We like to think we’re proactive, but are we really?
Chief Operating Officer – Safer Highways
What kind of person are you; are you proactive or reactive?
Ask most people for their opinion of themselves and I am fairly sure that the majority would plump for the former. Not because they have an inflated ego or are full of their own self-importance, but instead because that’s just how we are. More of us are glass half full than half empty. It’s human nature. But now ask yourselves the same question again, and this time relate it to something within your everyday life.
The dripping tap effect
Before answering the question, I want you to think about something I call the dripping tap effect. Most people experience a dripping tap somewhere in their house every now and again. It can be fixed quickly and cheaply, usually with a new washer that costing just a few pence. But leave it to drip and it will slowly get worse, staining and corroding the joints and pipework until, all of a sudden you need to get a plumber in to replace the whole unit at a much bigger cost.
Pick a scenario, a simple, mundane every day one where you have a little niggling problem. Maybe that odd quiet knocking you’ve started to hear recently from your car engine every time you accelerate. At the moment it’s just a bit irritating, but what if it is a symptom of something much more serious. What would you do about it?
For the majority of us, I’ll bet the answer is to try and ignore ignore it. After all, it’s not that loud. It doesn’t sound that serious. Maybe it’ll sort itself out and go away. You do nothing, carrying on as if it isn’t there or doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, it’s in the back of your mind every time you drive the car. It’s an elephant in the room, albeit a small one.
But just like all animals the elephant will grow and soon it becomes too big to ignore.
Then the car engine seizes up leaving you stranded, disrupting your plans and requiring major repairs at massive expense
I am sure at this point some of you are thinking to yourself that you would have taken the car to the garage immediately, got it serviced and eliminated the problem. But be honest, would you have? How many things like this, the dripping taps, do we all ignore every day of our lives?
So, “what does the dripping tap have to do with safety?” I hear you ask.
Let’s start again. Ask most people their opinion of the safety culture within their business and they will answer that it is a positive one. But what makes you say that?
The most popular answer we hear is “We haven’t had a RIDDOR in the last X months!”
Well congratulations. No, honestly, I mean it, well done!
But what happens when you do have a serious incident and those nice men from the HSE pay you a little visit in the aftermath. They aren’t necessarily going to be looking at your past record. After all, you’ve just had a serious injury or, god forbid, a fatality.
No, they are going to be looking at your policies and procedures and also, perhaps more crucially, the culture within your organisation towards safety. They’re going to look at how your organisation instinctively behaves when it hears a knocking in its car engine, or it sees a dripping tap.
Do you fix the leak at the outset? Do you take your car to the garage? Or do you leave it for the time being, allowing it to get worse?
If you think Health and Safety is expensive, wait until you have an accident
For all of us, life has many little expenses we would rather do without. That annual service on the car (notwithstanding the oil and filter change that seems to be almost a necessity every time), or when the plumber comes round and spends no more than five minutes looking at your boiler before handing you a bill for a week’s salary.
Well the same thing can be applied to safety. In the highways sector, we often talk about proactive and reactive maintenance. Proactive being resurfacing the road when it deteriorates and cracks start to appear; reactive being the opposite – repeatedly patch it with a bit of asphalt after having to pay out compensation to unwitting motorists who’ve run into a pothole the size of the Grand Canyon, apply a sticking plaster to the problem so to speak.
Last year, Londoners were awarded over £4 million in compensation for damage to vehicles from potholes. Authorities then still had to pay extra for contractors to carry our repairs, making the grand total even higher.
How many of the worst affected roads across the capital could that £4 million+ have resurfaced, had authorities taken a more proactive approach. Now apply this example to the safety culture within your organisation.
Proactive vs reactive, which is cheaper?
With our car engine, servicing and repairs often seem so expensive. It’s still running so we put it off. But now let’s dig a little deeper. Servicing your car regularly, and repairing minor faults quickly, keeps it efficient and running at its optimum. Not only does this decrease the chances of it blowing up, but it performs better and uses less fuel. Now let’s apply the same logic to safety.
Proactive safety management is all about keeping ahead of the game, resolving any issues before an incident or an accident occurs.
In the short term, proactive safety management can seem more expensive. You are putting processes and procedures in place, and spending money on health and safety, before any safety or health issues may have developed.
However, the benefits of a proactive safety regime are that it will enforce a positive safety culture, help to prevent accidents from occurring and hopefully, in the longer term, improve health and safety budgeting.
That initial expenditure will suddenly seem like a much better deal compared to dealing with, and trying to recover from, a serious accident.
In the driving seat
Back to our car again, or indeed any other essential piece of equipment in your home or work life. It often costs less to routinely service and maintain equipment to prevent a breakdown, than it does to let it breakdown and have to pay for expensive repairs or replacement.
In the same way, proactive safety management is the regular service and MOT on your car, the engine inspection when something doesn’t sound quite right, making your workforce safer and thus reducing your accident frequency rates (AFR) and the amount of time lost to injuries in the workplace.
The better you maintain your equipment, and proactively replace it within the recommended time frames, the less likely you will be to suffer an unexpected breakdown. The better the safety culture you can foster, the safer your workforce and your business will be. The better your proactive safety management, the less chance there is 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. We need to be in the driver’s seat, confident things are running well, not the passenger seat, with no control over the events that happen to us.
Aside from the higher costs, reactive safety management can also massively disrupt business operations with unplanned shutdowns and investigations, and increase the strain on resources and management time.
Not only might a part of your workforce be injured because of an accident, but you may need to put projects on hold while you find the resources to implement any corrective measures.
With better proactive safety management, training or inspections can be planned to minimise disruption. Not so after an accident occurs and the HSE is breathing down your neck.
There is room for both proactive and reactive safety management within all organisations. The better your proactive safety management becomes, and the quicker you fix all those metaphorical dripping taps, the less need you’ll have to be reactive in an emergency.
As we mentioned earlier “If you think Health and Safety is expensive, wait until you have an accident.”
Enjoy the weekend
Head of Immersive Learning, Turner Kenworthy