TECHNOLOGY: Penn State Palm Sizes Hazwaste Program

A national leader in several collegiate sports, Pennsylvania State, University Park, Pa., can now claim to be innovative in another arena: hazwaste collection.

In 1999, armed with a grant to start a pilot using hand-held computers known as personal digital assistants (PDAs), Penn State's Applied Research Labs joined with school's Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), to test these new units in EHS's hazwaste collection program, materialREMOVE.

After considering the potential benefits to its system, EHS' Director Maurine Claver, decided to try using the PDAs to make the data collection and auditing program more efficient, as well as enhance field operations.

“[Previously,] the database management of this application was arduous … and we [wanted] … to improve the process,” Claver says.

EHS handles approximately 200 requests for chemical pickup services each month, collecting 500 containers and more than 20,000 pounds of waste. University employees who need to dispose of hazardous waste must request a special pickup and complete a form, which is located on EHS' website. Between 70 percent and 90 percent of these collection requests are submitted electronically.

Before the PDA pilot, a great deal of time was spent editing the information that was submitted and printing out forms. Then, hazwaste pick-up information had to be manually entered into the database.

However, the PDAs now automate this process.

With the new program, once a form is submitted electronically, the information is conveyed into a database that is compatible with the EHS staff's PDAs, 3-Com Palm III. As the information is downloaded into the hand-held computers, the data is used to generate an itinerary for daily collection rounds.

The PDA displays a pickup location list, chemical names, material quantity, number of items, contact phone numbers and locations, and hazard class. And the computer program is set up to automatically assign inventory numbers.

When necessary, all database information can be edited during collection rounds. For example, if the number of containers differs from the information database during pickup, the hauler can immediately edit the information in the PDA.

To ensure the quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) process, chemical names are validated on site. At the end of the day, edited information is uploaded into the database by placing the PDA in its cradle.

EHS staff estimates that using PDAs has saved them approximately $1,500 annually. Automating also has allowed them to spend more time providing customer service instead of laboring over back-office functions.

Additionally, EHS personnel are using PDAs for chemical fume hood evaluations, laboratory safety inspections, chemical waste management audits, above ground/underground tank program audits, written procedures, schedules and call-out lists.

Program costs were $6,000, according to EHS staff. While commercial data collection software was available, both EHS and the Applied Research Staff developed custom software to enable the data to be downloaded and uploaded into the PDA from a web-based form.

Now that the program has been in place for more than a year, EHS admits that starting the new program was a challenge. However, EHS says the payoff has been in the operation's increased efficiency.

The staff recommends using information technology (IT) personnel to help connect the PDA to the web and to a database. They also say an onsite IT person can be useful in working out typical computer bugs.

For more information about Penn State's PDA program, contact Kate Lumley-Sapanski, Department of Health and Environmental Protection Pennsylvania State University, at (814) 865-6391 or at [email protected]. To view additional articles about collection technology, visit