In a previous article, we discussed taking a proactive approach to setting goals for safety and health including avoiding zero injury goals since they can place hard to reach parameters for your program and culture. Once goals are set, how do you “measure” the success or failure? One tool for companies is to look at leading and lagging indicators. While lagging indicators can alert you to a failure in an area of your safety and health efforts or to the existence of a hazard, leading indicators are important because they can tell you whether your safety and health activities are effective at preventing incidents. 

Leading indicators are proactive and preventive measures that provide information on the effectiveness of safety and health activities and reveal potential problems. Leading indicators can play a vital role in preventing worker fatalities, injuries, and illnesses and strengthening other safety and health outcomes in the workplace. Examples of leading indicators will be discussed later.

A similar approach is lagging indicators which are reactive in nature because they measure the frequency and severity of events that occurred in the past, such as the number or rate of injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. You are likely familiar with one lagging indicator because most companies are required by OSHA to keep related records. OSHA injury and illness recordkeeping allows companies to calculate their injury / illness incidence rate, a reactive lagging indicator because it is available after the injury or illness occurred and is calculated on an annual basis. Another well known lagging indicator is a company’s experience modification rate (EMR). This insurance / workers compensation rate tends to measure severity of serious injuries with potential impact on a company workers compensation cost.

Leading indicators are a more valuable tool to help drive change in your everyday safety program as well as your safety culture. Employers may find that leading indicators can:

  • Prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.
  • Reduce costs associated with incidents.
  • Improve productivity and overall organizational culture.
  • Optimize safety and health performance.
  • Raise worker participation.

Leading indicators for a safety program differ from indicators of a successful safety culture as they focus on the practical applications within the policies, procedures and programs that dictate operational safety and health program efforts. One good example of a yearly (measurable) leading program indicator is the number of workers who attend monthly safety meetings. The annual goal could be 97% of workers in attendance. Each month presents an opportunity to affect the outcome of the indicator. Other examples of leading indicators for a safety and health program include:

  • Frequency with which preventive equipment maintenance tasks are initiated and completed on schedule. 
  • Number of hours passed after an incident before an investigation is started. 
  • Number of hours passed after an incident before an investigation is completed. 
  • Percentage of daily/weekly/monthly inspections completed. 
  • Percentage of inspections that include a follow-up inspection to ensure that the hazard has been controlled.
  • Percentage of recommendations implemented that pertain to PPE hazard controls, administrative controls, engineering controls, substitution, and elimination. 
  • Number of hot work permits filled out. 
  • Percentage of hazards abated on the same day, week, or month in which the hazard was identified. 
  • Number of workers required to wear respiratory protection. 

Leading and lagging indicators for corporate safety cultures are more focused on the key issues that a company finds promotes the belief system of the company…what is important to continuous improvement.  For example, one good safety culture leading indicator might be the amount of time it takes to respond to a safety hazard report. A decrease in the response time may demonstrate an increased awareness in safety and managers’ commitment to a workplace safety culture. Conversely, an increase in response time could signal a lack of management concern, which could mean that hazards are likely to remain uncontrolled, and incidents are more likely to occur. Furthermore, workers may decide to discontinue reporting hazards if they feel that management is not being responsive to their concerns. This can affect morale, which could have broad implications for the workplace safety culture.

Implementation of a mix of effective leading indicators and prerequisite lagging indicators can benefit the company safety and health program as well as contribute to a successful, on-going corporate safety culture.

The Center for Construction Research and Training (aka CPWR) has helpful safety indicator information at this webpage:  CPWR | Strengthening Jobsite Safety Climate by Using and Improving Leading Indicators 

Federal OSHA has a helpful document at this webpage: Using Leading Indicators to Improve Safety and Health Outcomes (