One of the seeming paradoxes of workplace safety statistics is when companies that historically have had few minor injuries experience a preventable serious injury or death. It comes as a surprise when an employee is killed or maimed at work, because this is seen as inconsistent with the company’s previously low rate of injuries.
This phenomenon illustrates perfectly one of the biggest shortcomings of relying on lagging indicators: the historical data from lagging measures of safety can’t tell you anything about the accident waiting to happen…until it happens. You can’t see what’s coming. Due to the nature of the work being done, the effectiveness of some safety programs but not others, or just plain luck, a company may not consistently experience significant workplace injuries, but still be a dangerous place to work.
Consider the driver of an automobile that has never been in a traffic collision and has a clean driving record, but because of unsafe driving habits like texting while driving, eventually becomes involved in a multi-fatality accident. If one relied only on lagging indicators and saw that this driver had never been cited for distracted driving or had never been in a reported accident, it is easy to incorrectly conclude the person is a safe driver. However, imagine developing several leading indicators to evaluate the safety of this driver, which could reveal the potential problem and correct it before a fatality occurs.
Similarly, in the workplace, developing a proactive safety program that relies on leading indicators can help predict (and thus prevent) workplace accidents. Using leading indicators, a company measures existing programs and evaluates their effectiveness. It identifies successful elements of a safety culture and promotes them. It uncovers potential hazards and areas of weakness in a safety program, and provides time to address these before they become a line on an OSHA injury log, a newspaper headline, or even an obituary.
The biggest hurdle to developing a safer workplace isn’t implementation, it is measurement. Implementing a program is easy compared to knowing what to implement. To find a good solution, one needs to know the nature and scope of the problem, and find ways to measure the effectiveness of proposed solutions. Many companies mistakenly hire someone to manage the day-to-day operation of safety programs, rather than working with experts that can assess the “big picture,” determine potential problems, determine which solutions might be most effective, and re-asses and adjust the program based on the results of leading indicators.
A first step for any company looking to develop a more proactive program is to know where it stands in terms of its workplace culture and safety climate. Free tools like the BEEA+ Workplace Safety Survey can be completed in less than five minutes, and provide an overview of what’s working and what might need improvement. The data from the workplace safety survey can be used with the free BEEA+ Workbook to develop company-specific leading indicators, and build a blueprint for a safety program that is proactive, rather than reactive.
When it comes to workplace safety, the best companies will lead with a proactive approach. While lagging indicators have their uses, a company that doesn’t build their program primarily around leading indicators may be caught off guard by the serious accident or fatality no one saw coming.