Untangling the web: finding health and safety information online

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​​Ever wondered if your usual occupational safety and health (OSH) sources are validated, authoritative, up-to-date and available whenever you need access?

Since the advent of the internet around 20 years ago many people now firmly believe that online information is all out there and is free of charge. While it is useful that information can easily be made available direct from an author anywhere in the world through the internet, there are many other major checks that are needed before online OSH data and information can actually be used to help successfully manage OSH risks in the workplace.

Sometimes dutyholders fail to understand how the information is actually produced, who is writing and editing it, who is checking to see if it is up-to-date and if it contains accurate content that can be relied on.

Questions about OSH information
When we talk about occupational health and safety information, we first need to consider how often we need it, whether daily, weekly, monthly or just occasionally. A second consideration is the sources where we routinely go for information. These can be:

  • Own collection – does it contain current subscriber services?
  • Google
  • Asking colleagues/friends – but first you need to know if their knowledge is up-to-date and comprehensive
  • British Safety Council or IOSH or similar membership organisations that will provide answers for you
  • Health and Safety Executive (HSE) webpages.

If you do search for information yourself, then you are aware of how much time you spend searching for information per day or week. You also know the costs per hour; your salary plus other costs such as insurance should be used to calculate your real costs per hour.

Another question to be asked is if you need worldwide information, and if so, what kind; for example, legislation, datasheets, guidance and advice. A subsequent issue to decide on is how much would you pay for authoritative and validated information.

Searching the web
The internet is a combination of thousands of computers and connections such as radio, cable and satellite which link them together. The internet is one of the world’s fastest growing communication developments, and has created many information resources that can be of value to everyone who needs to stay ahead in their own specialism.

Making the best use of these resources takes time. Just as no one book will give all the answers to a question, you may not find the information which you need from looking at just one website, even if it one as relevant the Health and Safety Executive site.

How to search effectively 
The following may help to get the best results when searching for occupational safety and health, fire, chemical and environment information on the internet.

1. Clear thinking and searching
Develop a clear understanding of what you need from your information search. Be clear whether you are looking for general information or something very specific.

2. Terms, keywords etc.
When searching, think of:

  • Related terms (both broader and narrower)
  • Synonyms
  • Other chemical names plus unique chemical number
  • Legislation
  • Differences in English and American terminology, e.g. fume cupboards and fume hoods.

3. Search tips
Using what is known as Boolean operators, the words AND, OR and NOT can make a big difference to the results of your search. You will get much closer to what you are seeking by using these sophisticated operators.

Read the help or search tips. When using electronic services or online search engines many people only look at the first 10 ‘hits’ on any retrieved lists. Search operators are used differently by different search engines or electronic services, e.g. searchers may benefit from looking at Google’s advice before embarking on a search.



4. Spelling
If you are unsure of the spelling, think about the variations, especially the different spellings found in American and English information. e.g. centre/center; sulphur/sulfur.

5. Authors
Do you know any author(s) working in this subject?

By using the author’s name, you may retrieve other references to similar work on the subject of your choice.

6. Institutions
Is there an institution or competent authorit(ies) or research organisations known to have done some work in this area?

Again try using the name, you may retrieve even more references.

7. Other sources
Any journals/indexing/abstracting service(s) specialising in the subject which are known to you?

Again you can add these to your search.

8. Any information centre(s) specialising in the subject?
This is similar to author searches because these information centres may well have produced a publication on the subject.

9. Other databases, databanks, CD-ROMs, either full text or bibliographic
The information may well be indexed e.g. other search engines, so if you cannot find any information which you are seeking, look on another search engine or similar site which has lots of links. This will act as a ‘hot link’ for you to explore other material you may not otherwise have found. As an example, look at www.oshworld.com and under the country index and the click onto the USA and go to US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health where you will find many sources of information.

10. Don’t just stick to one search engine
Bookmark a variety of search engines, see what they come up with and then decide which are the best ones for your work.

11. Search strategy
Work out a search strategy before starting your search. Many search engines offer ways of refining your search and it will save time and money in the long run, for example decide:

  • How far back in time is the information needed. You will save time by limiting your search
  • Which authoritative sites you wish to search
  • Decide on language e.g. English only, which again will save time
  • Decide on the words and phrases to be used. Remember to use both English and the language of the site
  • Refine your search. Most search engines offer two types of search – ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ or ‘refined’. In the basic search, just enter a keyword without going through any additional options. Some search engines are so powerful that often you get good results with a minimum number of keywords

Automatic exclusion of common words. Most search engines ignore common words and characters such as ‘where’ and ‘how’, as well as certain single digits and single letters, because they tend to slow down the search without improving the results. Some search engines such as Google will indicate if a common word has been excluded by displaying details on the results page below the search box

If a common word is essential to getting the results you want, you can include it by putting a “+” sign in front of it. (Be sure to include a space before the “+” sign.) The one exception to this is “the”, which is so common it is not considered in searches.

Note that some search engines only search for exactly the words you enter in the search box and do not offer ‘stem’ or ‘wildcard’ word searching. If in doubt enter both singular and plural, e.g. ‘airline’ and ‘airlines’. Read the ‘hints and tips’ information for each of the different search engines.

12. Action if you cannot find a page
There may be a number of reasons why you cannot locate a ‘homepage’ which you have used before. It may have been removed completely, or perhaps its name has changed, or it is temporarily unavailable. The following actions could be tried:

Make sure you have typed in the homepage correctly, could be a spelling mistake

If a specific page is suddenly unavailable, open the main homepage and then look for the link because it may have been re-linked

If the above actions fail, go into one of the search engines and look for the information again.

13. Presentation of documents
The results of the search may offer the full text of the documents presented in different file formats. The documents could be in any of the following formats and will have the relevant indication, for example .doc for a document in Microsoft Word software or .rtf if presented as a rich text file:

  • Adobe Acrobat PDF (.pdf)
  • Adobe Postscript (.ps)
  • Microsoft Word (.doc)
  • Microsoft Excel (.xls)
  • Microsoft Powerpoint (.ppt)
  • Rich Text Format (.rtf)

Your own computer system should be able to open any document.

Quality information
In an age when large amounts of funds are invested in such a variety of equipment – telephones, computers/laptops, tablets – it is worth spending time learning how to research and find validated and authoritative sources of OSH information.

Some of the sources listed in this article do thankfully refer to documents going back many decades which are not computerised but nevertheless are important documents. A look at some of the documents listed in the website of the History of Occupational Safety and Health gives an important perspective.

It is also sometimes difficult to differentiate between correct and up-to-date information. The one that comes first in the search engines may not always be the latest and the most authoritative document, so beware.

Remember the saying “It is ALL out there and free of charge” is just not true when you are searching for information giving advice and guidance relevant to your workplace.

Ready to start 
Following these tips will help you to start searching, armed with your perfect searching techniques. The British and international selection of online resources listed in the boxes on these pages offer validated authoritative occupational safety and health information. Remember that information comes from different sources and this also applies to online information. It is worth keeping that in mind. 

Sheila Pantry OBE is the former head of HSE's information services and is currently the managing director of Sheila Pantry Associates Ltd.

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