What Are Leading Indicators
JERROLD SCHARNINGHAUSEN, Ph.D.
Workplace Safety Division
Directorate of Assessments and Prevention
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
Leading indicators are proactive, preventive and predictive measures that provide information about the effective performance of your safety and health activities. They measure events leading up to an injury, illness or other incident and reveal potential problems in your safety and occupational health (SOH) program. Lagging indicators, in contrast, measure the occurrence and frequency of past events, such as the number or rate of mishaps, injuries, illnesses and fatalities.
The Army has been very good at tracking lagging indicators. These are seen regularly at safety council meetings and indicate what has happened, but by themselves do nothing to reduce the number of mishaps. Lagging indicators provide critical information for analytical trend analysis and can alert you to a potential hazard or issue within your occupational SOH program. The problem with lagging indicators is that the information is gathered after an incident has occurred, where it is used to prevent a reoccurrence. Leading indicators, on the other hand, allow you to take preventive action to address failures or hazards prior to an incident occurring, before it turns into a mishap. A good program uses leading indicators to drive change and lagging indicators to measure effectiveness.
Leading indicators oftentimes play an integral role in preventing worker mishaps, fatalities, injuries and illnesses, as well as strengthening occupational safety and health outcomes in the workplace. Organizations that use leading indicators as a tool for prevention have a substantial advantage. Taking deliberate and quantifiable actions will prevent mishaps, fatalities, injuries and illnesses. Organizations that establish a commitment to maintaining a socially responsible workplace demonstrate the value placed upon employees. Strengthening key elements of the SOH programs improves overall organizational performance while increasing employee pride and loyalty.
Organizations that use leading indicators to locate and mitigate hazards can realize direct savings to their bottom line. These include savings in repair costs, production costs, workers’ compensation costs, and other legal and regulatory costs commonly associated with incidents. Good leading indicators are based on SMART principles, meaning they are Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Reasonable and Timely:
- Specific: Does your leading indicator provide specifics for the action you will take to minimize risk from a hazard or improve a program area?
- Measurable: Is your leading indicator presented as a number, rate or percentage that allows you to track and evaluate specific trends over time?
- Accountable: Does your leading indicator track an item that is relevant to your goal?
- Reasonable: Can you reasonably achieve the goal that you set for your leading indicator? Compliance at 100% may not be achievable.
- Timely: Are you tracking your leading indicator regularly enough to spot meaningful trends from your data within your desired timeframe?
There is no one-size-fits-all leading indicator that you can copy and paste from another organization even if it performs the same mission. Organizations with newer programs may use indicators that focus on starting a program, while organizations with more mature programs may use them to monitor how close they are to achieving higher performance targets. Example
In a review of injuries in all brigade motor pools, you identified slips, trips and falls that are occurring on your maintenance floor as a top incident leading to injuries. A review of your injury records showed that 14 workers were injured from slips, trips and falls in the past year. Due to the frequency of injuries caused by slip, trip and fall hazards, you decide this might be a good hazard to start with. The number of slips, trips and falls is a lagging indicator that you hope to drive down with a leading indicator.
After discussing it with your workers, you learned that most of the slips, trips and falls were caused by the floors being cluttered with tools and equipment and petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) spills that are not cleaned immediately. You decide that a good first step to address this hazard might be to inspect and clean the maintenance floors daily.
Start using your leading indicators
- Collect the data. To collect the data, you may decide to use a checklist, marking off tasks as you complete them each day.
- Periodically measure progress toward your goal and take action if you are not meeting it.
Every week, you review your checklists to make sure you have completed all daily tasks. If you have not completed a task on any given day, find out why and try to address the issue. Periodically, goals and indicators should be reassessed. Determine if there is a decrease in your number of slips, trips and falls.
Below are three outcomes that could arise after you start tracking this leading indicator. Each outcome shows the insights you can obtain and actions to take once you start using your leading indicator.
- Outcome 1: Workers are cleaning the maintenance floors once daily, but slips, trips and falls are still occurring. After discussing this with your workers, you find that they are completing the cleanup in the afternoon, but the floors are cluttered again by the time work starts in the morning. Based on this discussion, you change your policy to require workers to clean floors before leaving work for the day, and revise your leading indicator to the frequency of daily cleanups that occur at the end of the workday.
- Outcome 2: Workers are cleaning maintenance floors once daily, and trips and falls have decreased but are still occurring. After discussing this with your workers, you learn that the daily cleanups are helping, but tools and equipment are being stored in areas that create narrow workstations and introduce new trip and fall hazards. You find other places to store the tools and equipment and continue to track your leading indicator. You also invest in automatically retracting pneumatic hose reels and overhead connections to keep hoses off the floor and consider converting to battery-operated tools to eliminate the use of pneumatic hoses.
- Outcome 3: Workers are cleaning maintenance floors once daily, and trips and falls have decreased significantly. You decide whether to continue tracking the daily cleanups after they have become routine (or consider decreasing the tracking frequency from daily to weekly). Then begin to develop and track a leading indicator for a different hazard.
Leading indicators are a valuable tool that you can use to make measurable and long-lasting improvements to safety and health outcomes in the workplace. Leading indicators can be valuable regardless of whether you have an SOH program, the components of your program or what stage you may be at in your program. Use the checklist below to get started.
- Identify your top problem areas. For hazards, review your injury logs and results from your hazard assessments.
- Start with the hazard with the greatest risk of harming workers by evaluating the severity of the potential exposure and the likelihood that an incident could occur.
- Prioritize hazards over other areas of your program, particularly if a threat is imminent. For other program elements, talk with your workers about what areas you could improve. For data that you are already collecting, determine whether it is an area you should prioritize.
- Consider what actions you could take to address your key areas. Talk with your workers and anyone else with knowledge of the issue that can provide suggestions.
- Set a goal and use leading indicators to reach it. Make an informed decision on what your goal should be and how long it might take to achieve. Choose a leading indicator to help you achieve your goal over time.
Remember that just one or two indicators can make a positive impact. Mishap numbers can be substantially reduced by adopting a proactive approach using leading indicators.