By: Thomas H. Welby Geoffrey S. Pope Published: September 2018

The "Digitized Checklist" as a Cost-Effective Safety Tool in Construction

For several years, there have existed auditing programs that can be used with smart phones and tablets to create checklists.  While you may not be very knowledgeable about checklists, as the same are used in industry, you’ve probably seen commercial pilots, if only in the movies, going through their pre-flight checklists (which is just one example).

Checklists, in fact, have long been used in many industries, but over the past few years, software developers have  digitized the old-fashioned paper checklist, and put it on subscribers’ smart phones and tablets.  From there, the digitized checklist can be accessed and used (together with the digital camera that nearly every smart phone and tablet now has).  Employees can now more easily use checklists to audit information of almost any kind, and  the checklists can be modified and updated more conveniently, and reliably, than the paper forms we used to use.  Once completed, the audits, together with photographs taken with the electronic device’s camera, can be delivered instantaneously, and as often as desired, to senior management at the home office (and to any other authorized recipients).

Once delivered, the audit reports are searchable electronically, and can be stored and made accessible digitally.

These programs are readily available, and a number of them can be downloaded for free (although most require a subscription, at moderate cost, at least for access to the more muscular features).

Companies are using “digitized checklist” technology for a huge, and growing, variety of applications.  To cite just a few examples, airlines use them to monitor preflight inspections and adherence to aviation regulations.  Retailers use them to curb stock losses.  Event management companies use them, to keep track of conditions and occurrences at key locations at the event site.  Hotel chains use them, to ensure that rooms are properly cleaned, and facilities well-maintained.

Until recently, many quality control, auditing, and oversight operations, in businesses of all kinds, required the dispatch of an employee from the home office, delays, expenditures for travel, lodging and meals, and reports (perhaps accompanied by photographs, developed over a period of several days at the local photo shop) to be drafted upon the auditor’s return to the home office.

Now, thanks to these relatively new programs, much of the information can be gathered onsite, audits can be performed daily (or as often as desired) and employees with cell phones or tablets can function as the “eyes” of senior management.  Reportedly, while there does exist a “learning curve,” and modest investments in training, technology and equipment are required, even adults too ancient to have grown up using smartphones can be educated to use the programs.  The latter are (as the designs mature) flexible, and readily modifiable, as the users’ needs may change.

Construction companies can use these programs to conduct safety audits, and to monitor OSHA compliance.  Whereas, historically, senior management seldom became aware of safety problems unless and until an OSHA inspection (or a serious injury) occurred, it’s now a simple, paperless, and not very time-consuming task to have a supervisor, armed with a cell phone, walk the site weekly, or even daily, and use the current checklist, to ensure that the safety rules and OSHA standards relevant to the employer’s trade are being complied with.  The results can then be instantaneously transmitted to the home office, together with high-resolution photos that show both safe practices in operation (as well as any problems).

In addition to being paperless, faster, and more efficient, the “digitized checklist” promotes accountability for purposes of auditing and supervision.

The information gathered can be used company-wide for training purposes, and to demonstrate due diligence on the employer’s part to monitor OSHA compliance, detect and correct any hazards or non-compliant conduct.  That, in turn, may help in the event of an OSHA citation to establish that the employer did not have constructive knowledge of a violative condition (which showing requires due diligence) and, in a given case, the defense to an OSHA citation, based on “unavoidable employee misconduct.”

Although, increasingly, the usefulness of the digital checklist technology for training extends beyond compliance to improved performance, in terms of OSHA compliance, the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is especially meaningful.  There exist a great number of OSHA construction standards, and while those that have particular relevance to your trade may be less numerous, OSHA’s “multi-employer doctrine” in effect makes you, as an employer, responsible for any and all violations to which your employees may be exposed.  That implies that, while, obviously OSHA’s excavation standards are more fundamental to, say, a sitework contractor than a roofing contractor, every trade has potential OSHA responsibility for any and all conditions as may exist at all places on the jobsite to which their employees have access, even if it’s not where their assigned tasks are performed.

Of OSHA’s myriad standards, many are complex, or require knowledge of equipment, activities or specialized matters that are foreign to many workers.  The abundant use of technical terms, acronyms, and jargon (both in the standards and in safety training) may also make standards all the more difficult to understand and comply with.  We often recall a study made a few years ago, in which graduate students of construction engineering at a prominent university were given the OSHA ten-hour course, but, when tested afterward, were found to have absorbed a shockingly small amount of the information.

If master’s level students struggle to “get” OSHA safety training, consider that your workforce probably includes many employees who are not college graduates and/or and whose first language is not English.  Thus, with all respect to the classroom and the toolbox talk, a purely verbal approach to safety training is of dubious efficacy.

Thanks to the coupling of photographs to the digitized checklist, however, it’s now possible — in fact, it’s easy — to take photos from your actual projects that illustrate not only hazardous conditions, but safe practices, and what is meant by key OSHA regulations.  Photos determined to be useful for training purposes can be blown up and used in the classroom, or even forwarded to what we would estimate to be the 98% of your employees who have smart phones.

Consistent with the developers’ early expectations as this technology first came to market, it has been shown to promote the performance of key tasks, on time, and done in conformity with OSHA standards (or whichever standards may be relevant to the subscriber’s business).  Information from the digitized checklist can be gathered and shared faster, more flexibly, and more economically than on paper.

As “digitized checklist” technology has matured over several years of use and has been adopted by larger numbers of companies in an expanding variety of sectors, benefits exceeding expectations have been noted.  This is particularly true in the attitude and behavior of many subscribers’ employees, and how their use of the technology is changing how they relate to management.

Generally, as employees surmount the “learning curve” and any initial discomfort they may have with this relatively new technology, they perceive a decrease in the distance between their work “in the field,” and decisions and policies decided on in the executive suite of the home office.  Not only in construction, but in the broad array of companies now using digital auditing technology, workers find themselves taking an increasingly greater role in identifying problems and issues affecting the success of the business, and in proposing solutions or improvements.

Information flowing to management is, thanks to the recent technology, more reliable, more current, and originates from a larger range of sources, then previously was the case.  Workers, in turn, feel empowered, which is a boost for employee morale, job satisfaction, and commitment.

While we have not found formal studies verifying (or contradicting) claims that the “digitized checklist” has improved safety outcomes in construction companies that are using it, such claims are likely true. 

At the very least, in addition to being paperless, faster, and more efficient, the “digitized checklist” promotes accountability, for purposes of auditing and supervision, and a culture of safety in your company.

© Welby, Brady & Greenblatt, LLP.
All Rights Reserved. By visiting this site, you agree to our Terms of Service. For more information please read our Privacy Policy Attorney Advertising