Leading Indicators: Predictive data collection and analysis can improve safety programs

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay
Published On
May 13, 2022

Increased safety in the workplace often comes in the form of reactive measures, known as “lagging indicators,” which come after the heels of an injury or incident. It is more effective to improve overall safety with a combined approach focusing on reactive, proactive and predictive or “leading indicator” measures.

Lagging indicators are established by calculating injury rates. Leading indicators are more difficult to quantify. Observation-based indicators can be collected by assessing behaviors and hazardous conditions to determine risk. Operations-based indicators, including risk assessments, risk mitigation through improved hierarchy of controls, preventive maintenance, training efforts or schedule management, can be attributed to an organization’s infrastructure. Systems-based indicators are those that pertain to management factors in a safety system such as psyche, culture and design.

When developing a comprehensive safety program, consider lagging indicators. Ask how does successfully controlling a particular risk appear. There should be consensus on the desired outcome. Can that desired outcome or an adverse result be measured? Define the metric for the outcome along with an acceptable deviation.

To evaluate leading indicators, determine the most important activity or process to consistently achieve the desired outcome, depending on the metrics used to measure critical inputs and whether the variation is dynamic or fixed. Then, identify benchmarked processes or functions and partners to compare against. Next comes the actual data collection and analysis of performance gaps. After that, communicate findings with the appropriate personnel, set goals and begin implementing preventative actions. Finally, the organization needs to periodically review and evaluate benefits to determine if incident rates have improved.

Many organizations track leading indicators. Some of the most common observations include safety training, safety awards and recognition programs, and area audits or safety walk-throughs. The overall efficacy of incorporating these into a safety program is ultimately determined by employee engagement in safety activities, being proactive and following through on safety issues, as well as leader engagement and trust and follow-through.

Knowing what to focus on

Some research suggests that organizations tracking more than five leading indicators actually have higher incident rates. Focusing on too many leading indicators may be daunting and unmanageable. Organizations that focus on three to five areas tend to have lower rates and are more successful. However, each employer needs to determine what works best for them.

For example, Cummins Inc., a U.S. multinational corporation that designs, manufactures and distributes engines, filtration and power-generation products, was looking at implementing leading indicators into their safety program.

According to the “Practical Guide to Leading Indicators” from the Campbell Institute, management at Cummins “soon realized that doing so would not be a quick or easy process. They asked themselves: Which indicators would be most likely to reduce injuries? Which indicators would motivate desired behaviors? How can the organization contribute to that motivation? After much discussion and debate, they eventually chose a few indicators to start with, one of which was training hours.

“With 12 months of data in hand, Cummins calculated a simple correlation coefficient for each leading indicator; for training this included the number of training hours against the incidence rate for that same time period. They found a very strong negative correlation (r = –0.86) indicating that an increase in training hours was associated with a decline in the incidence rate. This correlation remained strong at the corporate level as well as within the business units.”

Ultimately, Cummins’ management wasn’t satisfied with the progress and expanded to more leading indicators so each element was manageable and effective.

Many organizations have also developed near-miss programs, which record potential injuries that were avoided. There is much debate over whether these are leading or lagging indicators. However, near-misses are measurable and quantifiable, and any subsequent safety modifications are reactive. Therefore, in my opinion, they should be considered a lagging indicator.

Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of occupational safety and health until 2019, told the publication Business Insurance: “In my mind, it doesn’t really matter if it is a leading or a lagging as an indicator. You need to look at both. You want to look at where incidents have occurred, and you also want to look at hazards and exposures. A near-miss is an indicator of exposures. That’s what you want to control: hazards and exposures.”

Understanding the importance of leading and lagging indicators can lead to creating a successful, comprehensive safety program.

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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