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Environmental Management System Tools: Do Spreadsheets Work?

environmental health and safety management system

If you're like most EHS specialists today, when you think of an environmental management tool what comes to mind is probably a spreadsheet. When we talk to environmental professionals we often hear that  all of their chemical usage data, emissions records, and even emission calculations are all stored using Excel spreadsheets - it's often the only type of EMS solution in place for the entire EHS department.

There are many different types of environmental management tools that you can use, spreadsheets being just one of a wide selection. And because there are so many to choose from, EHS professionals often are confronted with the question "do spreadsheets work for environmental management?"

In fact, there's heated debate between most environmental specialists, with some using spreadsheets for environmental management and with others arguing that environmental management tools need built-in features that can't be replicated via Excel.

We wanted to throw our hat into the ring for this debate and outline 5 reasons why it's time to say goodbye to your environmental spreadsheets (yes, even those of you who are married to your spreadsheets). For some EHS specialists that idea opens up a lot of questions: why aren't spreadsheets a good long-term option? What would you use instead? This article will answer those questions and highlight why your spreadsheets could be holding you back and making your job harder than it should be.

Environmental Data Security

EHS system securitySpreadsheets lack nuanced data security and the level of configuration they allow is insufficient to protect some of your most sensitive data (including your chemical inventory). In the worst case scenario, all of your data is available to anyone who opens your spreadsheet

Furthermore, spreadsheets don't have sophisticated audit trails to track if and when someone views or edits your data. You might be able to read the file properties to see when the document was last edited, but it becomes very difficult when that spreadsheet is used by more than one team member for work. Basically, spreadsheets do not encourage accountability - If the data becomes falsified or inaccurate, you need a method to determine who is responsible, otherwise it is you who suffers the consequences.

Another security consideration is knowing your environmental data is safe from crashes or data loss. What if your computer crashes and you permanently lose your spreadsheet? Do you have methods available to recover this information in its latest form? If you're currently using Excel as your environmental management system tool of choice, take some time to ensure your company provides a secure network drive where sensitive documents are stored safely. 

What works better is a centralized database with tiered access. Executives and EHS Managers can see the entire database, while an air emissions specialist can only enter in data related to air emissions, and so forth. You should also look for a method of putting your database onto a secure online server - this will offer better security options and better recovery options. 

Environmental Data QAQC Methodology

Emissions compliance reporting and other air permits require some complex chemical calculations and numbers that are accurate down to a microscopic degree. Environmental data quality controls play an important role in keeping your reports clean and accurate. After all, the old saying "garbage in, garbage out" rings true for any type of environmental management database.

That's another reason why using spreadsheets for environmental data storage or calculations makes little sense; spreadsheets do not have any native built-in safeguards that enforce good data QAQC. Now, many EHS specialists become pros at Excel formulas and rules to jerry-rig some basic QAQC features, but these aren't fool proof and can break the moment a small change is needed.

We think there are two major reasons to avoid spreadsheets regarding environmental data quality: they are hard to troubleshoot, and they put too much emphasis on manual data entry. Both of these can slow down your workday significantly, and there's no real benefit to your organization.

Because there are no fail-safe mechanisms built into spreadsheets beyond what you construct yourself, they are subject to a huge amount of human error. The more time you spend manually typing in numbers or building formulas, the more vulnerable your work becomes to simple but costly errors like typos or misplaced decimal points. After helping with thousands of TRI reports, we've seen the damage a small typo can do and the amount of work it can take to find the source of the issue. 

And since spreadsheets for EHS are so interconnected, a small mistake in one cell can invalidate all your results for an entire compliance report - putting you at risk for noncompliance fines and other penalties. 

If you've ever had the task of troubleshooting a spreadsheet, you know how time consuming and difficult it can be. Pinpointing the one calculation flaw or incorrect piece of data typically requires starting from scratch and double checking every step of the way.

There are many options for compliance management systems available today, from small reporting tools to comprehensive online enterprise programs. No matter what your size, there's an option that suits you - and most importantly, many come with built-in safeguards against human error. Your solution should be able to highlight suspicious data as it is being entered and flag potential mistakes on the fly, allowing you to correct them before they become part of your compliance records.  

Environmental Business Continuity

You probably understand your own spreadsheet pretty well… because you made it! But are you a spreadsheet specialist or an environmental expert? Does the work you do reflect how you see yourself?

But this knowledge does not always transfer well to others. Even a perfectly-designed spreadsheet can become a bottleneck if only one person knows how to use it correctly - if you're not careful you could end up doing most of everyone else's work simply because you are the dedicate "spreadsheet guru".

If your newer EHS team members don’t  know how to navigate a specific spreadsheet or find the data that they are looking for, the work can be tedious at best, and disastrously inaccurate at worst.  

Manager, what if your spreadsheet expert is suddenly ill or unavailable? What if they get transferred to another facility or portfolio? You aren't just losing them as a human resource, you're losing their spreadsheet as a business resource. We call this the Gatekeeper Effect - it just doesn't make good sense for your EHS department to rely so heavily on one person with no future planning in place. Does it make sense to have the entire burden of your compliance on one person's shoulders?

Here's the key: standardize and centralize data management. Even if you are still using spreadsheets, make sure that everyone is using the same standardized processes for entering and recording data. Make sure everything is written down and create a shared series of steps for managing EHS data. Even better, use a database system that has built-in rules and train everybody how to use it.

Spreadsheets Are Inefficient

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Most EHS departments that use spreadsheets end up using a separate spreadsheet per report or environmental metric. So if a piece of data (like information about a certain chemical used on site) is used for more than one report, you're forced to enter the same piece of data once for each spreadsheet. That's a waste of your valuable time and is forcing you to do redundant work.

Even worse, having your data spread out across multiple spreadsheets means that it takes longer to find the data you are looking for - which means it's harder for you to respond to incidents or write corporate-wide reports.   

Every time you update or revise your products you’ll have to go back and manually update all that information in each of your spreadsheets. Wouldn't it make more sense to use just one set of data and do the work once? 

This is one of the most vital failings of spreadsheets - they don't really allow for any sort of environmental data automation. At best you can have data from one set of cells populate another, but all this intelligence requires you to manually build formulas and rules beforehand. 

Ideally, your environmental management system tool can intelligently communicate with each segment of your operations and pass on the correct information seamlessly following logic that accurately follows your compliance strategies. 

Environmental Regulatory Compliance and Upkeep

When it comes to environmental reporting, demonstrating your compliance takes more than just crunching numbers. The regulations you need to adhere to are constantly changing, and you are required to keep your data up to date with less time and fewer resources. 

Whenever the regulations or formulas change, you will need to go back and manually update each of your spreadsheets. Spreadsheets do not update themselves and do not stay current with the regulatory changes.

The burden of researching environmental regulations falls directly on your shoulders, and that in itself can be a full time job.

If you're using an online system from a provider with regulatory expertise, your reporting calculations and emission factors can be updated on the fly as soon as regulatory changes are rolled out.That removes a huge burden from your workload and eliminates the risk of reporting using out of date data.

Goodbye to Spreadsheets?

We've worked with many environmental professionals who are locked into and totally dependent on a spreadsheet that they lovingly designed over many years of hard work. It's hard to let go of something you put so much effort into, but it's also important to focus on the quality of the end results you submit to EPA and other regulators. 

Many people come to realize that spreadsheets are perfect the moment they are created, but they can quickly become bloated, cumbersome, and a burden to maintain.

If you're looking for a fast and effective improvement to your EHS department, getting rid of your spreadsheets is the way to go.

Spreadsheets have their role in your business, but EHS compliance management and reporting is only made more difficult if you rely on spreadsheets. Today manufacturers have dozens of options for better environmental data management programs and most cutting-edge businesses have jumped on the trend of implementing smart Environmental Management Systems to help ensure compliance goals are met in a timely, cost-effective, and user-friendly manner. 

When looking at your options, make sure your choice can help solve the issues we've listed above: you should be able to configure security settings to meet your specific organizational hierarchy, enter data just once and create all your reports using that data, reporting should be faster and easier, and your provider should be responsible for maintaining the integrity of the system's calculations and methodologies. 

Imagine the innovation and progress you could bring to your pollution prevention and management areas of your facility if you didn't have to spend countless hours working on a spreadsheet?

Get a free online demo with ERA Environmental's Specialists and see how much time you can start to free up.

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This post was written by Alex Chamberlain

Alex Chamberlain is a writer for ERA Environmental Management Solutions.

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