Finding extraordinary engineers for exceptional clients

Putting real-time safety into action

October 3rd, 2013

The way companies do business in a whole raft of industries is being revolutionised through a combination of cloud computing, mobile technology and the web. As part of this shift, the digitisation of safety processes is something that is happening right now and in the power industry, writes Alina Libkind.

An example of one of Field-ID's iPad safety applications
An example of one of Field-ID's iPad safety applications

A mix of cloud computing, mobile technology and the internet is revolutionising the way companies do business in many industries. As part of this shift, the digitisation of safety processes is something that is happening right now. As you read this, thousands of safety professionals may be performing work digitally, and work that used to take three or four days now takes only an hour or two.

If this sounds like science fiction to you, it is time for a look at putting 'real-time' results into your safety processes.

Being able to record and access information digitally provides you with real-time data and complete traceability. At this moment, do you know which tools in use by crews are in good working order and which may need service or replacement? Are your workers using proper PPE? Are they following proper work procedures? Do they have the safety resources they need on site?


The freedom of real-time, anywhere/anytime access to safety information lets you answer these questions within a few swipes on your tablet or smartphone's screen.

From fall protection and sling inspections to lockout/tagout and switching procedures, today's technology is changing the safety game across many industries. It revolutionises ways to manage safety and compliance, providing new opportunities for professionals in the utilities sector.

Imagine yourself in the safety manager's shoes going out to a substation to conduct a field audit. You take your iPad, tap a few spots on the screen and go through the audit checklist. All the necessary PPE is being utilised, the protective fence is in place - Pass.

Next you see that there is no safety sign in place between the energised part of the high-voltage equipment and the crew member performing the work - Fail. You tap a few notes, take a photopgraph to attach to your audit and move on to finding a safety sign to solve the problem immediately. As soon as you click 'Save' your supervisor, from an office miles away, can review the audit results. You spend more of your time on what matters most, instead of unnecessary paperwork. Your supervisor gets results in real-time.

Without smartphones and cloud-based software, this process could have taken days to complete. But this example is not a hypothetical scenario of the future. Digital safety management is becoming a new way of doing things for more and more utilities, and it can take place in your power plants and facilities today.

Paper-based processes are complicated because of the inherent manual work involved. Conducted digitally, issues can be tackled with a few swipes on your tablet. Your actions instantaneously sync to the secure cloud, where other designated team members can access them and take necessary action.

Real-time versus yesterday

Imagine what it was like a decade ago when you would go out to the field to conduct a safety inspection with a pen and clipboard. You would record a deficiency on a piece of equipment by describing it in your own words and hoping a person responsible for performing the corrective action on it would understand everything you meant. This was the only option available. And forget capturing visual information.

The first phones with built-in cameras such as Nokia 7650 and the Sanyo SPC-5300 were introduced in 2002. Their 176x208 pixel display would give you a hard time recording pictures, let alone detailed safety notes. Expensive rugged devices were only affordable to larger companies. After conducting an inspection or audit, it could take a half a day to get everything entered into spreadsheets, or even longer, if you were part of a larger organisation.

Interestingly, back then, global mobile subscriptions were around 1.3 billion in 2003 and the amount of digital information created and shared globally was an insignificant fraction of one zettabyte. Fast forward to today, and global mobile subscriptions have soared to more than 6.8 billion in 2013, according to the International Telecommunication Unit , which is almost as many subscriptions as people in the world. The amount of digital information the world now creates equals to roughly four zetabytes - four billion times of what you can fit on a brand new hard drive.

And it is not surprising. Mobile devices and real-time information have become part of our personal and professional lives. Business users continue to migrate to cloud-based services because they are more agile, powerful, scalable and economical than on-site solutions. The cloud helps businesses scale and compete at a higher level without the hassle of IT investments.

About 57 per cent of companies identified scalability as the most important driver for cloud adoption, as noted by the 2012 Future of Cloud Survey. And according to Cloudability, more and more companies are investing in cloud providers - about 86 per cent report using multiple cloud services in business.

Industrial safety professionals and people responsible for equipment inspections are rapidly gravitating toward solutions combining the power of cloud-based computing and mobile applications.

Embracing the change

Digitising safety processes results in new opportunities for safety professionals, and, as with any innovation, it also brings new considerations for businesses. Going beyond eliminating paper from safety work may add a new level of responsibility because professionals have to manage technology itself. Digitising safety opens the door to data mining, analysis, discovering and comparing trends over time, and this is a new skill in itself.

A shift to using smartphones and tablets on a job requires safety professionals to deal with ways to bring those devices in, and bring your own device (BYOD) programmes are gaining the attention of business leaders faster than ever before. According to research company Gartner, by 2017 half of all employers will require employees to supply their own devices for work purposes. One popular BYOD approach involves subsidising the mobile device service plan for each employee. For safety professionals, a BYOD programme can not only remove the need to purchase expensive rugged devices but also allows all the benefits that come with a simple yet rich user experience of mobile devices.

With smartphones or tablets, workers can make and view images in the field, create and share safety documents and inspection reports, all within the same application.

Conducting full safety or compliance facility and job site audits can involve evaluating everything from PPE and fire safety, to machinery and lockout/tagout procedures, to worker training, certifications and more. Using smartphones, tablets and the web to collect data in the field, you can capture visual documentation, assign corrective or preventive actions, add necessary notes and details and ensure every aspect of an audit is complete.

Training management is another important process for safety managers today as workers with different roles and responsibilities require unique training, certifications or licenses. Keeping track of who needs additional training or re-certification and when it needs to be completed can easily become overwhelming without the right tools. Digitising this process, a safety manager can schedule and automate notifications for any re-certifications needed for the employees and track everything from within one system.

Lockout/tagout (LOTO) is one of the more recent safety processes to go digital. According to OSHA, "compliance with the lockout/tagout standard prevents an estimated 120 fatalities and 50,000 injuries each year." However it remains one of the most frequently cited safety violations today. Due to the vast differences between equipment types, how they need to be locked out, and the knowledge required to work on or service each unique machine, managing LOTO safety can be a complex process with many things that can be easily missed or go unnoticed with severe consequences.

Some complications cannot be removed, but technology can empower companies to streamline every part of their LOTO programme and gain greater visibility, contributing to safer workplaces in the end.

First, a procedure on how to isolate a piece of equipment step by step is entered into cloud. Any pictures of the specific energy isolation points or parts to identify when locking out the machinery are also attached. Equipped with an iPhone or iPad and the RFID tag-reader, the system operator goes out to that piece of equipment and taps through each isolation point or scans tags with an RFID reader.

All the necessary information is recorded 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 also give managers an accurate view of equipment downtime and what equipment is currently off line.

Because these procedures are conducted daily, digitising such work can save organisations huge amounts of time. All the data collected become a valuable resource on who completed the procedure, when it was started and finished. And if an OSHA inspector visits a facility, the safety manager can pull a history of the lockout procedures for each piece of equipment in question with a minute's notice.

Making it real in power generation

While safety in power generation has much in common with other industries, managers are finding technology has become so customisable that it serves their unique needs as well.

Take Merrill Davis, safety representative for PowerSouth Energy Cooperative. Digitising safety processes allowed him and his crew to streamline safety inspections and automate reporting, as well as be able to take necessary action immediately.

"Before, you had to spend a morning tackling your report that you spent all day yesterday doing in the field, and then having to convey that information to everyone else in ways that they could understand. Now with Field ID we can go through our checklists, our reports, we can attach photos, we can give recommendations, we can describe deficiencies - all right there, in the field. Before I even get back to the office, there's a report that can be generated."

A digital solution for lockout/tagout minimises safety risks associated with human error. Since the software timestamps when each of the assets would have been scanned and who scanned it, there is an opportunity to go back and identify deviations from the LOTO procedure.

Combined with the RFID tags, it will not let an employee skip a step or leave a step in the process out. "The Field ID programme makes the lockout/tagout process foolproof," says 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.

Another example of a paper-based process that can be digitised to eliminate inefficiency and delays is switching procedures required when your crew needs to take a substation off line.

Before a crew can de-energise 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 has to call the Energy Control centre and requests a switching order. Energy Control verbally issues the switching order to that employee who 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 crew member through the procedure. With Field ID, energy control could issue a switching order in the cloud, the employee in charge at the worksite would be able to open the switching order with their iPhone or iPad and have a switching order documented. The RFID technology would allow that employee to scan each tag attached to the switch handle and verify they are operating the correct switch. This can reduce misunderstandings that could be caused with verbal communication, thus saving a lot of time and improving safety.

Improved safety and compliance

Mobile computing, combined with functionality of RFID and barcodes, makes scanning equipment, facility locations or employee badges a matter of seconds.

All data instantaneously sync with the cloud for later retrieval, analysis or reports. An inspector or compliance officer can easily locate and tap through virtually any inspection checklist or safety status. Managing corrective actions becomes automated. Alerts and notifications help ensure nothing falls through the cracks, or that failed or urgent items are identified and addressed quickly. Referencing safety information or data in the field is fast and easy. And tracking times and locations of safety-related events can become simple with the GPS functionality built in today's devices.

All these benefits save companies an exponential amount of time and ultimately lead to improved safety. And that is priceless.

Alina Libkind is the social media and communications coordinator at Field ID, a leading provider of cloud-based safety and inspection software for the web, Apple iOS and Google Android. For more information, visit

More Power Engineering International Issue Articles
Power Engineering International Archives
View Power Generation Articles on
Follow us: