BYOD: The Challenges of Mixing Mobility and EHS

Posted by Paul Leavoy on Fri, Jan 30, 2015 @ 09:27 AM

health and safety mobile devicesFor the past few years, mobility has been the talk of the town when it comes to the future (and, indeed, present) of environment, health and safety (EHS) management. The EHS software conversation used to be centered on the need to move from paper-based systems to streamlined, integrated EHS management software. For example, paper incident records—even if they contain accurate information—wind up in file cabinets and collect dust, while electronic records enable us to use historical information to trend, analyze and act on incident data.

Now the ante has been upped, and instead of asking an employee or health and safety manager to log the details of an incident in an EHS software platform sometimes hours or days after it has occurred, new capabilities are inviting businesses to call upon frontline workers to capture incident details on mobile devices, on the fly.

Above and beyond incidents, mobile tools are enabling us to better conduct audits and record potentially problematic safety-related behaviors, all through the use of handheld devices. The opportunities and issues presented by this trend are numerous and varied, but here let’s focus on one potentially complicated facet of the mobility conversation: BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device, as it is known.

The Value of 'One' Mobile Device

First, what’s wonderful about the move to mobility is that once-complex EHS software is capitalizing on the simplicity afforded (and ultimately demanded) by mobile devices. In the mobile world, UI is paramount, and EHS software developers know that if end users are asked to record incident, audit, and other EHS-related details on the field and in real time, the UI needs to be highly user-friendly, simple, and straightforward. Also, mobile tools need to be effortlessly cross-platform (e.g. usable seamlessly across Android and Mac operating systems), and able to communicate with existing enterprise EHS software.

In the face of this phenomenon, many manufacturers attempting to capitalize on mobile developments in order to improve EHS performance have asked employees to install and use mobile EHS applications on their own smartphones. While some workplaces might use company-sanctioned tablets or other shared devices, others call on employees to use their own devices for efficiency, accessibility, and simplicity, hence the BYOD phenomenon (let it be noted, in many cases this trend applies as appropriately outside of EHS circles as it does within). However, employers walk an increasingly delicate tightrope as they attempt to straddle the line between personal and professional lives.

This conversation reminds me of a fairly commonplace situation that emerged in the first decade of the mid-to-late 2000s: the professional that carried two or sometimes three mobile devices. One phone for personal use, one for work, and often yet another, perhaps for that freelancing gig or second job, or for a direct line to the executive team.

No longer is this the case. In the name of efficiency, streamlining and simplicity, people don’t want to have to manage or carry around multiple devices. Further, look at how the lightweight tablet in many cases is displacing the comparatively cumbersome laptop. People don’t want to have to saddle more bulk on their forms, and employers want to make it as easy and effortless as possible for workers to, for example, catalog incident details or manage corporate emails. Hence the explicit move towards ‘one person, one device’ and the implicit intersection of personal and professional activities.

The Church-and-State Conundrum Mobility Presents

As anyone who has had a work and a personal email account on a mobile phone can attest, the blending of these two electronic worlds represents a mix of convenience and potentially encroached (if not compromised) personal privacy that can be responded to with ambivalence at best.

For example, while it is easy to set up a work account on a mobile phone, in many cases the device-based permissions associated with enabling a work account on a mobile phone are prohibitively severe. To configure work email on a personal phone in a previous workplace, I had to apply a permission setting that would give the system administrator the capacity to erase all of the contents of my phone—not an entirely uncommon experience, from many accounts I have heard. While I found it desirable and convenient to be able to access both work and personal email directly on the device I carried with me practically everywhere, the thought of ‘giving the keys’ to my device, as it were, to an external party was an uncomfortable prospect.

As mobile EHS applications and wearable technology become increasingly relevant in both our professional and personal lives, it will be increasingly challenging to reconcile the two, and the quandaries this convergence presents.

Is it within a business’ right to put the onus on an employee to carry and maintain their own device, but to also use it for business-oriented activities and processes? Even if some degree of financial compensation is afforded to the employee in question, the conundrum leads us to our next point: security and restrictions on personalized data.

Averting 'Big Brother' Syndrome

Above and beyond mobile phones and the information contained therein, we have the fact that wearables will continue to provide more and more intelligence on the who, where, and when of activities. Of course, we have GPS capabilities, but additional sensors and functionalities in smartphones and other devices will become increasingly pervasive on the frontlines. For example, technology will continue to improve our capacity to register on-the-field behavioral safety observations.

The potential of this is substantial from a health and safety perspective, as more documented and corrected behaviors could lead to fewer near misses, incidents and, ultimately, fatalities. In many cases EHS vendors have released mobile applications that enable employees to virtually and effortlessly log the details of an incident, near miss, or behavioral observation. In some cases it is as simple as filling out a handful of text-based fields, taking a photo that illustrates the conditions, and using GPS functionality to assign a location to an event. Compared to the historical precedent of paper-based records, the potential is staggering.

And yet, how will companies walk the increasingly fine line between asking employees to ‘BYOD’ and maintaining the integrity and security of their personal data and, indeed, whereabouts? If devices are traceable remotely, if personal information is stored in troves within them, and if essential work-related data is also contained therein, where does state end and church begin? How to balance restrictions on personalized data will become an increasingly salient question for manufacturers as they seek to implement (or avert) a BYOD strategy. It should be noted, however, that there are already different standards and requirements in place regionally as we look around the globe. While the U.S. tends to be more lax when it comes to sharing private data in the name of convenience, the EU tends to be more skeptical and across the Middle East and Asia we find far more stringent command-and-control relationships. 

What are your thoughts on the BYOD phenomenon? Share them with us in the comments section below.

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Tags: Environment Health and Safety, Mobility