Alcan creates global system for environmental safety

Aluminum giant Alcan Inc. has built a database of occupational health and safety information which can be shared across more than 50 countries.

Montreal-based Alcan, which operates about 500 sites around the world, is using a .Net

architecture for its database project, EHS First. A Web services approach seemed the most feasible, said Sylvan Robert, Alcan’s director of corporate applications, since the firm has facilities in highly remote locations in places like Cameroon, Iceland, Australia and here in Canada.

EHS First, which went live in January, is used by each of Alcan’s four groups: bauxite and alumina; primary metal (smelting); engineered products; and packaging.

“There was a call to action a couple of years ago to try to find out where the major improvement points are in terms of environmental health and safety,” said Robert. “Alcan, being a rather decentralized business in terms of information systems, didn’t have a one-stop shop for data collection in those areas. A program was put in place to build a database for that information.”

Different sites collect data on workplace safety as well as environmental factors like water purity and air quality. The information can be shared across the organization and generate reports, using a Crystal Decisions tool. The information helps Alcan meet requirements laid out by the Kyoto Accord, as well others like the environmental management standard ISO 14001.

“When we go into a certain situation — let’s say we’re looking to invest in a mine or a new plant — we’ll take into consideration all the economic, social and environmental aspects before making a decision,” said Robert.

The system is built on .Net with Microsoft’s SQL Server on the back end and SAP’s data warehouse. Ease of deployment was an early consideration, said Robert, as was ease of use. With 73,000 employees spread out across the globe, Alcan required an interface that could be understood with a minimum of training.

Alcan convened one-week sessions — two in Europe and two in North America — to train “super-users” who could go back to their respective locations and pass on knowledge to their staff. “We didn’t need more than that,” he said. “Everyone is now using it. We got comments about the intuitiveness of the system.”

An ongoing support system was set up to field questions about the application, but was quickly shut down when it was deemed unnecessary. Because queries are minimal, Alcan’s regular helpdesk support is able to handle them, said Robert.

Alcan has demonstrated some leadership in its ability to roll out a Web services application of this scale, said IDC Canada Ltd. analyst David Senf, based in Toronto.

“Right now a cross-country deployment of Web services – on whatever technology, either .Net or J2EE – is atypical right now. Large Fortune 500 companies could eventually be found doing that deployment,” said Senf. He added that users that have already deployed Microsoft environments could enjoy cost-savings by integrating Web services built on .Net.

Alcan was able to handle the bulk of its integration work, said Robert, but used IBM Global Services for some assistance with Crystal Reports. The system is hosted and managed from Alcan’s Montreal location. A “master user” is responsible for its upkeep but there are key people involved from each of Alcan’s four groups.

The company weathered some infrastructure changes during the set-up phase of EHS First. It spun off Novelis, which makes rolled aluminum products like pop cans, and acquired Pechiney, an aluminum company based in France. Novelis opted to take EHS First with them and Pechiney will also be added to the application.

EHS First is currently only available in English but subsequent versions may include any of the 12 official languages spoken in the company. Given the success of EHS First, Alcan is considering deploying other global applications on the .Net infrastructure, said Robert.

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