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2nd November, 2018

Proactive Vs Reactive Health And Safety Management

Does your health and safety management consist of mostly proactive or reactive safety measures? Which one you focus on could have a big impact on your safety culture, and your bottom line.

In facilities and building management, we often talk about proactive and reactive maintenance, but you may not have heard these phrases in relation to health and safety. We can actually plan our health and safety management in the same way, in order to bring long-term health and safety benefits to an organisation.

But what's the difference between proactive and reactive health and safety management? Should you use one, or the other, or both?

Proactive health and safety measures

Proactive safety management is all about keeping ahead of the game, resolving any issues before an incident or an accident occurs.

  • Inspections
  • Interviewing
  • Audits
  • Monitoring performance
  • Monitoring behaviour
  • Checking procedures
  • Safety sampling

In the short term, proactive safety measures can seem more expensive. You are putting in place (and spending money) on health and safety before any safety or health issues may have developed.

Proactive safety inspections, regular auditing, ongoing training, near-miss reporting and active supervision will all form part of a proactive safety management structure.

The benefits of a proactive safety regime are that it will enforce a positive safety culture, help to prevent accidents from occurring, and improve health and safety budgeting.

Reactive safety measures

Reactive health and safety management is about dealing with issues, accidents and incidents when they occur. Unlike proactive safety management, it's too late to stop them. Reactive safety measures are about putting things right.

Reactive safety measures include:

  • Accident reporting
  • Accident investigation
  • Incident investigation
  • Ill health and sickness reviews
  • Identifying trends

With reactive health and safety measures, you are taking action after things have gone wrong. This often means that there is more pressure to take action quickly so that work can re-commence and people can be assured that there is no risk of reoccurrence.

There may also be external pressure from insurance companies, clients, and the HSE if the incident is serious.

In the long term, reactive safety measures tend to be more costly, because you will need to put in place many of the same things that could have been done before an accident occurred, plus having the extra expense and costs associated with an accident.

Which is best, proactive or reactive?

It might seem obvious by now that we favour a proactive safety management approach. It's almost always cheaper in the long run, and of course, it's better to prevent an accident before it happens than wait for one to happen.

You may need to take the same action in the end, whether you were reactive or proactive.

For example, during a proactive safety sample of your workforce, you might identify that a member of staff needs more training to operate a machine safely. In a reactive safety management system, you might not identify the training requirement until an accident occurs. In both situations, you need to arrange the training. The difference is, in the reactive example, there may also be costs associated with unplanned time off work, the accident, and any damage caused.

Safety management cannot achieve its stated purposes by responding alone, since that will only correct what has happened. Safety management must instead be proactive...

Professor Erik Hollnagel in Safety-I and Safety-II: The Past and Future of Safety Management

You can compare it with maintenance, in that it often costs less to routinely service and maintain equipment to prevent a breakdown, rather than letting it break down and having to pay for expensive repairs or replacement. Proactive safety management can be seen as maintaining your health and safety standards and performance, planning ahead and scheduling the work needed to keep your workforce safe.

The better you maintain your equipment, and proactively replace it within the recommended time frames, the less likely you will suffer an unexpected breakdown. The better your proactive safety management, the less chance of an accident occurring.

Just as if a breakdown occurs, you need to rely on reactive maintenance or emergency repair work to resolve the issue, if an accident or incident occurs, you need to rely on reactive health and safety management to resolve the issue.

But the initial upfront cost of proactive safety measures can sometimes put people off. After all, if there hasn't been an accident yet, maybe you will be ok for another week, or month. Remember when we said that proactive safety measures are more expensive in the short term? Well, that short-term expenditure we discussed will suddenly seem like a much better deal compared to dealing with, and trying to recover from, an accident.

Aside from the increased costs, reactive safety management will also increase the strain on resources and disruption.

Not only might part of your workforce be injured as a result of an accident, but you may need to put a project on hold while you find the resources to implement any reactive measures needed to investigate and implement corrective measures.

With proactive safety management, health and safety improvements, training or inspections can be planned to minimise disruption. Not so when an accident occurs and the HSE are breathing down your neck, not to mention the personal injury lawyers and insurance companies.

The pitfalls of reactive safety management, therefore, have many parallels with reactive maintenance. It is more expensive than planned proactive safety management, the damage has already been done, and there are many additional demands placed on the situation because it may be an emergency.

Reactive safety management and monitoring is a measurement of failure when something has gone wrong. Proactive safety management and monitoring is a measurement of success, a way to keep things working right and safe.

However, reactive safety measures still have a place, even in a proactive health and safety management system. You should always be prepared, should there be a failure in your controls measures. Part of proactive safety management will involve planning for emergencies and putting in place accident reporting and investigation procedures, in the hope that you will not have to use them.

There is room for both proactive and reactive safety management within all organisations, but the better your proactive safety management becomes the less reactive requirements you should have.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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