Paper is NOT obsolete

| May 31, 2012

I have to admit it – I like paper.

This can be a scary admission since today everything digital is considered better.  At times, there seems to be almost a mass hysteria that our paper pads must be replaced by iPads.

There are, of course, advantages to electronic data management.  At the very least, there is the physical space you save when you eliminate the storage of paper records.  Then, there is the immediate availability of even very arcane information with a simple web search.

But there are downsides to electronic data management as well.  These downsides include catastrophic data loss when your computer crashes and the limitations associated with difficult-to-read screens, lack of reliable power supplies and web access failure.

Today, what is needed is a life cycle assessment approach to information management – with both paper and electronic devices playing their part.

In my view, paper is still the hands-down best choice for many of the data collection activities associated with occupational health and safety management system processes in industrial environments.


Reason #1 – Paper doesn’t require training or specialized knowledge to use.

We all know how to write.

The same is not true for using electronic devices.   Although manufacturers have attempted to make their products more intuitive, there is still a learning curve associated with every different device.

Filling in paper forms is something most of us have been doing all of our lives.

Reason #2 – Paper is more robust and unlikely to blow the place up.

Most electronic devices are fragile and, unless specially designed, capable of initiating a fire or explosion.  Dropping an electronic device into a puddle or pond likely means it is destroyed.

Particularly for field use, paper works.

One of the best products for wet environments (such as Florida where I live) is Rite in the Rain all-weather writing paper.   As long as you use a pencil or waterproof pen, your form or log book will not be destroyed even if you drop it in standing water. Neat!

Reason #3 – Paper can be “smart.”

Paper can have “metadata” associated with it. It can have digital watermarking, bar codes and RFID tags. It can “talk to” electronic devices such as bar code readers and cell phones.  The most ubiquitous example of smart paper is the identification badges that can open doors and keep track of your location.

Paper forms can be intelligently designed so that when they are scanned, information is uploaded directly into a database. You can have the benefit of paper for data collection and the benefit of computerization for data management.

Paper is increasing a transient medium used to display and transport information that is developed and maintained electronically.

Reason #4 – Paper can be secure.

When information is collected and maintained on a piece of paper there is only one copy and it can be physically secured.  A piece of paper cannot be hacked and sent offshore to information pirates.

Reason #5 – Paper helps you think.

There is a reason for whiteboards and flipcharts in conference rooms.  Putting ideas “down on paper” helps us collaborate, form ideas and identify connections.

So before you exchange your paper pad for an electronic tablet, think about what you want to accomplish.  Consider whether paper may still be the better choice for at least some part of the data management process – at least where you need a human interface.

© ENLAR Compliance Services, Inc. (2012)

Category: OHSMS Documentation, Resources & Tools

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