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Select leading indicators to help measure safety

February 1, 2014

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Key points

  • Not all leading indicators can be used in the same way by every company.
  • Individual leading indicators are not independent of each other; rather, they work together.
  • Identifying root causes and goals is necessary for leading indicators to be effective.

Just as a pre-trip inspection can help prevent a vehicle from breaking down during a road trip, the practice of planning ahead instead of waiting for something bad to happen can be applied to workplace safety – in the form of leading indicators.

Leading indicators are pre-incident measurements, as opposed to lagging indicators, which are measurements collected after an incident occurs. For example, a flat tire is a lagging indicator because the blowout already has occurred, but an inspection that notes the poor quality of the tire and prevents a blowout from taking place is a leading indicator.

“If you’re waiting until something has already occurred to make a change, it’s too late,” said Michelle Garner-Janna, director of corporate health and safety for Cummins Inc., a Columbus, IN-based manufacturer. “You want to fix the car before it breaks down.”

Auto maintenance is a simplified example. Jonathan Thomas, director of safety management solutions for the National Safety Council, said researchers disagree on what constitutes a leading indicator. However, Thomas said one defining concept of leading indicators is that they are measurements of safety events or behaviors that precede incidents and have a predictive quality.

Measuring the possibility of something unsafe occurring – and taking steps to prevent it – can help safety professionals keep workers safe on the job. Safety+Health spoke with several experts about examples of leading indicators, including why they may work well and how they could be used to improve workplace safety. Six examples are below.

Please note: Employers must choose specific leading indicators that work best for them. This list is not intended to be all-encompassing, nor is it meant to imply that leading indicators function independently of one another. Rather, according to sources who spoke with S+H for this article, leading indicators should be considered components that work together.

1. Training

Training workers on how to behave in a safe manner and use equipment correctly can be considered a good leading indicator because it correlates to a facility’s safety, according to Thomas. “The higher number of people that are trained, the more safe the work environment is going to be,” he said.

At Cummins, a statistical analysis showed training hours was the leading indicator with the strongest correlation to lagging indicators, Garner-Janna said. The more hours of training that were conducted, the fewer safety incidents that occurred.

Training as a leading indicator involves more than simply signing employees up for a class. Thomas suggested setting a goal, such as training everyone in hazardous materials, for example.

Track the training to ensure it is being conducted and everyone has attended. The end result, Thomas said, will be improved workplace safety as people become more aware of hazards.

But training as a leading indicator does not end with tallying the number of training sessions and tracking attendance. The training has to be effective, according to Bob Wachter, an injury prevention specialist at the University of California, Davis.

“If we’ve done all this training and we’re observing people doing unsafe practices, then there’s some ineffectiveness there,” Wachter said.

2. Assessments and audits

Garner-Janna said that at her company, employee training often is followed up with surveys to test employee knowledge and retention of the information. Another way to gauge the effectiveness of training and an organization’s overall safety culture is using job observations, assessments or audits.

An assessment or audit entails a safety professional walking the jobsite and gathering data, Thomas said. This could include interviews with employees as well as observations.

The focus of an audit is to try to find things that could lead to losses, said Christopher Janicak, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Safety Sciences. And as Wachter put it, observations can help identify hidden risks in more ways than one.

“When I do hazard assessments, I look for slip, trip and fall hazards, protruding equipment – the obvious stuff,” Wachter said. “But I’m also stopping to introduce myself [to employees] and explain what I’m there for. I’m asking what risks or what issues they’re seeing.”

Any observation – indeed, any leading indicator – needs to tie into an organization’s goals, Janicak said. For a construction company, a goal may be 100 percent use of fall protection. If job observations find less than 100 percent compliance, the employer will know something needs to change.

Experts define leading indicators, characteristics

Although leading indicators have been accepted as a legitimate measure of environmental, health and safety performance, a basic definition of the measure is still being debated.

As part of an effort to resolve disagreements on the meaning of leading indicators, the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council established a panel of industry experts to identify a single definition, explore the relationship between leading and lagging indicators, and identify desirable leading indicator characteristics.

According to a white paper published on the panel discussion, the experts agreed to define leading indicators as:

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

The panel also identified eight valuable qualities leading indicators should have:

  1. Actionable
  2. Achievable
  3. Meaningful
  4. Transparent
  5. Easy to communicate
  6. Valid
  7. Useful
  8. Timely

As part of the researchers’ project on exploring leading indicators, a survey separate from the panel was conducted on the understanding of leading indicators. Respondents were Campbell Institute charter members.

The survey found that organizations view leading indicators as important, but their use as a data source for safety excellence is largely untapped, states the white paper, which was released at the 2013 NSC Congress & Expo in Chicago.

Download Transforming EHS Performance Measurement Through Leading Indicators, and find additional resources on the Campbell Institute website.

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