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Using Leading Indicators to Improve Workplace Safety

Feb 20, 2020 Decorative image

History—knowing what happened—is important. Environmental health and safety (EHS) professionals are often required to report on history: How many people were injured? How many people became ill? How many days of work were missed?

These measures are known as “lagging” indicators. They tell us what has happened already and record progress or lack of progress in complying with safety rules. They do nothing, however, to help us identify, reduce or eliminate safety and health risks. They also don’t answer a very simple question: Is the workplace (or process, or tool, etc.) safe?

What Is a Leading Indicator?

“Leading” indicators, in contrast, focus on the future—namely, improvement and prevention. The Campbell Institute and the National Safety Council provide this definition:

Leading indicators are proactive, preventative, and predictive measures that monitor and provide current information about the effective performance, activities, and processes of an EHS management system that drive the identification and elimination or control of risks in the workplace that can cause incidents and injuries.

Consider this example. Several employees are injured during the year (lagging indicator) in a certain section of a manufacturing plant. After some investigation, the safety engineer discovers that tools lying in the work area walkways are contributing significantly to the problem.

A new policy is instituted that requires workers to pick up and properly store all tools at the end of each shift. Employees must indicate they have completed the task by marking a checklist. The number/frequency of cleanups, as indicated on the checklist, is the leading indicator. If the injury problem’s root cause is a messy work area and the employees follow the new process, then regular cleanup (leading indicator) should result in fewer injuries (lagging indicator) in that part of the plant.

Leading indicators help you understand what to change and improve. Lagging indicators help you measure how effective your actions are. Together, they help bring your safety program into clearer focus.

How to Use Leading Indicators

Leading indicators are as varied as the types of employers, job sites and work being performed. Examples of common leading indicators include safety training, safety audits, hazard identification and remediation, preventive maintenance, identification and remediation of ergonomic issues, worker participation and leadership engagement.

For a better understanding of how to identify and implement leading indicators relevant to your workplace, download the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) booklet called “Using Leading Indicators to Improve Safety and Health Outcomes.” This well-written resource will help you:

  • learn characteristics of effective leading indicators (included is a great example of strong/weak leading indicators),
  • learn steps for using leading indicators, and
  • explore three realistic scenarios that demonstrate how to choose a leading indicator, how to set a goal, how to collect data and how to evaluate progress.

The booklet also provides a seven-step action plan checklist to help you get started.

Another Important Resource: Your Insurance Broker

As you review your safety risks and create plans to reduce and eliminate them, remember that your insurance broker or provider can offer helpful insights to make your program even stronger. Contact your local Hylant risk management expert if you would like help reviewing your program.

The above information does not constitute advice. Always contact your insurance broker or trusted adviser for insurance-related questions.

Sean Majewski, Casualty Loss Control Risk Advisor