The measure of safety

What are the leading and lagging indicators, and how can they improve safety?

Leading, lagging indicators


  • Lagging indicators measure past events; leading indicators measure current events.
  • The use of positive reinforcement in leading indicators may produce a more forthcoming workforce.
  • Leading indicators are accurate only when they target the correct area.'

What is the measure of success? For safety professionals, it may be a low or decreasing incident rate. Fewer fatalities, injuries or illnesses from one year to the next can indicate success for a safety program.

According to some safety professionals, however, using post-event measurements – injuries, workers’ compensation costs, OSHA 300 logs – is using only half of the equation. These “lagging” indicators represent the past, highlighting incidents that cannot be changed. To look at what is happening now to ensure such incidents do not happen in the future, “leading” indicators are needed. “Most of our lagging indicators measure failure; leading indicators measure safety performance,” said Jonathan Thomas, chief research consultant for the National Safety Council’s Research and Statistical Services Group.

Leading, lagging

Specifically, lagging indicators are after-the-fact measurements that gauge past performance, such as OSHA incidence rates and injury and incident costs. Leading indicators attempt to measure performance by using tools such as job safety analyses and job observations.

“Leading indicators are measurements of what’s happening now,” said Dave Murphy, safety director for Pepper Construction Company of Indiana in Indianapolis. He said this includes “looking at safe conditions, safe behaviors and, most importantly, having the opportunity to coach and encourage change in behaviors and conditions before there’s a negative outcome.”

Murphy’s safety program at Pepper Construction is based almost entirely on using leading indicators to measure the safety performance of projects and contractors. Data from jobsites is compiled into a database where a program calculates the percentage of safe and unsafe conditions on a project, as well as the severity of the unsafe conditions.

Job safety audits examine everything from crane inspections and worker training to whether equipment is being used correctly or is in good shape. Thousands of these observations are done, and the end result shows a comprehensive picture of the project – what is being done right and what is being done wrong.

“It’s a good picture of what you can expect,” Thomas said. Such job hazard analyses can pinpoint where potential recordables could be identified before they happen so corrections can be made to avoid them.

Using on-the-job observations, root causes of problems can be identified before they result in an incident. If bad equipment or poor training is identified, those risk factors can be presented to upper management for correction. Supervisors and management typically accompany Murphy or his safety team on jobsite observations, which allows them to see firsthand what may need fixing and can “open their eyes” to safety concerns on a project.

Murphy asserted that leading indicators give a more accurate picture of any company. For instance, if measuring a small contractor with low man hours based on injuries per hours worked, even a single injury could dramatically impact that company’s injury rate. Leading indictors do not measure against past incidents; rather, they indicate a company’s current safety status. “It really boils down to where you’re going, not where you’ve been,” Murphy said. “If people are well-trained [and] know that they’re held accountable for their performance, you’ll have great leading indicators.”


  • Lagging indicator – A measure of past performance and trends, after the fact
  • Leading indicator – A measure of future performance, management commitment or systems to drive performance change

Leading indicators also can help provide positive reinforcement for a job being done correctly, according to Thomas. When a safety team goes out and notes the things that are being done right, Murphy found, it is easier to correct what is wrong. Employees may be intimidated by the job observations at first, but after a while they accept them and learn that they are benefits, he said. “When we have an OSHA inspection, contractors don’t get a note that says all the things you’ve done wonderful on the job,” Murphy said.

Moving away from focusing solely on OSHA statistics may result in people being less likely to hide injuries or illnesses suffered on the job, according to Murphy. Particularly regarding incentive programs, the use of leading indicators may produce better results – a safer workplace – than lagging indicators, Thomas said.

Lagging indicators, such as days without an incident for a rewards program, can induce people to hide their injuries or underreport. This hinders a clear picture of a business’s on-the-job safety status. Using leading indicators for a program, such as assigning points for proper use of safety equipment, encourages people to take positive steps toward safety, according to Thomas.

Leading correctly

Thomas stressed that both lagging and leading indicators are necessary. Leading indicators can help flush out problems before they become issues, and lagging indicators can help gauge how well the leading indicators are being used. If your leading indicators suggest an overall good safety culture with fewer risks, but your lagging indicators tell a story of rising injuries, Thomas said the targeting for leading indicators may be off.

“You need to have the right leading indicators,” he said. One leading indicator may be safety meetings. Daily safety meetings may work in one situation, such as for a manufacturing facility, but such daily workshop meetings before a shift probably will not have the same impact for a company that sends its crew out into the field.

It is this caveat, and a few others, that has some leery of using leading indicators. “The entirety of purpose of those responsible for safety, regardless of their title, is to manage with respect to hazards so that the risks deriving from those hazards are acceptable,” said Fred Manuele, founder of Arlington Heights, IL-based Hazards Ltd. If the wrong leading indicators are chosen, one may be deluded into believing the current measuring system is working well, Manuele said. He called the language of leading and lagging indicators “gibberish” that only confuses people, especially considering how some incidents can appear to be both a leading and lagging indicator.

Take near misses, for example. Murphy, of Pepper Construction, views near misses as lagging indicators because something already went wrong; the incident just did not result in a significant loss. But the National Safety Council’s Thomas sees near misses as leading indicators because they are predictive of what could happen – what the significant loss could have been. Addressing near misses through proactive care can pre-empt future failure.

Just as leading indicators need to be targeted correctly to work well, so do risk assessments, Manuele acknowledged. He supports all that comes along with leading indicators (positive reinforcement, risk assessments, safety culture perception survey), but asserts nothing is gained by using the terms “leading” and “lagging.”

“I’d much prefer that we spoke the language of risks,” he said. “We say, ‘Here’s our judgment of acceptable risk … [and] you need to do a, b, c, d and e to get this risk down to an acceptable level.’ That language is entirely different than ‘leading indicators’ and ‘lagging indicators.’”

Proponents say what the use of leading indicators attempts to accomplish is providing a measure of the current safety process. When used correctly, according to advocates, leading indicators can be used to identify errors or problems before they occur. Where lagging indicators tell you how someone got hurt, leading indicators tell you how someone could get hurt and allow you to correct that. “[A company] could go a couple years without anyone getting hurt, but that doesn’t mean what they’re doing out in the field is indicative of a good safety culture,” Murphy said.

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