Smartphones and Safety


Often when we see news reports about smartphones and safety, it is about how someone was injured or killed because they were distracted by their phone (or smartwatch) at a critical moment.


But for all that smartphones can cause us to crash our cars or fall into sewers, they can also improve our health and make us safer.  Here are three examples of health and safety smartphone apps.


Ladder Safety:  This is a smartphone app from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is designed to use the built in accelerometers in a smartphone to measure the angle of a ladder and tell the user if it is safe (not too steep or too shallow).  While this app was designed for use on the job site, it can also be a valuable tool for the general public.

In this photo we see a homeowner (my husband) using an extension ladder to replace the batteries in a smoke detector (staying safe!).  But is the ladder at a safe angle?  We had no idea!  He survived, but now that we have this app, we can be sure that the ladder will be safely and properly placed the next time we have to change that battery.



HealthMap:  health map 2

This app from Boston Children’s Hospital is a mobile version of the HealthMap website that shows current outbreaks in your area.  HealthMap uses an automated health news aggregator, as well as user reports, to constantly compile health news.  While I don’t usually use HealthMap at home (I’m pretty good about keeping up on local outbreak news), I found it very valuable for planning a trip to Central America.  I checked the HealthMap for the area I was traveling to a few weeks before I left to make sure I had gotten vaccinated against anything that was currently circulating, and that I had the proper precautions for vector-borne diseases.


Seafood Watchseafood watch

This app, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium  provides users not only mobile access to the popular Seafood Watch guide for selecting safe and sustainable seafood, but also will locate nearby restaurants that feature sustainable seafood.  While the primary aim of Seafood Watch is to encourage purchases that protect the environment, they include a list of “Super Green” choices that are both environmentally friendly and good for your health (low in mercury and high in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids).  This is a really valuable resource, because omega-3s are highly recommended for pregnant women, but mercury is strongly warned against, and often the fish that provide the most omega-3s are also high in mercury.


The biggest challenge for health and safety smartphone apps is getting people to download and use them.  As Heather Mansfield says in “Social Media for Social Good”, most apps don’t end up getting downloaded.  An app can’t just be a mobile version of an organization’s website (which might be all that a group needs).  In order to get downloaded and used, an app has to perform a function that a user wants and needs (even if they didn’t know they needed it), and has to do it better than a website.


The Seafood Watch app is an outgrowth of the very popular Seafood Watch website and printed guides.  The Ladder Safety app is essentially a level on a phone, with a specific “safe position” indicator.  The HealthMap is the most novel of the apps, in that it cannot exist outside of the connected environment, and it provides vital information to users in the moment and location where they need it.  What about  your health concern is mobile?  Let that guide you to develop (or not) your app.



6 thoughts on “Smartphones and Safety

  1. Hi Margot, I enjoyed reading your blog. You show how simple it is to integrate the use of safety apps into daily life. I can see the ladder safety app coming in handy for so many people. Also, I like how you snuck in another safety tip by showing how the ladder safety app could be used to safely change smoke detector batteries- something we all should to do anyway. I have the Seafood Watch wallet card somewhere but never seem to have it with me when I’m out deciding what kind of seafood I should (or shouldn’t) get. I would use the Seafood Watch app a lot since I usually have my phone on me. Thanks for sharing! I enjoyed the cute cartoon video too 🙂 Another safety app that comes to mind, although in a non-traditional sense, is Uber. It is not available in all cities, but in the cities where Uber is used, alcohol-induced road deaths dropped 5.6% ( Apps that help make safety decisions quick and easy are useful. I agree the biggest challenge is getting people to download them. Engaging with social networks is one good way of raising awareness. My friends are usually eager to share about a new app they are excited about. Chances are I would use it too, or at least give it a chance because a friend recommended it.

  2. Hi Margot, thank you for this post! I have the seafood watch app, and will be getting the ladder safety one shortly. What effective use of visuals too! At one point, I had to look up the difference between app vs. mobile website ( This probably isn’t the only resource out there, but I thought I would include it as an addition, as my experience with app development (which is very limited) has been that they can be more costly. And, at least for me, it was easier update content to a website, just because of the turnaround time needed. For nonprofits with limited funds, the mobile site may be a cheaper option (Mansfield, 2012). I wonder if things have changed much in the last few years regarding app development process and timeline. Would be interested in knowing from any in the group who may know.

    • Hi Lucy,
      This is one of the few places where I think Mansfield’s book is actually a little dates (three years, I know!). The cost associated with making an app isn’t just price (the actual cost can be minimal), it’s the skill involved. And now there are a lot more people with those skills. In some cases it’s so easy a child can do it, like my friend’s work with App Camp for Girls (

      The real difference, in my mind, between choosing an app versus a mobile website is that an app has to *do* something, where a mobile website is something you read. So even an organization with a big budget might choose not to make an app if it doesn’t do a thing.

  3. Hi, Margot. As usual your post is really entertaining to read – especially the animation – as well as informative. I always learn something completely new from you. I hadn’t heard of any of these apps. I love the idea of the Seafood Watch app and you gave a really good example of how it can really make a difference to health (in pregnant women) and isn’t just focusing on the environmental sustainability angle. The ladder app baffles me a little, I must admit. Don’t you have to be actually on the ladder for the level to work? If you then find out that it’s not at a safe angle, it could be too late by the time you find out! I’m probably missing something. Overall, though, you described some good examples of health and safety apps and explained well why they can be more useful than a mobile website to provide the same information. Nonprofits that have invested in developing apps (which can be expensive, as Lucyylee says) can attract people to them and increase the number downloaded by using similar strategies to those they use to drive traffic to their websites, such as App Store optimisations with key words and phrases (analogous to search engine optimisation); using a eye-catching icon to make it stand out and that quickly conveys what your app is about; get your app reviewed by a super-user or someone whose opinion matters in the mobile world. See this article for more details

    • Ah, I didn’t explain the ladder thing well. You open the app and then (standing on the ground) lay your phone against the upright leg of the ladder to see if the angle is right. You’re right, it doesn’t do you much good once you’re on the ladder!

  4. Hi Margot! This post had me laughing out loud – how did you get wordpress to animate the guy falling into the pothole? I loved that. I know I told you this before – but seriously, if you get tired of the whole health field thing, you could have quite the career in comedy. Or, better yet, how about using your comedic abilities to advance public health as you’ve done here! I would come back and read your blog just because of how entertaining you are. You could slip in bits of public health wisdom with your entertainment:-). Fun and useful content – a perfect combination. I especially like how you put in the personal photos – definitely grabs my attention. Thanks for the fun read:-).

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