On the app track

Mobile apps continue to improve professional productivity

It was 5 a.m. on a warm June day in 1984 when Charlie Hansen, a young foreman at Vinny's Roofing, Skokie, Ill., was arriving at a job site to start a day's work of replacing the roof system on a new furniture store in a strip mall. The local weatherman said there was a 30 percent chance of rain that day.

With deadlines approaching, Charlie decided to "open" the roof—a decision he never would forget more than 30 years later. At 10 a.m., that 30 percent chance of rain became 100 percent. The amount of water that entered the building ended up costing Vinny's Roofing more than $50,000 in damages, and delaying the grand opening of the store created an exceptionally unhappy customer.

In 1984, roofing contractors listened to weather reports on the television or radio, called weather services and/or relied on their office staffs to warn of impending weather situations. As a result of advances in technology, present-day workforces have new ways of monitoring weather and other safety issues.

What's an app?

With a touch of a finger, a company owner or foreman can check a weather forecast, view up-to-the-minute radar, and access helpful resources that years ago would have taken hours, days or even weeks to gather and relay to crews on job sites.

Smartphones with apps have become one of the most useful tools roofing company employees have in their toolbelts. With little to no cost, a company can outfit its workers with phone apps available to assist with everything from weather monitoring to managing an entire safety program.

What exactly is an app? According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, "app" is short for application—typically a small, specialized program downloaded onto a mobile device. When considering new apps available for use with smartphones, it's important to focus on the "small" part of the definition because useful information that historically has taken up massive amounts of shelf space now can fit into the palm of your hand.

Experienced safety directors may laugh thinking of days gone by when they had to request material safety data sheets (MSDSs) and wait weeks for them to arrive. After the MSDSs arrived, they were then filed alphabetically by manufacturer and/or by roof system type and copied and placed into multiple three-ring binders for the sales, office and field teams.

The process was daunting. Present-day safety directors who manage safety data sheets (SDSs) with apps take advantage of an easier process. A manager now has instant access to his or her company's SDSs; documents no longer need to occupy entire bookshelves.

Safety apps are quickly becoming key tools within many companies, but which one is right for your company? To answer this question, it's important to know what is available and the costs involved.

Free apps

In my role as an NRCA director of risk management, I often teach safety to roofing professionals. During many of my classes, I report the safety industry is an ever-evolving industry where new, innovative products are being developed every year, and smartphone apps are no exception. They are being developed or updated all the time.

App costs range from free to tens of thousands of dollars and often are dependent on the size of your company and its needs.


Free apps such as Earth Networks® and WeatherBug® can assist with any roofing company's weather forecasting needs. Not only are forecasts available, but current radar, local alerts and many other features are included, as well. With a simple upgrade to WeatherBug Elite at a current cost of $9.99 per month, available features can be upgraded to be free of advertisements.

You will have to find an app that works best for you. There are many other weather apps available at minimal to no cost, including NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Radar, AccuWeather: Weather Tracker and The Weather Channel apps. Weather apps vary in functionality, but most apps show up-to-the-minute radar, hourly forecasting and 10-day reports.

The weather apps are available in English and Spanish and free to download for Apple iPhone/iPad and Google Android devices.


The safety apps I have found to be helpful are those created specifically for on-the-job safety by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool app provides users with vital safety information available on their mobile phones. The app allows workers and supervisors to calculate the heat index for their work sites and displays a risk level to outdoor workers based on the heat index.

With a simple "click," the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool app also can send reminders about protective measures to take to protect workers from heat-related illnesses. Reminders include information about drinking enough fluids; scheduling rest breaks; planning for and knowing what to do during an emergency; adjusting work operations; gradually building up workloads for new workers; training regarding heat-illness signs and symptoms; and monitoring for symptoms of heat-related illness.

Along with the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool app, NIOSH's Ladder Safety app delivers ladder safety information, reference materials and training resources into the hands of individual ladder users wherever and whenever they are needed. A unique and useful feature is the angle indicator that enables users to use their smartphones to determine a ladder setup angle to achieve the proper 4:1 ratio required by OSHA's ladder standard, 29 CFR 1926.1053.

The OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool app and NIOSH's Ladder Safety app are available in English and Spanish and free to download for Apple iPhone/iPad and Google Android devices.

Paid apps

Free is a good thing, but what about apps that have costs associated with them? Are the benefits worth the cost? Will they increase a user's ability to perform his or her job? Will they save safety directors' time? Will they save time and reduce delays on the job?

Tom Whitaker, CEO of Harness Software, Stouffville, Ontario, reports his company's new app, Harness, is helping thousands of companies strengthen and streamline their safety processes.

According to Harness Software, the app works on any device to ease safety program management. By reducing administrative responsibilities, strengthening due diligence and providing better insights, companies that use Harness can improve their safety results and save time and money.

According to Whitaker, the Harness app can do the following tasks:

  • Replace paper forms such as sign-in sheets, checklists, job hazard analyses and safety audits
  • Track worker training records and notify companies before training expires
  • Create certificates and wallet cards anytime, anywhere
  • Inspect all equipment such as personal protective equipment, tools and vehicles and notify users when items are due to be inspected
  • Maintain all records in one place
  • Store needed safety documents such as SDSs

The Harness app also is said to have the capability to download all SDSs from major roofing manufacturers and distributors automatically.

Similar to the Harness app, the MSDSonline Mobile or SDS Mobile apps by VelocityEHS are useful for many roofing companies. With typical startup costs dependent on the quantity of SDSs needed, number of users and administrative needs, the apps offer the following services:

  • Indexing of paper SDSs
  • Telephone support
  • Access to the SDS services catalog
  • Mobile access to SDSs through the phone app
  • Timely updating of revised SDSs

When reviewing SDS apps, remember to look at all possible charges including pricing per SDS. Other contract terms such as contract length, early cancellation and additional services may not be included. Be sure to research your company's needs before selecting an app.

The main goal of most SDS services is to make the SDS system as user-friendly as possible while processing SDSs in a timely fashion, alleviating many of the administrative nightmares that previously occurred when processing MSDSs and SDSs.

Boost efficiency

Smartphones have become one of the most useful tools a roofing professional can have at his or her disposal. With apps being created and developed daily, there is an app out there that will meet your company's needs.

There are apps to forecast weather, determine safe temperatures in which to work, assist with filing of safety documents and assist with basic safety knowledge. They can help to improve your company's efficiency and results. This article is not intended to promote any one safety app that's available nor is it all-inclusive as there are thousands of apps available. It is up to you and your company to determine which app(s) would benefit you the most. By searching for "safety" in your smartphone's app store, you will find apps that may apply to your safety needs.

Technology integration may seem scary, but if used properly, it can help increase your company's safety performance and make your foreman's job easier. If you are interested in learning more about which safety apps could work best for you, please contact me at rtrewyn@nrca.net or (847) 493-7575.

Rich Trewyn is an NRCA director of enterprise risk management.

To read more about this topic, see "App your service," May 2017 issue and "Is there an app for that?" April 2012 issue.



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