools
There are a variety of factors that need to be considered when developing an e-tool:
- What technology is required? Hosting, multiple devices and operating systems, for example, all need to be considered.
- What are the development and maintenance costs? Development costs of e-tools are generally low compared with paper-based tools (i.e. there are no printing, distribution or storage costs). However, as the tool is developed, new functionalities (e.g. greater interactivity) become apparent and developing these will increase cost and development time. There are also costs associated with maintaining and updating the e-tool.
- Will the tool be an Internet-based application or a mobile application? Some e-tools can ‘stand-alone’ on a phone and do not require an Internet connection, while others take the form of a responsive website, which does require an Internet connection. It is easier to evaluate the success of responsive websites than mobile applications, but the user may not always have an Internet connection. When deciding which of these approaches to take, the user is the primary consideration.
- Who owns the property rights? Uncertainty and difficulties often arise in this area.
- Have all copyright issues (e.g. software, content, photos) been cleared? Copyright on paper publications is not the same as copyright on e-tools, and often lawyers have to be consulted to help clarify these issues.
Although e-tools can be expensive to maintain and to keep updated, by sharing knowledge and common approaches, costs can be minimised.
EU-OSHA and e-tools
EU-OSHA believes that OSH e-tools play a vital role in helping make our workplaces safer and healthier. Therefore, it is committed to stimulating the development of new OSH e-tools and to supporting, promoting and disseminating existing e-tools. EU-OSHA focuses on ‘not for profit’ or ‘non-commercial’ OSH e-tools or those that are free for the end user.
EU-OSHA gets involved in OSH e-tool development by:
- bringing together stakeholders (developers, promoters, experts, users) to discuss needs and challenges;
- sharing information and knowledge about how to develop e-tools;
- exchanging good practice in relation to e-tool development;
- identifying challenges in e-tool development;
- supporting annual meetings;
- disseminating information on how to make tools transferable.
EU-OSHA supports existing tools by:
- promoting e-tools through OSHwiki articles;
- encouraging the sharing, adoption and adaptation of existing tools by other institutions, organisations and Member States;
- acting as a cross-promotion platform (i.e. tools are included/promoted in other projects or campaigns).