This article is relevant to those who are responsible for safety inspections in the field, including highway construction inspections, fire prevention inspections, building safety inspections, environmental inspections and food and social welfare inspections. We focus on a university study describing how modernization of inspection data management can lead to safer communities.
The Strained Public Safety Inspection Process
The trained professionals responsible for the inspection of the nation's infrastructure, the safety of the public buildings that we occupy, the safety of our food and water supply and the welfare of our children, often spend a significant amount of their time managing inspection data.
This is time not spent on actually performing inspections and improving the safety of our communities.
This paper focuses on a Virginia Tech University study  that describes how inspection quality and efficiency can be improved by modernizing how inspection data is managed.
The particular study, conducted by Thomas Mills and Ronald Wakefield of Virginia Polytechnic & State University and described in the report, "Modernizing Bridge Safety Inspection with Process Improvement and Digital Assistance," was specific to bridge inspections; however we believe that many of their findings are more generally applicable to many other types of safety inspections.
The premise for the work was that the sheer number of safety inspections to be performed by a limited pool of trained safety inspectors places a considerable strain on the inspection process. Furthermore, it is conceivable that inspectors spend as much time on administration and travel as they do on actual inspections.
The stated purpose of their research was "to provide insights into alternative inspection techniques that could lead to faster inspection turnarounds, higher quality observations, easier retrieval of inspection data, and a more efficient information and communication exchange within the inspection process."
Their basic research was conducted using both informal conversation interviews with Virginia Department of Transportation bridge inspectors and direct observation techniques. The interviews were used to document the procedures for the inspection process. The observation was used to capture the nuances of the actual work flow.
In the study, researchers describe the inspection process as having four distinct stages:
Stage 1: Inspection management, where essential data including previous inspection results are gathered
Stage 2: Inspection and condition assessment, where data is collected onsite
Stage 3: Reporting, where the inspection data is delivered into appropriate format; often this means entry into one or more electronic formats
Stage 4: Distributing and archiving, where paper copies may be made and delivered via mail or hand delivered and archived in either paper or electronic form.
Their work yielded the insights that processes based on collecting inspection results on paper, lead to inefficiencies at all stages of the inspection process. At Stage 1, there may be the making of copies of previous inspection results to bring paper copies to the field. Stage 2 will be explored further shortly. Stage 3 may result in the keying in of inspection results into one or more different reporting systems. This is an error-prone stage as the likelihood of mistakes or oversights are high. The downside to not keying the information into an electronic reporting system may be even higher since it represents a lost opportunity to mine valuable data for trends. Stage 4 inefficiencies pertain to the effort involved in getting the inspections reports into all of the right hands that need the data and how the data is archived and retrieved.
Modernizing the Safety Inspection Process
The assessment of the research team was that integrating mobile computing into the inspection process was of paramount importance to the key underlying problem of how to extract inspection data precisely and quickly. Their research indicates "that the inspection process is one that is readily transformable from one that relies on marking up paper forms in the field and then returning to the office for semi-manual reporting, to one that is electronically assisted in areas of data capture, automated updates, and semi-automated report production."
Returning to the issue of Stage 2 efficiency gains, the research team further stated that "the most desirous tool is one that assists or leads the inspector through a systematic inspection assisted by smart tag or macro inputs." Smart tags are simply input that can be initiated with minimum keystrokes. They go on to describe the desired system as one where inefficient reporting practices can be eliminated with the implementation of a process in which an inspector can retrieve previous reports on site through a mobile computer. Further, the process would combine field data collection report preparation and avoid separate data entry into one or more backend programs.
The team concluded with some incremental steps that could be taken to improve the inspection process but stressed that the breakthrough strategy is taking the position that mobile computers are essential to transforming current inspection processes, improving the efficiency and quality of inspections and making inspection information available in a timely fashion. They also indicated that as more of the functions that comprise the four stages get automated, they become less a distinct functional area and a more universal adaptation across all functions.
Mills, T.H. and Wakefield, R.R. (2004), Modernizing Bridge and Safety Inspection with Process Improvement and Digital Assistance.
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