Lagging Behind in Safety

Lagging indicators (sometimes known as trailing indicators) play an important role in any safety program. In fact, one of the most commonplace and well-known lagging indicators is the OSHA 300 log. This is a report required yearly by OSHA, which summarizes workplace injury accidents. However, despite the importance of these metrics, a company cannot rely merely on lagging indicators to develop an effective safety program. Lagging indicators are historical data; they represent what has already happened. If a significant injury or even a death occurs, one can only look to preventing a similar tragedy from occurring again in the future. If an organization concludes the year with an unacceptably high number of injury accidents, it is too late to do anything except try to improve the next year. This is a reactive approach to safety: trying to shut the barn door after the horse has already run away. In the meantime, important factors like workplace morale, workers compensation insurance rates and eligibility for contracts will be negatively affected.

A company with an effective risk management program will integrate leading indicators to evaluate the safety of their workplace. Leading indicators are predictive, and focus on a company’s current work environment and procedures, rather than on reports of what happened in the past. This begins by evaluating the workplace. Using a tool like the BEEA+ workplace safety survey, a company can evaluate existing work practices, training and safety awareness. Having a baseline set of observations then allows for the development of specific leading indicators to measure.

Consider the difference between the two indicators using the example of workplace ergonomics. A company that relies on lagging indicators might only discover a problem when, after several years, working at improperly configured workstations begins to take its toll on employee health. A company relying on lagging indicators may only become aware there is a problem when faced with a sudden rise in costly worker compensation claims and OSHA recordable musculoskeletal injuries. Now management is responsible for medical management of these injuries and reassigning affected workers, and must deal with the associated decline in morale, productivity and profitability. In states where OSHA has promulgated an ergonomics standard, there is also the possibility of being fined and of being subject to increased scrutiny from OSHA inspectors.

In a workplace with a more proactive approach to safety, the use of leading indicators could provide warning of a potential problem and allow for the management of ergonomic risks. An internal workplace safety audit may reveal the need to establish or improve employee training, regular ergonomic assessments, or modifications to the work environment to reduce the potential for injury. Measurements of the effectiveness of these programs (for example, frequency of ergonomic evaluations, procedures for setting up new equipment, results of employee training) become a company’s leading indicators. Using software such as ErgoStat, these metrics can be used to receive “early warning” of potential risks, and allow potential problems to be corrected before they cause injuries.

The comparison between leading and lagging indicators represents the difference between a proactive and a reactive approach to workplace safety. Lagging indicators will always have their place in providing information on a particular workplace’s safety record. However, a company that wishes to reduce the rate of injury accidents needs to move beyond measuring injuries. Effective risk management relies on predicting injuries, and on measuring the safety process through the use of leading indicators. Completing the free BEEA+ workplace safety survey can help you develop new leading indicators, as well as evaluate your existing measurement programs.