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Select leading indicators to help measure safety

Leading indicators

3. Hazard and near-miss reporting

Reporting hazards and near misses is another way to identify weaknesses at a worksite.

(Janicak noted that near misses could be considered a separate leading indicator, or a lagging indicator. Some employers may define near misses as lagging indicators because they occurred in the past.)

“Hazard reporting as a leading indicator is really, really good at specifically identifying and addressing safety issues before they happen,” Thomas said.

According to Thomas, the safest organizations have a good reporting culture, meaning employees report hazards found in their work area. This allows employers to fix hazards before anyone is injured, he said.

To encourage a strong reporting culture, employers might consider a reward system, but Thomas urged caution – noting that rewarding for zero incidents can lead to employees “burying” legitimate hazards for fear of missing out on a reward.

“You don’t want to bury hazards or reward the wrong thing,” Thomas said. Instead, he suggested, reward employees who come forward to report a legitimate hazard.

Similar to how training needs to be assessed for effectiveness, hazard and near-miss reporting need an additional component. Do not simply add up the number of hazards reported, Janicak advised – track the progress on resolving issues brought up by the reports.

“The biggest thing they want to track is the number of hazards identified, percent of hazards corrected and the lag time from identifying to correcting,” he said.

4. Communication

Communication at a workplace – including internal mailings, statements or toolbox talks – can be an important leading indicator. This includes safety meetings. Organizations that have frequent safety meetings, as well as good attendance and participation, have safer work environments than organizations that do not, according to Thomas.

“The more employees attend safety meetings, and the more frequently they attend, the more they’re learning how to behave safely and work safely,” he said.

Although quantifying communication (such as tracking the number of safety memos sent out to employees) is fairly straightforward, Janicak said evaluating the effectiveness of the messages, including the cause-and-effect relationship they have on safety, can be difficult. (For more on the cause-and-effect relationship with leading indicators, read the box “Selecting effective leading indicators for your organization.”)

5. Resources

Allocation of resources for safety can serve as a major leading indicator. “Whether the system is structured to have enough resources and funding for ensuring injury prevention would be a leading indicator,” Wachter said.

Resources could include how much time, funding or personnel is allocated to safety efforts, and also can be a key indicator of management’s commitment to improving safety, Janicak said.

Wachter said resources as a leading indicator also relates to what people need – what type of funding requests are coming in or what equipment is being requested. For example, an influx of ergonomic evaluation requests could indicate a problem, he said.

However, Garner-Janna questioned the usefulness of financial resources as a leading indicator. She said they do not measure a behavior or action, which would be more predictive. Additionally, although tracking resources can help paint a general picture of the level of investment and what a worksite has available, Garner-Janna said, it does not motivate employee behavior. Choosing indicators that drive behavior is important to making improvements, she added.

6. Perception surveys

Most of the preceding leading indicators interact, and perception surveys are no different. As a leading indicator, perception surveys can be considered an umbrella that encompasses the other indicators, according to Janicak.

Perception surveys provide an employer with feedback from employees, relaying the specific strengths and weaknesses that may exist in the employer’s safety culture. Employees are asked specific questions about safety issues, who in turn provide employers with a detailed list of what safety components may need improvement.

For example, if an employer learns through a survey that workers are not routinely using personal protective equipment, the employer could develop countermeasures that include training or other ways to prompt employee PPE use. If such measures are successful, the worksites may become safer, Thomas said.

“That allows you to be strategic with resource allocation,” he said, allowing employers to “almost surgically” go in and correct a hazard before an incident happens.

Selecting effective leading indicators for your organization

Employers who do not assess which leading indicators are most effective at a worksite may find little success at improving workplace safety, according to Christopher Janicak, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Safety Sciences.

“The biggest problem is the lack of cause-and-effect relationship,” Janicak said. “They go out and they measure these things, and they don’t see improvements and they get frustrated. But that’s because of what they’ve chosen for their leading indicators.”

Identify root causes of problems, he said, and then define specific goals to address those problems. If the proper root cause is not identified, the leading indicators will be useless.

For example, if an organization’s workers are experiencing back injuries from lifting, the employer may choose to conduct ergonomic assessments and training, and then measure those as leading indicators. But multiple training sessions will not solve the problem if the root cause for the back injuries needs an engineering solution.

“They’re training them to do a job that’s unsafe to begin with,” Janicak said.

Also important is understanding that no single indicator can be the solution to an organization’s needs. Think of a vehicle’s dashboard, suggests Michelle Garner-Janna, director of corporate health and safety for Cummins Inc., a manufacturer in Columbus, IN. Unless you have an entire dashboard, filled with a series of gauges that interact with one another (speedometer, fuel gauge, etc.), you will lack full understanding of the system and performance.

Although the leading indicators chosen will vary by organization, it is important to get started using leading indicators rather than postpone their use, Garner-Janna said, and pointed to her own employer as an example.

“I feel like we spun our wheels a little bit because we were trying to find that perfect leading indicator,” she said. “Eventually, we realized there’s no such thing. I encourage other companies to get started and analyze data regularly to determine what works best for their organization.”

If certain leading indicators are not working for your organization, they can be changed, Garner-Janna said.

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