OSHA digitizes its expertise

OSHA digitizes its expertise

Expert systems help companies and workers deal with workplace hazards

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

Businesses and consumers who have questions about workplace health and safety hazards can get personalized answers'without asking a single person.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a series of interactive software programs, called Expert Advisors, that distill vast quantities of regulatory information into a digestible report for a specific workplace.

Unlike human representatives, the expert software is available at any hour, program facilitator Edward Stern said. Unlike paid consultants, OSHA does the analysis free of charge.

OSHA's Edward Stern reviews an Expert Advisor software flow chart with economist
Tom Mockler.

Using the Expert Advisors isn't like getting an information dump from a Web search, Stern said. The artificial intelligence built into each program can continue asking the user questions until it can devise a reasonable answer.

'It's like the difference between a medical librarian and a medical doctor,' Stern said. 'The librarian will help you get a lot of information to read. But if you need expert help, you talk to the doctor.'

Stern, who works in OSHA's Directorate of Technical Support, has been intrigued for years by the possibility that expert systems could assist businesspeople who must enforce workplace safety laws.

In the early 1990s, Stern and some colleagues put together a rough prototype of an expert program and demonstrated it to OSHA executives. Then the agency's director of health standards suggested developing software to aid manufacturers who deal with cadmium regulations.

Test results

Companies that use cadmium in manufacturing must monitor workers' exposure to the poisonous metallic element. OSHA health scientists had devised a method for determining an employee's risk of cadmium overexposure from results of three medical tests.

Stern's team wrote a program that analyzes the test results for an employee and handles some of the resulting paperwork, such as generating letters to the employee and employer. 'It doesn't make the rules go away, but it makes it much easier to figure out how the rules apply to your actual situation,' Stern said.

OSHA released the first MS-DOS application, dubbed GOCAD 1.0, in 1994 via the Labor Department's pre-Web electronic bulletin board.

Steel manufacturers and trade groups praised GOCAD 1.0, and in 1995 OSHA released a second expert program, Asbestos Advisor, to answer similar questions about handling asbestos in the workplace. Several building trade associations gave advice on making the application useful to real-world businesses.

Stern's group next devised two expert packages on confined spaces and fire safety. By 1996, the agency's Web site was up and running, and OSHA was producing the software in Microsoft Windows formats.

Currently, OSHA offers eight completed interactive programs on its Expert Advisors Web page at www.osha-slc.gov/dts/osta/oshasoft/. Besides the asbestos, fire safety and confined spaces advisors and GOCAD 2.0, the expert applications cover several other topics.

Lead in Construction Advisor 1.0 is designed for the building industry. SafeCare Advisor addresses possible safety and health hazards in long-term health care facilities. The $AFETY PAYS program analyzes the financial impact of workdays lost when employees get sick or injured.

The Expert Advisors page suggests that employers start with the Hazard Awareness Advisor 1.0, an interactive program that asks about general workplace hazards and poses follow-up questions to initial replies.

Also, OSHA offers four expert programs still in public test versions, meaning they have disclaimers that they don't reflect official OSHA policy. One of the test versions deals with lead in general industrial environments; a second gives advice on meeting the standard for respiratory protection.

Stern's colleagues and contractors use an expert system software shell to capture the logic of decision-making processes in ways both programmers and nonprogrammers can understand.

'We write out the logical rules in something that's pretty close to plain English, so that scientists and lawyers and doctors and policy staff can see them, and then the system processes the decision logic and creates the software,' Stern said.

His team uses several expert system development tools from Exsys Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M. Occasionally the group has also used a tool called Tailor from Instant Recall Inc. of McLean, Va.

Each expert program has cost roughly $100,000 in software and contracting work to develop. The confined spaces program alone has saved twice that amount because it handles questions that two full-time agency employees formerly fielded, Stern said.

Staff review

Before its official release, each Expert Advisor must run the gauntlet of scrutiny by OSHA scientists and lawyers to make sure it returns consistent, accurate answers. The agency asks for comments on its public test versions and has made about 60 changes to Hazard Awareness Advisor as a result.

To quell privacy concerns, OSHA does not track the identities of those who download the software, Stern said.

OSHA created the programs especially to help small businesses unlikely to have a safety and health professional on staff or readily available. But Stern said he was surprised to find that big companies, even those with access to such professionals, also use the software. Many safety experts at big firms want the programs to back up or supplement their own knowledge, he said.

Private occupational safety consultants charge $500 to $4,000 to write up a report on a company's potential hazards, according to Stern.

'We're giving this away for free because we want people to have the expertise,' he said. The project also aims to capture OSHA's own in-house expertise before senior staff members retire or leave the agency.

OSHA's Expert Advisors project was one of 25 finalists in this year's Innovations in American Government Award competition sponsored by the Ford Foundation and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Stern said he has received requests from the housing and food industries for similar expert software from other federal agencies that deal with food safety and disability issues.

Ideally, expert software might someday help people figure out whether they are eligible for government benefits or medical treatment, he said.


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