Using Handheld Devices for Food Safety Audits and Inspections

By  Naaman Shibi, Techs4Biz Corporation — March 23, 2010

In the past, many food safety audit solutions offered 'paper-based' software, which produced paper checklists and questionnaires to perform audits and inspections. Once the paper forms were returned to the office, they would be manually entered to the computer database. The same concept applied to web-based solutions, which required paper forms and computers to enter the data back into the system.

In recent years, the role of handheld devices and smartphones such as Blackberry devices increased from 'toys' used by early adopters to day-to-day business tools deployed by organizations that want to improve their staff's productivity and minimize unnecessary administrative tasks.

Can a BlackBerry or other mobile device automate your food safety audits and replace paper forms as part of your occupational health and safety (OH&S) systems?

Absolutely. Most mobile devices and Blackberrys can easily handle safety inspections as part of the OH&S systems.

Handheld devices should provide information that already exists on paper forms or on the desktop, and at the same time improve one's ability to access and utilize the data.

For example, if an inspector fills out a routine inspection report ensuring the food storage procedures are being followed and comply with HACCP, the handheld device should fulfill the same function. A handheld user can pick from a list of possible choices and/or write or type in information, according to the organization's requirements and preferences.

Mobile applications specifically designed for food safety inspections and audits should deliver the following functionality:

  • List all information required by inspectors to perform their safety inspection tasks, including task list, activities, instructions and references to relevant codes and policies (e.g. HACCP).
  • Provide easy-to-use navigation and search capabilities, and quick access to information.
  • Allow safety inspectors to enter as much information as needed.
Handheld devices can include validations that allow or disallow data entry. They can also provide the user with historical information, or references to current legislation or company policies pertaining to previous inspection reports.

Applications should also be designed to minimize the amount of data entry required by incorporating a variety of techniques, starting from pick lists through check boxes to look-up lists and automatically generated results and shortcuts. Minimizing the amount of data entry that the end user has to perform is recommended to improve speed, accuracy, efficiency, ease of use and cost.

Finally, handheld software should be able to run on multiple hardware platforms, providing flexibility and utilization of future technology without avoidable and costly software upgrades. By using existing devices such as Blackberrys, organizations can minimize their deployment costs and utilize existing infrastructure and hardware.

The portal

To maximize utilization and return on investment, mobile applications should not be standalone. They should be designed from the outset to collect information, display and manipulate information, and transfer information to and from the database and back to the handheld seamlessly.

The web portal application should provide a variety of operational and management functions, including scheduling, tracking, reminders, corrective actions, follow-ups, management functions and reports.

What are the benefits of combining software with mobile devices to perform food safety inspections?

Mobile devices will automatically transfer data to the database without the need for further data entry or data reformulation. In addition, the use of such technology will:
  • Ensure your company is in compliance with OH&S Codes and HACCP, which in turn will ensure your employees' and customers' well-being.
  • Improve operational efficiencies and minimize unnecessary administrative tasks and data entry.
  • Increase productivity and profitability, enable effective completion of tasks, simplify repeatable tasks, and provide staff with easy-to-use tools that focus on performing tasks.
  • Incorporate mechanisms to focus on exceptions and ensure proper execution of tasks, including automatic listing of activities, reminders, alerts, escalation procedures, and easy access to information.
  • Ensure that inspections are performed according to warranties, guidelines and regulations.
  • Improve controls and accountability, leading to better quality of work.
How does your OH&S manager find the right solution?

By following three simple steps, described below, inspectors can accelerate the selection process and ensure that their selection will fit their needs:

1. First, determine what you want the solution to do for you. Make sure you understand your current processes and information flow.

Try to answer the following questions:
  • List things that work well within your current process, and things that can improve. Focus on the process and not on software or computers.
  • Prioritize potential improvement areas -- for example, are the inspection procedures timely, or are some safety inspections behind their scheduled dates due to unnecessary or copious amounts of paperwork needed to complete the safety inspection?
  • Describe a short scenario where improvements can achieve your objectives -- for example, minimizing unnecessary administrative tasks such as remembering and rescheduling safety inspections, or eliminating unnecessary data entry.
At this point, you have gathered your requirements. Now try to answer the following:
  • Who will use the system? How computer-proficient are the users? (Remember to separate field staff requirements from managers and supervisors).
  • What are your procedures for paperwork flow? Will the software improve this flow or make it worse?
2. Next, evaluate features offered by different solution providers and compare them to your needs. Create a list of desired features so you can compare 'apples to apples' without getting confused or blindsided by the different vendor presentations.

When reviewing brochures offered by vendors, or when speaking with salespeople, it is sometimes difficult to clearly identify the differences between the packages. However, certain packages offer significantly better value than their competitors in terms of functionality, ease of use, and price.

The differences between the packages can be highlighted in the following areas:
  • How comprehensive is their solution and their mobile software? Is it easy to learn and easy to use?
  • How easily does the handheld solution integrate with the desktop application?
  • Does the package enable efficient planning of safety inspection activities by using schedulers and alerts, and by automating repetitive tasks?
  • Is the solution easy to use? Does it offer different levels to different users related to their responsibilities?
  • Does the solution minimize unnecessary administrative tasks such as reminders and repetitive activities? For example, alerts, escalation procedures and other exceptions should be automated and should alert users proactively. Regular inspection due dates should be automatically calculated based on schedules, etc.
  • Does it include management functions, reports, queries and exceptions? Can the solution help with planning, and can it highlight problem areas?
  • Does it allow you to use a variety of different handhelds and Blackberry models?
3. Finally, determine the best value and fit. Include in your evaluation important factors such as the ability to tailor a solution to your needs, and the cost of the solution.

Once you have created your short list of potential packages, look at the following factors to choose the right solution for you:
  • Is the provider willing to tailor the solution to your needs if required? Match your business processes as much as possible to ensure a smooth implementation and acceptance of the new system.
  • Can you customize settings such as field aliases and screens for each user?
  • Will the system incorporate custom-made safety inspection reports to ensure your company is complying with HACCP?
  • Will you be able to expand the use of the package without hidden module charges, costs and complexities?
  • Does the package include future software releases, so when new and improved features are added you will be receiving these upgrades without excessive additional charges?
  • Finally, is the solution within your budget?
Maintaining this focused approach is the best way to select a safety inspection package that is right for your needs. By taking the time to systematically research and evaluate your options, you will avoid regretting hasty decisions later.

Techs4Biz develops and provides technology solutions for improving work-related activities and processes, combining software with handheld devices. Techs4Biz has offices in the US, Canada and Australia.


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