Managing Evolving Demands of EHS Compliance
Even before the pandemic, EHS regulations and compliance have continually evolved. Having a tool that manages compliance throughout the company is essential to maintaining a company culture of safety. Today we speak with Betsy Cottle for a look into a robust EHS compliance software – EHSdesk.
Host – Steven Maggi: Environmental compliance is essential in today’s world – no question about it – but the big question is “How do you do it efficiently?” Our guest today is going to tell us exactly how. We have Betsy Cottle on the line. She is a Program Director for Epsilon Systems Solutions Inc. Betsy, it’s so great to have you here. You’ve kind of dedicated your life to this, haven’t you?
Betsy Cottle: Yes, I have. It’s been the bulk of my career.
Steven: Yeah, and you’ve been in the business for 33 years as an IT professional?
Betsy: Yes, that’s true, and most of it dedicated to environment health and safety software.
Steven: And the amount of change you’ve seen in that period of time is incredible, and when you talk about environmental compliance, it’s always been important, but technology at least has helped us keep up with all the changes and so forth. This has been really important with the changes we’ve seen.
Betsy: Back in the 90s and early 2000s, it was rare to find a company that actually had software to manage this data, so we always felt like we were definitely ahead of the curve. But flash forward to today and it’s much more prevalent in our society that this is just embedded in the culture – that you need to care dearly about the environment and about the safety of your workers.
Steven: And we as a society won’t accept misses anymore, right? I mean, people really want that compliance that’s right on the mark and as the right requirements get even tighter – even more from an enforcement point of view – you’ve got to be doing the right thing.
Betsy: You have to. There’re just no ifs, ands or buts anymore in this day and age. How you go about doing it, that’s the tricky part. It’s actually fairly difficult for many companies to meet the strict regulations, so that’s where software comes in to help you try to meet those goals.
Steven: We’re going to talk about a great piece of software today, but before we get into it, I had one other question for you. And that is – when we do these types of things, we try to learn a little about people, and one of the things I learned about you which is so interesting is that you are a singer and a piano player. I think most of us here, people that are working with IT and particularly as many years as you have, they can’t imagine that. How do you balance both sides of the brain with that?
Betsy: I think there’s been studies done that many artists excel in math, and there’s just some sort of symmetry there between music and math and logic – which is really the basis for programming – so it’s really not that strange to think that someone who is by trade a programmer would also be good in the arts, but it is a good healthy division of the two sides of the brain – to keep the creative juices flowing with the artistic side, but also keep the more logic-oriented side going with the programming.
Steven: Well, let’s get into that a little. A program called EHSdesk, and I’m really fascinated by this because – and first of all it’s been around since 1999, which is a long time – but it was originally developed as a Windows application, a network application. Talk about the transition from then to today.
Betsy: Yes, so back in the day, back in the 90s, everything was on Windows of course; I mean, Windows is still the operating system, but I think today in 2020, one would find it very strange to have a Windows-based system. It used to be that you had a piece of software that was installed on your C: drive, right on your desktop. And that software would let you access the database that was typically in the network. At the time, it was really a very large team of people who developed the software, sort of responding to the issues of the day and trying to help companies be in compliance. Over time, it became clear that the Internet of course was the wave of the future, and now people think it’s funny to even think that, but of course it was all new at one point.
Steven: Well, mobile access is so important now too, right, because mobile devices have become a big part of the way we do work.
Betsy: It is a huge part of how we do work, but there’s still a ways to go I would say in the corporate world with regard to mobile devices, because there’s such strict rules around the security and it’s not always evident that someone’s mobile device is secure. So, that’s a big struggle that many companies have with allowing their workers to actually use phones, use tablets out in the field or in the shop to ensure that they’re secure, because just your personal mobile device, that wouldn’t be good enough for instance.
Steven: Right, and is that one of the things where EHSdesk – which is customized – that’s a big part of when you go to work with the company and so forth, exactly who is going to use it and how? There are all those issues you just brought up.
Betsy: Right, it’s so incredibly important for any software – EHSdesk included – that there is a consistency across the different facilities within the company, and across the different people that perform all the roles, because people move around, people change jobs, and it’s really critical that you don’t have to retrain someone every time they switch a position or switch a location. It’s all about being consistent and easy to use, so that you can keep that training burden down and once you’ve sort of learned one thing, then you can easily adapt to the next and/or go to a different location and easily adapt, so that’s kind of a critical component.
Steven: I’ve been looking at your client list and it’s quite impressive. I don’t know how detailed you want to get with exactly who they are. All I can say is they are some of the biggest names you’ve ever seen in industries where safety is top priority – I guess everywhere it’s paramount – but particularly in here, it’s absolutely important. Does EHSdesk work for some of the smaller-type companies too, or is it really just aimed at these large behemoths?
Betsy: Well, it was developed for these large behemoths, but it’s easily scalable down to the smallest company. It’s definitely in the software world easier to go from designed to work across a multinational corporation in multiple languages, multiple countries, down to just one facility uses it with a handful of users. It’s very difficult to go the other way. If the software was designed for just a few people, a few locations and then you try to scale it up, that’s nearly impossible, but because we had this advantage of having our subject matter expertise come from such large multinational corporations, that’s allowed us to really make it scalable and flexible and easy to scale down.
Steven: The product itself, I guess the key word as I see through your literature is “efficiency”, and that’s really kind of the idea with this, because this can take up so much time. It’s very important. You want to make it at least as efficient as possible, and I would imagine that’s probably concern number one for anybody thinking of adapting this to their situation.
Betsy: Well, in the compliance world, it’s really all about mining your data, gathering your data, and analyzing it and looking at it for trends to ensure that at a minimum you are complying. But, more typically these days is that people set goals, metrics, and you really can’t perform metrics against data that’s not managed, that’s not consistent. So, the idea of software is to have a really centralized, easy to use, safe, secure backed up place that you can gather this data. We’ve designed in as many efficiencies as we can where, for instance, any piece of data that’s central to many different functions is only ever there once, which is not something you would get, for instance, if there were five different spreadsheets tracking this kind of data versus software where you can ensure that there is one central set of data. That alone gets you efficiency, but also easy-to-use pages. If we know the role of the person is a person that’s infrequently using the software, then we will make sort of a special quick form for them to make it easy to get their data input in versus perhaps a safety professional who was interested in a much more detailed layer of data.
Steven: That seems to make a lot of sense, because I think one of the things you don’t want to do is scare people off with software. Some people just are naturally scared of anything in the IT world. They know their job and so forth, but when it comes to new stuff – I don’t want to learn that, I don’t want to make a mistake – so if you can put something together, I guess user-friendly is really important to be able to get people comfortable with it.
Betsy: Absolutely, and really great training materials. We pride ourselves on our very nice role-based user guides. I think back in the day, the software documentation and user guide was something that people avoided, but we’ve worked really hard to make it so that it’s a really efficient training tool so that a brand-new user can come on and take advantage of those training guides, which are catered to the role that they are going to perform in the system – not just screen by screen – and that enables quicker startup and more efficient use of the system.
Steven: The biggest concern for any organization is going to be twofold: one has to be “Is our performance going to improve and can you show us how it’s improved?” and then secondly, and maybe the most important thing, “Ultimately, does this save us money or cost us more?”.
Betsy: Right, so in the end, of course, the goal is worker safety and environmental protection. But, if you peel that back one layer, you can’t ensure worker safety and environmental protection unless you’ve done the work to gather the data to ensure that you’re within permit limits or that your injury rates are going down, because you’ve put in proactive programs to fix the issues that you identified, but you have to identify the issues first in order to do those proactive programs. So, it’s really all about tracking and trending and making sure that if you are a company with many facilities, many people, many users, that you have a way to look across your whole enterprise – so that it’s not just one facility in Arkansas doing a really great job, but the lessons can be learned by the facility in Connecticut – because it’s all in the same system and somebody at the oversight level can look across the whole domain and find trends.
Steven: You know, when you go to customize these programs for particular companies and so forth, what is kind of the process there? I imagine you kind of have to dig deep to really understand where you can make this do all those things you just talked about – make them save money, make them easy to use.
Betsy: Well, that is quite a challenge and at the heart of it is you have to garner what is required and sort of draw a circle around the pieces that everyone would want, everyone would need – they’d meet the regulations, they’re a benefit to all – and then isolate out the individual requests that perhaps are a little bit of a one-off. Then, you just need to do a really solid job with the programming so that you’re never hard coding these rules and you are always making sure that for the client that wants that extra thing, they see that extra thing. But, for everybody else, they don’t see that extra thing because they don’t need it or want it. So, it’s always a balance between what’s required, what’s optional, what everyone would want, and what only certain people and certain countries, for instance, might only want to see. There are definitely a lot of extra US-based regulations that perhaps the user in another country wouldn’t care to know about.
Steven: I guess people just simply have to work on whatever budget they come with, because it’s one of those things. I imagine you could put together a Cadillac-type program that has everything you could ever imagine if that’s what you want to do?
Betsy: If that’s what you want to do and that’s what you have the money to do, that’s great, but you always need to bear in mind the infrequent user, like I was mentioning. There’s got to be levels. There has to be sort of an easy-to-use page, a more involved page, and then the ultimate page that somebody who really wants every bell and whistle. It has to be readily set up by an admin so that there can be different layers of users. I’m not sure that everybody pays attention to that enough in the software development world, and its key because you’re just not going to get that infrequent user who, as you said, is a little scared and just really only wants to know about four or five things. You’re just not going to lure them in to use the software if they have to deal with 50 things. But then there’s the person who wants the 50 things, so yeah, it’s always a balance.
Steven: And one of the things you talk about a lot at EHSdesk is these various modules, and I want you to go through some of them if you would? First of all, the safety modules, and there’s a few there that are just set and really can go to affect almost anybody that has these issues.
Betsy: Yes, the safety modules really tie almost directly to the regulations and they sort of cover a bunch of different subject matter expertises. There’s a few that revolve around equipment, like machinery, and that’s ensuring that you’ve done a detailed assessment to make sure that the machine is guarded properly and that there’s no way the operator’s fingers or limbs or anything else can get anywhere near the mechanics of the machine. A lock out/tag out – that’s when you’re going to shut down or start up the equipment, you have to make sure that you’re doing that safely. There is PIV, which is a powered industrial vehicles module – and anybody who’s in the manufacturing world knows there’s all sorts of little buggies and forklifts driving around – so that module is aimed at making sure that you are detailing how many of those vehicles you have, who’s driving them, who’s allowed to be driving them. There’s something called “confined space” and that’s to do with spaces that are not normally designed for human occupancy but that humans have to go into occasionally, for instance to clean. You have to make sure you address the hazards there, so that would be the safety portion.
Steven: Then there’s the management systems modules, which take a different take, but yet everybody I know in things from risk assessment to corrective action requests and all of these kinds of things, that’s real important as well and that’s seen by maybe a different, possibly a different group of people.
Betsy: Right, so we call them “management systems” because they are more along the lines of oversight, so in the safety world, you know, it’s something very specific that you are detailing. In the management systems modules, it’s things that occur that could occur in the office environment or they could occur out in the field or on the shop floor. For instance, it’s your audit program, really any company is going to have an audit program where they go through and they have various checklists and then they have findings and they issue corrective actions, so that’s sort of a typical example. As you mentioned “risk assessment” – that’s just a matter of going through and identifying “what are the hazards present?” and “what are you going to do to control those hazards and abate the risks?”. Incident tracking – that’s any sort of incident that comes up like an injury or a near miss or a spill. So, you have to document in detail all of that. So, some of the management systems modules are directly related to regulations like, for instance, the incidents would have to do with OSHA injury tracking, of course, but then others are just important pieces of anybody’s environment health and safety program – to ensure that they have identified the risks and that they are auditing on a regular basis and they’re correcting any issues.
Steven: And then finally, we’ve got the environment modules – things like waste tracker and regulation manager and so forth, and that’s another thing that goes directly to those regulations that you are dealing with.
Betsy: Yes, definitely directly to the regulations. So, any fairly large operation or even a small one is going to have emissions to the air, discharges of wastewater to the discharge points, hazardous waste, industrial waste, electronic waste. There is also a section on painting – many companies get involved in paint spray operations and those emissions to the air are very tightly controlled and permitted, usually by the state. And then there’s a section on fuel-burning, anybody who is burning a boiler, which is most companies. Believe it or not, you have to keep track of those emissions to the air and those are also tightly controlled by permits with the state. All of these things have to be measured, tracked, and many have to be directly reported to a governing agency, so it really is critical that you keep track of that data.
Steven: Well finally, you’ve got this great interface and we’re going to tell people how to get more information on EHSdesk at the end of the show, but I do want to mention one that came up that kind of just attracted my attention, and that’s dealing with viruses, which of course in this day and age now is just so essential. Has there been a lot of interest in this? I guess the timing of this is just ideal.
Betsy: Right, it’s actually brand-new. We’ve just released it, so it’s coming soon to the company near you. But it’s obviously what’s going on in the world and so we thought we would take advantage of the fact that we really already have the ability to track similar data and just mold it into what we can see is going on with Covid. So, it allows you to document anyone that has been diagnosed with Covid and gotten ill and is symptomatic, so that would be treated similar to a workplace injury. Then, it allows you to track all of your employees who have been tested – either negative or positive for Covid and are asymptomatic – so it’s not an actual illness, but it’s a test. And then the last piece is that it gives you some flexibility to document your daily checklist. Most companies that I know are having their employees answer a series of questions every day about whether they have a temperature, whether they’ve been near someone with Covid etc. So, this just allows you to detail those answers in a database and do some tracking and trending.
Steven: You know, you mentioned flexibility, and I’m thinking that’s really the value of this kind of software – is you have the flexibility if something comes up like this and nobody could’ve ever envisioned, you can react to it fairly quickly.
Betsy: Yes, we have the developing staff in-house so if we see a need that the software is not meeting, we can fairly quickly react and get that out to market.
Steven: Well Betsy, it’s been really a pleasure to talk with you, but I have to before we leave want to ask you, you’ve been doing this for a long time, you’re on the cutting edge of it. We look down the road 5 to 10 years, what is the vision you see for these types of programs?
Betsy: I think there will always be a need for these types of programs even if, let’s say, perhaps some of the regulations get walked back. I think as we discussed in the beginning, this is embedded in the culture and it’s just an expectation of an employee. They expect that they are going to be working in a safe environment and that their company is protecting the environment, that they are not becoming a polluter, so I see even more companies migrating toward software. I think that many companies are still doing it the old way, if you can believe it – Word documents, Excel spreadsheets – and I think it’s just going to become apparent to all that a portal is the way to go. I mean, that’s how we manage all of our day-to-day data in life, even having a patient portal for your medical information. I’ve seen software like EHSdesk that’s portal-like, where all you need is a browser to get to it. I think that’s the wave of the future and, believe it or not, there’s not as many companies as you would think that are there yet. And of course, mobile – everything is going to be pushing more and more to the tablets and the phones – we can see that as a trend.
Steven: 21st-century answers to 21st-century problems. Betsy Cottle, thank you so much for being with us. I really enjoyed chatting with you today.
Betsy: Thanks for having me.