Proactive Safety: How to Use Leading Indicators to Prevent Incidents

As a safety pro, you’ve heard some big talk from others in the industry. They have reduced their recordable incident rate to practically nothing or even brought their lost time incident rate (LTIR) to zero.

How do they do it? There’s a good chance they got it done with leading indicators.

In the world of safety, success is determined not just by the outcome you achieve but the methods and tools you use to get there. Safety is measurable, predictable, and repeatable, but luck just happens and can evaporate at any time.

Leading indicators are measurement tools that give you the power and data you need to shore up safety program weaknesses and reach your data-driven goals. With leading indicators, you can measure success in real-time and actively prevent incidents.

What is a Leading Indicator?

Let’s start with the basics. What is a leading indicator in the context of safety?

OSHA provides a clear definition: “proactive, preventive and predictive measures that provide information about the effective performance of your safety and health activities.”

In other words, leading indicators look forward. They help you plan and achieve future outcomes and events. In the world of safety, they help you plan and achieve safe workplaces.

For a long time, safety pros focused too heavily on lagging indicators, which look backward. Lagging indicators have a place in workplace safety. They help you measure what happened over time and allow you to determine whether you achieved your goals. But if your goal is to help every worker get home safe, you need to create the conditions to make it happen, not just measure it.

What Are Some Leading Indicators Examples?

What constitutes a leading indicator? Any piece of data that allows you to control the future while working in the present can be a leading indicator. You can use observations, inspections, and surveys as leading indicators. For more insight, turn to the Campbell Institute (part of the National Safety Council), which created The Implementation Guide to Leading Indicators and provides a long list of potential leading indicators in its appendix.

To get better acquainted, you may find it helpful to turn to the National Safety Councils’ three broad leading indicator categories:

  • Operations-based leading indicators (compliance, risk assessment, prevention through design, etc.)
  • Systems-based leading indicators (hazard ID, learning system, safety perception system, EHS system component evaluation, etc.)
  • Behavior-based leading indicators (leadership engagement, at-risk behaviors, and safe behaviors, off-the-job safety, etc.)

The great thing about leading indicators is that they are highly customizable. You can choose the leading indicators that best fit your industry, job types, and, most importantly, your company’s safety plan.

What’s the Evidence for Leading Indicators?

This post isn’t the first place you heard about leading indicators. The concept has become so popular that it’s covered across the safety spectrum and even in individual industries. But is the term “leading indicators” at risk of becoming a buzzword? Is it possible that leading indicators are a concept that is useful in theory but doesn’t mean much in practice for safety pros?

Not at all. There’s an ever-growing body of science behind the concept of leading indicators that ranges from safety-specific research into health risk management and beyond.

In one study presented at the 7th CSCE/ASCE/CRC International Construction Specialty Conference in 2019, a team of researchers considered leading indicators’ ability to monitor safety performance accurately and reduce future incidents. They used safety and project-based data from eight industrial construction projects over two years to identify the variables with the most significant impact on performance.

You can read the full study here.

In another study published in 2019 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, researchers tested the associations between leading and lagging indicators. They used leading indicators from 2,198 construction contractors and compared them to the lagging indicators (recordable injury case rates, days away from work rates, and others). They found that increased Safety management System scores related to lower injury rates. The data showed they could associate every one-point increase in the SMS value with 34% reduced odds of a recordable case rate greater than zero.

Find the second study here.

There is a lot of literature on leading and lagging indicators — some of it with greater validity than others. You can access much of it, including research related to your industry, via Google Scholar.

What Can You Do with Leading Indicators?

Leading indicators allow you to focus on the present so that you might better control the future. What can you use leading indicators to achieve?

Some of the ways you might use leading indicators in your system include:

  • Controlling hazards
  • Improve elements of your program
  • Working towards a specific goal

Ultimately, choosing your leading indicators happens during the Plan phase of the Plan Do Check Act (PDCA). They set up the program for success and give you a better ‘checking’ method as you move through the model. 

One of the benefits of leading indicators is that you can integrate them into your safety program in any way you see fit. They can identify the makings of a problem before it becomes an incident. 

If you have a problem with slips and falls, you can design leading indicators that target the root causes of slips and falls in your workplace. If you work at heights and it’s your key risk, you can use work at heights leading indicators to manage risks.

How to Use Leading Indicators

Now that you know how useful leading indicators are, it’s time to learn how to use them. 

While you can pick a handful of leading indicators and run with them, you’ll find more success in your safety program if you take a systematic approach. The Campbell Institute provides a beneficial, research-based implementation guide that any business can use as a handbook.

In this section, we’ll walk you through the process of adding leading indicators to your safety program.

Select Your Leading Indicators

The first step is the simplest, and it allows you to be creative. All it requires is for you to choose the leading indicators you think will make the most difference in your safety program.

The Campbell Institute calls this stage the “Define” stage. All it means is finding metrics that meet the OSHA definition above. If you’re still having trouble narrowing them down, consider using the eight characteristics developed by the Campbell Institute for robust leading indicators. You can ask:

  • Is the leading indicator actionable?
    • Achievable?
    • Meaningful?
    • Transparent?
    • Explainable?
    • Valid?
    • Useful?
    • Timely?

Define Your Leading Indicators

Once you have your list of metrics, it’s time to define them as they apply to your organization. You want to have a standard approach to each piece of data, or you’ll face issues when it comes time to analyze it.

Add a definition, including parameters, of each leading indicator used to the relevant section of your safety program. You’ll return to these definitions when you face issues in determining data quality.

How to Collect Quality Data for Leading Indicators

With a system set up for your leading indicators, it’s time to talk about data — the information that powers your safety program.

By determining, defining, and setting out a pattern for analysis, you’re halfway ready to start running your program. However, you also need to acknowledge quality data. If your information isn’t any good, then your data won’t be either. And collecting information for leading indicators can be a real challenge for organizations that previously relied solely on lagging indicators.

Quality information is accurate and up-to-date: it’s not an estimate, guesstimate, or information collected after the fact. Your data needs to be valid and timely to be useful!

Because you’ll rely on all team members to collect data, you’ll need to reiterate the need for quality data and potentially take steps to ensure the data’s integrity.

Collecting data – and quality data – is a challenge for companies used to lagging indicators.

Identify Data Collection Barriers Before You Start

Your employees will need to work together to generate information for leading indicators. It’s vital not to overlook this part of the process because even one roadblock can damage your safety program’s integrity.

Some of the common challenges faced in data collection include:

  • Practical difficulties in capturing data
  • Intensive resource requirements
  • Unclear definitions of metrics
  • Inconsistent or untimely reporting
  • Inconsistent formatting

These can all be dealt with through administrative and functional controls. For example, using safety management software can make formatting consistent regardless of who collects it. It also relieves some of the practical difficulties of data capture.

At the same time, there are cultural barriers that can equally damage your data collection system. In companies new to data collection or with safety programs designed to punish rather than protect, you might encounter difficulties like: 

  • Reluctance to compare data between teams
  • Frustration with data collection workloads
  • Fear of repercussions for reporting something less than ideal

You need to account for all potential barriers to data collection and create and test remedies before launching your data collection program.

How to Use a Safety Scorecard

At this point, you know what kind of information you need, and you have strict requirements for collecting and reporting quality data. Now, it’s time to talk about the bigger picture: data analysis.

Many companies use what’s called a safety scorecard for this purpose. Safety scorecards go beyond the typical safety audit and checklist and instead use a set of carefully chosen leading indicators to track your program progress. You can use a safety scorecard for your entire safety program or even for an individual goal or event within the grand scheme of things. And safety scorecards only work properly when you use leading indicators.

The benefit of a safety scorecard is that it gives you a fast, digestible look at the data. You get an assessment of where you are in a single figure, and you can compare it to past or future performance. Safety scores are actionable and easy to digest, which helps improve the visibility of your safety program.

There are a few ways to create a safety scorecard. You can use something like an Excel spreadsheet and collate all your information either manually or through a formula of your own design. 

Alternatively, you can use safety management software like Safesite, which tracks all the data for you in real-time and populates a score that’s easy to read.

Make It Easy with Safesite and the Safesite Score

When you use Safesite, you automatically generate a Safesite Score. The Safesite Score is a letter grade calculated every day to quantify safety performance and engagement with the Safesite app.

You’ll get a score of A, B, C, or D based on your chosen metrics. You can include (or turn off):

  • Inspections
  • Hazards
  • Incidents
  • Meetings
  • Equipment
  • Observations

To learn more about the Safesite Score, check out our Safesite Score Factors and FAQ page.

Leading Indicators Are Your Present

Leading indicators are the way forward for safety management because they capture the here and now. These data points are highly customizable and the best part is that the sheer amount of data available to you already is all you need to get started controlling hazards, improving your safety program, and smashing weekly, quarterly, and even annual goals.

The key to unlocking the power of leading indicators is to choose the right data and make sure you remain consistent. Once you choose your metrics, you want a clear definition, a standardized approach, and a data collection plan. Getting these three components right will make sure you get more accurate data possible and help you make better decisions.

Of course, collecting data is just the first step. You also need a method for recording, maintaining, and analyzing it.

Ready to learn more? Find more great info about Safesite’s leading indicator-focused features right here.

Team Safesite

By Team Safesite

We're a group of safety and tech professionals united in our desire to make every workplace safer. We keep a pulse on the latest regulations, standards, and industry trends in safety and write about them here on our blog.

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