How the move to cloud-based health and safety systems changed SPCA's culture

New Zealand animal welfare charity SPCA Canterbury has experienced a significant cultural change upon implementing cloud-based health and safety software across its sites.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor
(Image: SPCA)

On the afternoon of November 19, 2010, a methane explosion ripped through the Pike River mine near Greymouth on the South Island of New Zealand, claiming the lives of 29 miners. In the years following the Pike River mine disaster, the nation underwent significant health and safety reforms resulting in the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 coming into effect on April 4, 2016.

The Act introduced strict liability on behalf of employers, shifting the focus from monitoring and recording health and safety incidents in the workplace to proactively identifying and managing risks before they become incidents.

Like many other workplaces in New Zealand, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Canterbury -- the first SPCA to be established in New Zealand, back in 1872 -- began to evaluate its health and safety systems and procedures.

Barry Helem, CEO of SPCA Canterbury, told ZDNet that what was lacking at the organisation was a culture of health and safety.

"It wasn't really part of our culture. It was more an add-on," Helem said. "Because it was such a manual, paper-based process, it was hard for people to feel engaged."

However, for an organisation like the SPCA, keeping on top of health and safety is paramount, Helem said.

For more than 140 years, SPCA Canterbury has been dedicated to improving animal welfare. Its 40 paid staff members and 500-plus volunteers work hard to rescue, rehabilitate, and rehome animals in need.

But many distant onlookers don't realise just how fraught with danger their jobs can be, Helem said. This is because animal inspections and rescue operations often involve confrontations with people with violent tendencies.

"We deal with a demographic that abuses animals. Generally, people who are cruel to animals are also cruel to people," Helem said. "We're essentially sending staff out into situations where police would go, except our inspectors aren't armed. So we have to be extra vigilant."

The other big risk for SPCA inspectors is handling aggressive animals.

"Often the dogs that come through have issues with behaviour, or because they're injured and in pain, they're likely to snap or bite," Helem said.

The nature of their operations means incidents need to be documented fairly regularly.

However, even as little as two years ago, the organisation relied on paper-based manuals to document policies and procedures, which often sat on shelves gathering dust. Reminders would be pinned to physical noticeboards, but were often overlooked.

Having paper-based incident reports also meant it was near impossible to derive real-time actionable insights, Helem explained.

"But that all changed when we started using the Vault," he said.

Since working with Australian Securities Exchange-listed health and safety software provider Vault Intelligence, SPCA Canterbury staff and volunteers have been a lot more active in their contribution to the safety and well-being of their workplace, Helem said.

"When it's cloud-based and interactive, when people have access to the applications on their mobile devices, when there's Wi-Fi right around the work site, it just brings it all to life. Health and safety is now very much part of what we do," Helem said.

"We also now have a health and safety manager to drive it even more."

Since transitioning to a cloud-based health and safety system in 2016, SPCA Canterbury has been able to more efficiently manage, and have greater visibility of, health and safety across its sites in real time, Helem said.

"We put up tablets in every unit that staff could access, and by making the capture of information real time, it's gone a long way to putting in place a culture of health and safety. It's an interactive thing now, as opposed to something that's gathering dust on the shelf," Helem added.

"It's a way of getting staff engaged and taking responsibility not only for their own health and safety, but also the safety of others by being very mindful of hazards and reporting incidents quickly and easily so that we can track, measure, and monitor improvements over time.

"In terms of getting the right culture in place, the [implementation] has been invaluable."

Helem also said that things don't get forgotten anymore.

"The system generates email and text reminders for things like vehicle maintenance. It reminds us if the vehicles we use to transport animals are about to expire. It reminds us when staff need to get their first aid certification renewed," he explained.

One thing that's come to light since transitioning to a cloud-based system is the high instances of cat scratches and bites experienced by SPCA Canterbury staff. This insight prompted the organisation to review its cat-handling procedures.

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"A lot of the cats coming to the SPCA animal shelters can be frightened, so they do tend to lash out. We have noticed a high instance of cat scratches and bites, which has actually caused us to now look at what we need to do to minimise that," Helem said.

"While it doesn't sound serious, cat bites and cat scratches can be extremely serious. People have been known to lose their fingers from cat bites. That's one thing Vault's [technology] is highlighting for us."

Health and safety is not the only area of business that SPCA Canterbury moved to the cloud.

A magnitude 6.3 earthquake that badly damaged Christchurch and Lyttelton in 2011 prompted the organisation to also move most of its systems to the cloud, including accounting and payroll.

"Everything we try and use from a technology perspective is cloud-based now. It's a strategic decision we made after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake," Helem said. "In terms of business continuity, we thought it was really important if there was a major civil defence emergency again and none of us could get to the workplace, that we can work remotely if we needed to."

Helem admitted that the organisation was still in the early stages of its digital transformation journey, with plans to implement technology wherever possible.

"The framework for what we need to achieve compliance has been put in place, and we're using a range of smart tools to help with everyday practices and operations. But there's more we can do, and it's not just around health and safety," he concluded.

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