The Drawbacks of Safety Leading Indicators

The Drawbacks of Safety Leading Indicators

It is important for organizations to begin looking further “upstream” in their safety processes when determining how effective their overall safety program is. Some have coined this proactive method of insight as a “pre-injury investigation” (Conklin, 2012). For example, consider what activities, conditions or precursors could lead to injuries. If identified successfully and addressed proactively, injuries could be prevented.

In life, people want to be healthy and would rather not wait for a health-related incident to begin making improvements. As it relates to health, there are numerous beneficial “leading indicators” available that can provide insights into measuring how healthy someone is. They can get a have medical tests done (e.g., diagnostic imaging), assess lab results (e.g., cholesterol), get a physical from a medical professional, and analyze their medical histories to determine genetic predispositions. In addition, people can research information to determine what is recommended for a healthy lifestyle such as proper diet, exercise, and ideal body weight.

Keeping this personal medical example in mind, what are some safety leading indicators available in an overall EHS program? Safety leading indicators can include job observations of the work environment, risk assessments, safety activities (e.g., closure of open safety issues), and audits, to name a few. These safety leading indicators can be simple and quantitative or more complex and qualitative. However, despite the advantages of collecting these safety leading indicators, there are still some drawbacks:

 • Collecting data alone does not equal prevention

If someone attempting to lose weight, weighing themselves daily will not necessarily help them lose weight. A person can measure results and compare it to their expectations and efforts, which is helpful, but the act alone is only an indicator. Likewise, safety professionals can act on findings before an incident occurs but collecting data alone is insufficient and only the beginning. Collecting data without positive, proactive action will yield little effective results.

 • Safety leading indicators require acting on weak signals

The problem with measuring safety with just injury rates is that work can be performed unsafely without incident. People often smoke cigarettes or eat junk food and may never experience poor health effects. The same is true in every organization. Workers may have made poor safety habits that were reinforced by not getting hurt or they might even be encouraged by supervision to achieve higher productivity rates. At what point is action taken to correct risky situations? The longer the injury rate remains low, the harder it will be to convince others to act proactively.

 • Fixing it does not always address the issue

It is common to find reoccurring hazards that are immediately addressed but are discovered again the next day or week. Finding it and fixing it AGAIN would not suddenly change the reasons for its recurrence. Something, such as an action or consequence, needs to be applied if differing results are expected. This would be like a finding oil on the floor. Wiping it up addresses the short-term hazard but does nothing to address the oil leak.

 • Focusing on metrics instead of the processes

Many safety programs have mechanisms to identify hazards or issues that lead to injuries so that leaders can proactively address them. An unwelcome byproduct of this activity may come when a manager excitedly states, “I expect everyone to be 100% safe!” Although his heart might be in the right place, his statement might send a message that at-risk or unsafe findings are unwelcome and discouraged. This focus on a “safe” metric may inadvertently motivate people to only record safe findings and ignore the risky ones. How can we manage risk if we do not know where it resides?

Leading indicators should be included in a balanced approach of an overall safety performance indicator program. The importance of measuring results in safety is to establish a starting point for effecting positive change and improvement in an organization (Peterson, 2005). It requires the key stakeholders to honestly determine where they are, establish the expectations of where they want to be, and then define the necessary steps on how to get there.

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Cary comes to the SafetyStratus team as the Vice President of Operations with almost 30 years of experience in several different industries. He began his career in the United States Navy’s nuclear power program. From there he transitioned into the public sector as an Environmental, Health & Safety Manager in the utility industry. After almost thirteen years, he transitioned into the construction sector as a Safety Director at a large, international construction company. Most recently he held the position of Manager of Professional Services at a safety software company, overseeing the customer success, implementation, and process consulting aspects of the services team.

At SafetyStratus, he is focused on helping achieve the company’s vision of “Saving lives and the environment by successfully integrating knowledgeable people, sustainable processes, and unparalleled technology”.

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Conklin, T., (2012). Pre-Accident Investigations: An Introduction to Organizational Safety. 1st ed. Ashgate Pub Co.

Petersen, D. (2005). Measurement of safety performance. Des Plaines, IL: American Society of Safety Engineers.

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