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What is a Document Control System, and Why Do You Need One?

Businesses in highly-regulated industries handle hundreds of documents every day including contracts, wastewater permits, air quality reports, inspection forms, training records, and safety data sheets (SDSs) — to name a few.

These documents are not only difficult to organize, but also expensive to store and problematic to secure. And the more your business grows, the riskier it is to manage your compliance obligations using paper records.

That’s where a document control system comes in. In this article, we’ll provide you with a simple definition of a document control system, what it does, and whether you really need one.

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What is a document control system?

A document control system is a technology used to track, manage, and store digital documents as well as scanned copies of paper documents. The goal is simple: to improve access to important documents. A document control system helps you get organized, store documents efficiently, and share information across your organization.

When people talk about a document control system, they are most often referring to document control software — a tool that lets you store all your documents online in a central repository. These tools usually include features like file sharing, security permissions, version control, and check-out to help you improve collaboration and access to your files.

A document control system, also known as a document management system, plays an important role in your compliance efforts — not only when it comes to data protection but also document storage, retrieval, retention, and disposition.

Who is a document control system for?

For businesses in highly-regulated industries, a document control system is a must. It is a valuable asset, giving you access to all the records you need to prove compliance with EPA and OSHA regulations, state and local laws, voluntary standards like ISO, and contractual obligations.

Forms and other documentation can of course be kept in hard copy format, but this can get out of hand quickly. Paper records take up a lot of space to store, and it’s not just a matter of stuffing them in a file cabinet. You’ll need to consider things like how to secure physical files and what to do with multiple versions of the same document. And, if more than one person needs to edit a document, approve a change, or create a report, you’ll need document management software.

That said, businesses of all shapes and sizes can benefit from managing their documents more carefully. It should come as no surprise, then, that the document management software industry is witnessing explosive growth. In 2019, worldwide spending on document management software was $836.9 million, and it is expected to reach $996.8 million by the end of 2026.

Why you need a document control system

The main benefit of a document control system is that it helps reduce your regulatory risk.

Poor recordkeeping is a common reason for regulatory violations. A document control system helps you avoid potentially devastating fines and enforcement actions by ensuring that your records are managed properly. And, in the event of an audit, you will be able to quickly produce the necessary documents to demonstrate compliance.

But the advantages don’t stop there — other benefits of document control systems include:


  • Go paperless: Resource Information Systems Inc. (RISI) estimates that U.S. companies will spend about $8 billion per year on managing paper. That includes not only the cost of purchasing paper, but also printing, storing, shredding, and disposing of it. Going paperless can save your business a significant amount of money and make a major contribution to your sustainability efforts.
  • Improve efficiency: According to McKinsey, the average worker spends 1.8 hours per day — or 9 hours per week! — searching for information to complete their tasks. With a document control system, that’s no longer necessary. Everything is organized and easily searchable, so no matter who is looking for a document, they’ll have the most up-to-date version instantly available.
  • Work from anywhere: A cloud-based system gives you access to your documents anytime, anywhere. Unlike a paper filing cabinet, you can retrieve your most important records without being physically present in the office. This is a huge advantage as remote work is becoming the new norm.
  • Control access to sensitive documents: Security breaches are a serious risk to your business and your reputation, and a locked file cabinet or password protected spreadsheet won’t cut it anymore. As the name implies, a document control system allows you to control who has access to specific files. This means that only the correct people have permission to view, edit, and delete documents.
  • Prevent loss: Paper documents can easily be lost, stolen, or destroyed in a fire or flood. A document control system does away with this concern by providing a secure digital copy of your files. A document control system also prevents the loss of institutional knowledge—for example, when key employees leave or retire—by giving you a central repository to store important documents, records, and reports.

What are the best document management systems?

The answer is, of course, it depends. The best document management system for your business will depend largely on your industry, the size of your company, and what you need to use the system for. Some features of the best document management systems are:


  • Search function: Being able to search your files makes it much easier to locate the information you need. Look for a system that allows you and your teammates to search shared documents by name or category for quick retrieval.
  • Multiple file formats: PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets — these are just a few of the common file formats you might use. A good system should be able to handle all these types of files.
  • Access control: To protect sensitive information, you might want to give permission for people to view or edit specific documents while restricting access to others. Access control is a helpful feature that allows you to set permissions for a single individual or a group of users based on their role.
  • Version control & check-out: Version control allows you to track changes to a document and see when it was last modified. Along the same lines, check-out prevents multiple people from making changes to a document at the same time. This way you don’t end up with multiple conflicting versions of the same file.
  • Backup & recovery: If your computer crashes, all your documents will be stored securely in the cloud. And, if a file is accidentally saved over or deleted, you can easily restore it from a backup copy.
  • Attach supporting documents to tasks: Some — but not all — systems bring your compliance tasks and documents together in one place. The ability to create tasks and attach relevant documentation will skyrocket your team’s productivity. You’ll spend less time jumping back and forth between different applications and more time focused on your work.

Keep learning

Documents are the written history of your business’ compliance performance. Incident reports, investigations, plans, and policies — these are all an important part of the narrative. Therefore, it is important that you retain these documents in a way that is safe, organized, and readily accessible.

A document control system can be easy to implement, and the benefits it provides are well worth the small investment of time required. To learn more, check out these five document management tips for EHS teams.

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