Leading indicators

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Select leading indicators to help measure safety

February 1, 2014

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.

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.