Reliable, comprehensive and intelligible information is essential for occupational health and safety. Users of such information are managers, workers, occupational safety and health professionals, safety and health representatives and occupational safety and health committee members. The responsibilities of professionals, representatives and committee members normally include providing information to others. Occupational safety and health laws in many countries require information to be provided to workers by governments, employers and chemical suppliers, among others, and to be generated by organizations such as companies to which the laws apply.
Enterprise Level Information
Table 1. Information required in occupational health and safety
Externally generated information. This information is required within the organization to address specific needs and to solve problems. It is diverse and voluminous, and it comes from numerous sources (see table 1). To achieve the desired standards of reliability, comprehensiveness and intelligibility, it has to be managed. Information management involves three ongoing processes:
- analysing the information needs of the information users
- identifying and obtaining the information required
- supplying the information needed by the users.
Internally generated information. This information is used to help identify safety and health problems, to monitor performance and to comply with legal requirements.
Collecting, coding and storing information from accident investigations can help identify recurring accidents and highlight causal factors. For instance, records of individual workers’ exposure to particular chemicals may be important years later if questions of job-related disease arise.
Information is drawn from such data by analysis. For the analysis to yield reliable conclusions, the data must be comprehensive and trustworthy. To be trustworthy, the information must be collected and compiled according to scientific principles. For example, the question or problem should be set out clearly in advance so that all the appropriate data are collected, and that
- The types of data to be included in the compilation are strictly defined.
- Collection of the data is carried out in a consistent manner allowing for the checking of the data’s validity and integrity.
- The limitations of the data are understood and stated.
Information management involves the processes of data collection, storage, retrieval and analysis.
Organization of Information Management
The tasks of information management are often organized and conducted by an information service. The functions of such a service include:
- Ensuring that essential and up-to-date information is available when it is needed, and that users are not overburdened with excessive or redundant information.
- Making the information usable for the people who need it. Doing so often requires detailed knowledge of the needs of the persons seeking the information, and in-depth understanding of the information they seek.
- Helping users to find information for themselves.
- Actively disseminating information. Access to information in occupational health and safety is a matter of general right, not a privilege for a select group. Desk-top publishing has reduced the cost of producing pamphlets, newsletters and other materials for wide distribution.
- Collecting and providing information in an efficient and cost-effective manner. No information service has an unlimited budget.
- Keeping abreast of legal responsibilities for collecting and providing information.
- Providing or coordinating the resources and expertise required for production and analysis of internally generated information, including:
- company safety information systems (accident records, near-miss reporting)
- accident and disease statistics, registers of exposures (see also the chapter Record Systems and Surveillance)
- serious-accident investigation databases (see also the article “Audits, inspections and investigations”)
- specific data collection surveys (see also the chapter Epidemiology and Statistics)
- inspection recording systems and databases
- lists and registries of experts, addresses
- medical record databases (see also the chapters Occupational Health Services and Ethical Issues).
- Facilitating surveys and research. Methods will often be drawn from scientific disciplines such as epidemiology and statistics. The information service can help the researchers to gather the background information they need, provide computer facilities to store data, and disseminate the results of the research throughout the occupational health and safety community. In some types of study, the information service may also participate in data collection.
For the information service to fulfil all these functions successfully, it must overcome various problems. One continuing problem is the high rate of growth in the already considerable quantity of information potentially relevant to occupational health and safety. This problem is compounded by the many updates and revisions of existing information. An extension of this problem is that the apparent surfeit of information conceals a lack of multidisciplinary material. Much of the information resulting from research in medicine and engineering, for example, is communicated to specialists. It may be unintelligible to anybody else. The new knowledge is then not transferable to some potential users for whom it may be of great importance. One role of an information service is to stimulate production of multidisciplinary materials.
Other problems arise because of barriers that potential users experience in accessing or using information. For example:
- Human language. Much of the information available in occupational health and safety is framed in a language that many users do not understand well or at all. The information service should be able to transpose the information and the jargon into the everyday language of the user, and it should be able to do so without loss of quality of the information. Computers can help in overcoming such language barriers. They can assist in translation from one kind of language to another, and they can produce text automatically in one language while the user inputs information in another. By means of structured text generation computers may be able to write various reports automatically.
- Literacy. Another barrier to effective communication related to language may arise because the levels of literacy among the potential users are below the reading levels required to comprehend the more technical information in occupational health and safety. Computers offer help in overcoming this barrier with techniques that automatically analyse reading levels of written materials, which can then be assessed for suitability for particular users.
- Restrictions in distribution and availability. Some information of great importance in occupational health and safety may be classified as confidential. Examples include medical data, trade secrets, and some government documents. Copyright laws also restrict duplication of various types of information. In some circumstances, keeping information confidential is as important a responsibility as disseminating it. Confidentiality of information is a necessary consideration for persons and organizations generating information. Information management involves expertise in the avoidance of problems of confidentiality, for example by using aggregated rather than individual data, and by acquiring detailed knowledge of legitimate requirements to protect the privacy of information.
- Information access tools (finding aids) used in libraries to search for information. Not all users know how to use advanced information access tools, such as computerized catalogues (see below), and not all information is readily accessible by means of access tools. Most access tools require experience and skill, and good knowledge of the English language as well. Menu systems are an attempt to simplify the searcher’s task, but the simplification may act to conceal information. Such problems can be minimized if information professionals adopt the role of tutor.
- The computer keyboard. For some people, the computer keyboard is a barrier because they have not been trained to use it. Persons with disabilities such as repetitive strain injury cannot use it for long periods of time or at all. Voice recognition provides an alternative means of communication with the computer.
- The financial (and environmental) cost of information and document delivery. Paper is a costly medium for distributing information. Although computers are supposed to economize in paper, in practice they can be extremely wasteful of it. Carefully managed computer-based information systems are the most cost-effective (and least environmentally burdensome) way of distributing as well as storing information.
Information Services and Libraries
Information services and libraries work together. Large community and special libraries, such as law or medical libraries, often have information services. Specialized information services (including libraries) devoted to occupational health and safety are usually located within organizations such as occupational safety and health institutions, companies, universities and government departments.
The information service undertakes to answer the users’ questions and to keep them informed on important matters. It requires the support of library skills and resources to search for and to obtain the information, and to deal with some copyright matters. The information service analyses the information relative to the needs of the questioners. It compiles answers which frequently involve information from sources outside the scope of a community library (see table 1).
Some information and occupational health and safety experts differentiate between the community library and information services. They argue that unnecessary duplication of effort should be avoided for reasons of cost, if for no other. A rule of thumb is that materials on loan from a community library which is accessible to the information service’s user community should not also be available for loan from the information service. By the same token, the information service should specialize in occupational safety and health information that is not normally available through the community library. The information service should be able to focus on service to groups and individuals with defined needs in occupational safety and health. The information service may also support an organization’s legal obligation to provide or generate information, which a community library could not be expected to do.
Libraries rely on highly developed, computerized systems for the acquisition and cataloguing of materials, and for monitoring and controlling circulation. Information services access these systems through team work with specialist library personnel. The library and the information service need to cooperate closely in the organization of reference materials (materials not available for loan), interlibrary loans, on-line systems and audiovisual materials. The information service would normally have a core collection of important reference materials such as the ILO’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety.
Selective dissemination of information (SDI) is an aspect of information service in which cooperation is especially important between information services and community libraries. To operate a service of SDI, the information provider stores a personal search profile of the user’s needs. A group of profiles for researchers, for example, would be used for scanning the titles of scientific articles as these are published. Titles matching particular profiles are notified to the individuals concerned. While SDI can be an important service, it may be difficult to organize effectively when the information needs of the users vary considerably from time to time, as is often the case in occupational safety and health.
Training for Accessing Information
Workers and managers need to know from whom and from where they can obtain information. For example, Material Safety Data Sheets are an important source of health and safety information about chemicals used in the workplace. Workers and managers need training in seeking out and using this information. Because no occupational health and safety training can possibly cover all potential problems, knowledge about where to look for information is vital for workers and managers. Something about information sources and services should be included in all occupational health and safety training.
Information training is an essential part of the education of professionals, representatives and committee members.
The training assumption is that such people have a good grasp of occupational health and safety but need basic training in information management skills. Such skills include searching on-line information resources, and making effective use of an information service. The training should include practical experience of working as a team with professional library and information staff.
Professional library and information scientists represent the most advanced level of education and training in information work. But in their education they may have had little exposure to occupational health and safety. There is a need to increase this content, and perhaps develop appropriate specialization in the university and college education of this group.
The Computer in Information Management
All of the processes of information management increasingly involve computers. While much of the world’s information is still in paper form, and is likely to remain so for some time to come, the role of computers is increasing in every area. Computers continue to become smaller and less expensive while growing in capability. Inexpensive microcomputers, also called personal computers (PCs), can do the information management work that only a few years ago would have required an expensive mainframe computer. Three key concepts in computing are especially important in information management: databases, database management systems and computer communication.
A telephone directory is a simple example of a database. The telephone company keeps a master list of names and telephone numbers in a computer. This list is a computer database. Changes to it can be made quickly, so that it is always up to date. It is also used in the printing of the paper version of the telephone directory, which is a database for public access. Individuals and organizations often keep their own lists of frequently used telephone numbers. Such lists are personal or private databases.
The paper version of the telephone directory illustrates the basic form of a database. The information is organized by last (family) name, in alphabetical order. Initials and addresses distinguish individuals with the same last name. For each unique combination of name, initials and address there is at least one telephone number. In database terminology, each line (last name › telephone number) is a record. The names, initials, addresses and telephone numbers are called fields.
The paper form of a large database, such as a telephone directory, has major limitations. If all one has as a starting point is a telephone number, finding a name in a large city’s telephone directory is difficult, to say the least. But this task is easy for the telephone company’s computer. It simply rearranges all the records in numerical order of telephone number. The ease with which records can be rearranged is one of the most useful features of a computer database.
Library catalogues are databases which exist in both paper and electronic form. Each record corresponds to a particular book or article. The fields identify the date and place of publication, and show where a copy can be seen. Library catalogue databases exist for many subjects, including several of relevance to occupational health and safety. The ILO’s CISDOC is an example of such a bibliographic database.
In addition to the names of authors, reference data (such as title, date of publication, name of the journal), a bibliographic database often contains an abstract as well. The abstract serves to inform the searcher of the contents of the article. The user can then decide whether to obtain the full paper.
Databases can store not only abstracts, but also the full text of articles, as well as images (graphics) such as photographs and diagrams. Multimedia is a powerful application of database technology to combine sound, text, and still and moving visual images.
Advances in optical and magnetic storage media have brought down the cost of high-capacity storage. As a result, larger and increasingly complex databases are kept in personal computers or are accessible through them.
Database management systems
Arranging records in a database and many other important information management functions, such as performing a search for particular records, are carried out by means of a database management system (DBMS). The DBMS is software that enables the user to work with the data in the database. The DBMS is thus a vital element in information management. A special form of DBMS software is the personal information manager, used for personal telephone directories, to-do lists, meeting arrangements and other personal data kept by individuals.
The concept of the filter is a useful one for representing the way in which a search is structured by a DBMS. Each search can be seen as a filter which allows passage onwards only of those records that correspond to a particular profile. For example, the user could ask to see all records published on asbestos during the year 1985. The search would be expressed to the computer as an instruction to filter for all records that have the key word “asbestos” in the title and that were published in 1985. A typical instruction would read:
title key word = asbestos AND date of publication = 1985
The operator AND is known as a Boolean operator, named after George Boole (an English mathematician) who devised a system of algebraic logic in the 19th century known as Boolean Algebra. Other commonly used Boolean operators are OR and NOT. Using these, the search filters can be made highly specific.
Computer communications have created numerous networks, formal and informal, by which information is exchanged. Such networks often cover great distances. Many operate through the normal telephone system by means of a modem. Others use satellite communications.
In a typical network, the databases are held in one computer, the target, while a personal computer, the origin, issues the request for a search. The target’s response is to send back the records produced by the search. International standards have been evolved to ensure that this computer-to-computer communication takes place properly. Examples of such standards are ISO 10162 and 10163-1 (both 1993), which relate to search and retrieval.
In the past, computer communications required large and expensive computers. The power and capacity of personal computers is now so great that even an individual can organize networks from his or her own office or home. The network through which the individual connects to the world of information is the Internet. By 1996 this had become the fastest growing communications system the world has ever known, with a predicted one billion users by the end of the century.
An instrument of this growth is the World Wide Web. This software tool set simplifies the complexity of the Internet. With the Web the user needs no knowledge of computer languages or commands. Nor does the user have to rely on the services of an information professional, as was the case in the past. The key tool for the user is a Web browser, a computer program which permits the user to navigate through the Web. With this, millions of Web documents—the information resources of Web—become accessible. Web resources are not limited to text but are also full multimedia presentations that include sound and animation.
The multimedia capability turns the Web into an important training medium. By 1996, occupational health and safety training programmes had begun to appear on the Web. From the larger Web sites, computer programs could be downloaded for use in occupational health and safety. Other Web information resources included the increasing number of library sites of relevance to occupational health and safety on the Web. With the continuing growth of the Web, we could well see within the life span of this edition of the ILO Encyclopaedia the development of a worldwide “virtual university” of occupational health and safety.
The Internet provides the global electronic mail (e-mail) system by which individuals send private messages to each other. Increasingly the Internet is used for voice mail and video-conferencing, as well.
Messaging differs from e-mail. In messaging, all members of the group can read and respond to a message. Messaging is used for computer conferencing in which many people participate in a discussion on a particular topic. It is an inexpensive way to create a network, for example, among occupational health and safety professionals with a common interest in a particular type of occupational hazard.
File transfer is a basic process in computing. In computer terminology, a file is the basic unit of storage that allows the computer to distinguish one set of information from another. A file could be a computer program, a word-processed document, an entire database or a filtered set of records produced by a search of a database. File transfer is the means whereby computers transfer information between themselves. Various file transfer protocols (FTPs) ensure that data are not changed in any way during transfer. The special importance of file transfer for information management in occupational health and safety is that any information service with even a modest personal computer can receive all types of information from information services all over the world. File transfer and associated services are usually the most cost-effective method of transferring information. As computer capabilities improve, the breadth and scope of the information that can be transferred increases apace.
An example of on-line transaction processing would be to order a publication through a personal computer. Another example is contributing an item of data to a computer in a distant city in connection with a research project involving several geographic regions.
Other forms of computer communication that play an increasingly important role in occupational health and safety are computer-based faxback services. The user telephones the computer to order specific information. The computer then sends the information to the caller’s fax machine.
In overview, it can be said that the computer is not only the main instrument for information management, but also the great facilitator of the information revolution that continues to gather momentum in the field of occupational safety and health, as in other important areas of human activity.