20th October, 2021

Proactive Vs Reactive Health And Safety Management

Is your health and safety management mostly proactive or reactive? Which one you focus on could have a big impact on your safety culture, and your bottom line. But what's the difference between proactive and reactive safety? Should you use one, the other, or both? Let's take a look!

Proactive Vs Reactive Health And Safety Management header image

Is your health and safety management reactive? Do you handle things as they happen? Do you react to problems when they occur?

Or would you say you're more proactive? You look forward and plan for what could be around the corner. You try to eliminate problems before they happen.

In facilities and building management, we often talk about proactive and reactive maintenance. Simplified, reactive maintenance involves fixing things when they break and being proactive means preventing them from breaking. You may not have heard these phrases about health and safety, but they can be applied in the same way.

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.

Proactive safety measures include:

Proactive safety inspections, regular auditing, ongoing training, near-miss reporting and active supervision will all form part of a proactive safety management structure. An accident hasn't happened yet. You're looking for areas where you could make improvements. Tasks or activities that could be safer.

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

But you are also spending time (and money) on your terms. There's no emergency. No one is hurt. No HSE inspectors buzzing around. No insurance companies are on the phone.

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:

With reactive health and safety measures, you are taking action after things have gone wrong. This often means there is more pressure to take action quickly so work can continue and people feel 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. You will need to put in place many of the same things that could have been done before an accident occurred, plus the extra costs, time and resources 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. It's just that when working proactivity, you can do things on your terms, to your schedule. And without the damage of an accident.

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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 Safety-I and Safety-II: The Past and Future of Safety Management

As we mentioned earlier, you can compare this same strategy with maintenance. It often costs less to routinely service and to 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.

Be more proactive, less reactive.

Of course, you can't plan for everything. Unless you have a crystal ball and can see the future, surprises will always happen. But being more proactive means that you can prevent problems before they happen. And that means fewer unplanned interruptions, headaches and emergencies.

Just like when 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 by being more proactive, you make these emergencies less likely to happen.

And just like in building management, if you plan ahead, you can bring long-term health and safety benefits to an organisation.

Think long-term.

The initial upfront cost of proactive safety measures can sometimes put people off. After all, 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 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.

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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 you need. And on top of that, you need to investigate the accident, replace injured staff, reassure clients, and deal with insurance and the HSE.

With proactive safety management, you can plan health and safety improvements to minimise disruption. Carry out training and inspections on a schedule of your choosing. Not be forced into it when an accident occurs and the HSE and insurance companies are breathing down your neck.

Costs more later

Every business needs to keep people safe. Employers have legal health and safety responsibilities. It's the law.

So it's a question of when, not if, you need to spend time (and some money and resources) on health and safety.

The pitfalls of reactive safety management have many parallels with reactive maintenance. It is more expensive than planned proactive safety management because the damage has already been done. When you are reacting to an accident or incident 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. Always prepare for 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.


Want to be more proactive with your health and safety? Start by risk assessing your work and make sure you have the right policies and procedures in place.

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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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