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Are You Lagging or Leading?

Thursday, 23 February 2017 03:14 Written by  Donald Hossli

You have the bases covered. You’ve instituted a proactive safety program and now everything at your facility is alright now. Except now you have had a serious accident or injury, and your program’s designed to find the culprit and ensure it doesn’t happen again. This is just reactivity! Moving from a reactive to a proactive approach to workplace and safety can prevent these accidents from occurring in the first place. Often after implementation the results can be slow to see, and even harder to sustain. While developing a culture of safety, it is expected that any progress may plateau, or the systems and organisation struggle to gain consistency, or measure the real benefit of the program.

Most often I find the key reason organisations fail with a proactive approach to safety is because they focus only on lagging indicators. The number of accidents incurred, injury rates and lost time costs only in the past and show you where you were but not where you are going. They are only the indicators of an unsafe workplace and provide little insight into the root causes actually responsible for accidents and injuries. On the other hand leading indicators focus on policies and procedures are in place to prevent an accident or loss from happening in the first place. When used in combination with a culture of proactive reporting and an empowering organisational structure, leading and lagging indicators can encourage sustained improvement in overall workplace safety efforts.

With the increased focus on safety in the industry it seems like there is no time like now to show their employees a strong commitment to a safe and healthy work environment. Statistics show over 4 million U.S. workers suffer a serious job-related injury or illness each year, costing the American economy hundreds of millions of dollars either through actual loss or loss of reputation. You don’t have to go far to see the cost of non-compliance that has occurred for some of the major US and global refiners. Let’s face it: accidents are costly. Increased federal and state regulations regarding worksite conditions, hazard management, appropriate equipment and training has served as a catalyst for employers to address these risks. It’s a fact that a safe and healthy employee is a productive and present employee. This can in turn produce great results to your bottom-line.

The Importance of Proactivity- Leading Indicators

Leading indicators are dependent on a culture of early reporting. Providing employees and managers with immediate and forward looking observation and data on actions that can result in unsafe workplace conditions or lead to incidents or injuries can be a positive experience for all and an opportunity for training and learning. Also important, leading indicators offer proactive views into the integrity of systems and processes designed to provide safe working conditions.

All effective leading indicators share the following characteristics:

  • They measure those behaviours and activities that can directly lead to improved workplace safety.
  • They are understood and recognised by the organisation as directly relevant to workplace safety.
  • Their emphasis and intent is synonymous with organisation’s strategic goals and objectives.
  • They are cost-effective, and easy to understand, measure and use.


Lagging indicators only measure the impact of workplace safety incidents after the fact, leading indicators proactively draw attention to specific behaviours and activities prior to trouble. This focus enables employees and managers to modify or mitigate behaviours before incidents or accidents occur. By focusing on leading indicators staff and employees can take action to prevent loss or incident.

In addition, lagging indicators typically fail to provide sufficient information on the actual causes of workplace safety. This shortcoming forces organisations to conduct further investigation and analysis to determine the real reasons behind safety incidents. Because of their focus on behaviours and activities, leading indicators enable employees and managers to monitor the effectiveness of safety systems and processes, and to quickly identify root causes of workplace safety failures.

Leading and Lagging- A healthy combination

Despite their usefulness in efforts to improve workplace safety, leading indicators also have their limitations, and can be misapplied or misused. For example, an organisation can choose subjective measurements that are completely unrelated to the real causes of safety issues. In other cases, an organisation can mistakenly identify behaviours and activities that don’t directly correlate with preferred safety outcomes or that only partially account for safety performance results. Finally, data collection alone does not improve safety performance and requires the implementation of corrective actions to address underlying safety deficiencies.

For these reasons, a comprehensive workplace safety program should employ both leading and lagging indicators. Leading indicators are proactive by nature and provide a framework for benchmark behaviours and activities prescribed by workplace safety programs. Lagging indicators measure the relevance of those behaviours and activities in driving specific safety-related outcomes. In other words, leading indicators dictate the action plan while lagging indicators measure the effectiveness of that plan in achieving the desired workplace safety outcomes.

Leading Indicators Organisations Should Consider

I’m asked often “Which Indicators are right for me?” Tracking and recording leading indicators is most useful to management when it tells the whole story of processes from start (or sometimes preparations to start) to finish. This makes it easier to gauge employees’ commitment to workplace safety and where to start from a training and communication perspective. Below is a short list of priority indicators to track.

  • Safety Observations-The more observations that employees and managers report, the more robust the data. One to two observations per employee on a weekly basis is excellent. This should not be considered an informer or betrayal exercise, but a way to offer suggestions for improvement, recognition of underlying issues and maintenance needs as well as near misses. Results should be prioritised and presented in such a way as to allow employees easy viewing and understanding of the efforts to close the gaps.
  • Employee engagement is critical for the previous point to work correctly. If all levels of the organisation are paying attention to these things and talking about safety, a true safety culture will permeate throughout the organisation. Best in class companies aim for at least an eighty percent participation if not more. This can ensure that many different aspects of your company’s processes are being evaluated and reported on.
  • How long does it take the organisation to act on observed deficiencies? Most corrections will be achievable very quickly. However, having more than 20 percent of these issues taking long periods of time to correct can mean that your company and management staff is not very effective at managing risk, which is a leading indicator in itself.


Summary and Conclusions

Many workplace safety programs focus attention on lagging indicators that report on the outcomes of safety initiatives, but fail to give equal consideration to leading indicators that measure the behaviours and activities necessary to achieve the desired results. KBC has experience in assessment of your current operation and development of solutions to provide opportunities for your safety system to be implemented and executed effectively and to provide long term achievement of goals. We believe the differentiator is looking at the proactive efforts of an organisation’s programs to measure the success rather than focusing only on pain and loss.  A combination of leading and lagging indicators to support behavioural changes can lead to sustainable workplace safety levels throughout the lifecycle of the program. Combined with an effective scorecard for tracking activities and results, leading and lagging indicators are essential elements in a successful workplace safety program.