There's a saying in business that "what gets managed, gets measured." When it comes to occupational health and safety, however, it can be quite difficult to determine what performance measurements an organization should use to effectively and efficiently prevent workplace accidents, injuries, and illnesses. This may be due to the fact that occupational health and safety receives less attention from management when compared to other business priorities, such as profits and productivity.

This article will briefly discuss and highlight the advantages and disadvantages of the three most common safety performance indicators: negative lagging indicators, positive lagging indicators, and leading indicators.

Why Measure Health and Safety Performance?

Many organizations still make no attempt to measure their health and safety performance. But measuring this can be beneficial not only to the health and safety of the workers, but also to management themselves.

First, key performance indicators can be a useful tool in managing occupational health and safety, as it provides quantitative or semi-quantitative data that reflect the safety and health issues and activities in the organization. This data provides information on existing and emerging risks, exposures, and hazards, as well as on preventive activities aimed at reducing those hazards and risks (see Benefits of Expedited EHS Reporting and Technology Adoption in the Workplace to learn how to collect data more efficiently and use it more effectively).

Second, key performance indicators can be beneficial to management since it enhances the organization's decision-making process. The information obtained has potential consequences for adapting to occupational health and safety policies, plans, and existing practices. It also helps the organization to decide where they are relative to where they want to be, as well as what progress is necessary and how that progress might be achieved against particular restraints, such as resources or time.

When Should Safety Performance Be Measured?

Measuring an organization's health and safety performance is a continuous process. Therefore, safety performance should be measured at suitable intervals to ensure that specific planned milestones are achieved. Key performance indicators can be measured from a weekly basis to annually, depending on what is being measured.

Who Should Measure Health and Safety Performance?

An organization's health and safety performance must be measured at each level of management, starting with the most senior management. The organization will also need to decide how to allocate responsibilities for monitoring health and safety performance at different levels in the management chain - who does what and when, and to what effect.

What Should Be Measured?

While finding the perfect measure of safety can be difficult task, it is advisable to measure both the bottom-line results of safety, as well as how well the company is preventing accidents and incidents. To obtain this data, the company must use a combination of indicators of safety performance (key performance indicators). According to Health and Safety Executive, the most frequently used indicators are lagging and leading safety performance indicators.

1. Lagging Safety Performance Indicators

What is a lagging indicator?

Lagging indicators measure an organization’s incidents in the form of past accident statistics. Data can be expressed in terms of percentages, rates, or absolute numbers. The most commonly used occupational health and safety lagging indicators are:

Negative lagging indicators:

Positive lagging indicators:

  • The number of hours worked (by the total work force) without lost time injury
  • The number of working days since the last accident
  • Employee satisfaction (survey)

Why use lagging indicators?

Lagging indicators are the traditional safety metrics used to indicate progress toward compliance with safety rules. They are the bottom-line numbers that evaluate the overall effectiveness of safety at the company.

Disadvantage of using lagging indicators

The major disadvantage of only using lagging indicators of safety performance is that they tell you how many people got injured and how badly, but not how well the company is doing at preventing incidents and accidents. While common, their reactionary nature makes them a poor gauge of prevention.

2. Leading Safety Performance Indicators

What is a leading indicator?

Leading indicators are measures preceding or indicating a future event used to drive and measure activities carried out to prevent and control injury. Leading indicators have predictive value and can, therefore, be used to improve occupational health and safety management in general. They also tend to focus on the positive rather than the negative.

Examples of leading indicators are:

  • The percentage of managers with adequate occupational health and safety training
  • The percentage of workers with adequate occupational health and safety training
  • The number of workplace inspections
  • Frequency of (observed) (un)safe behaviour
  • The number of occupational health and safety audits performed
  • Prevalence of certain health problems
  • Work Ability Index, which predicts the likelihood of early retirement
  • Safety climate and attitude (survey)

Why use leading indicators?

Leading indicators are focused on future safety performance and continuous improvement. These measures are proactive in nature and report what workers are doing on a regular basis to prevent injuries (find out more about How Proactivity in the Field Improves Worker Safety).

Disadvantages of using leading indicators

Although leading indicators measure what a company is doing to become better, they do not provide insight into the impact of the initiatives taken. Additionally, the positive nature of leading indicators can give management a sense of accomplishment, leaving them with a misleading perception of company safety performance.

Why Bother?

Measuring a company’s health and safety performance is not an easy task. Therefore, using key performance indicators are important for the effectiveness of an organization's occupational health and safety management. While leading indicators have a greater potential for improving workplace health and safety, they are more difficult to standardize. Therefore, to improve the safety performance of an organization, using a a combination of leading and lagging indicators is ideal. Lagging indicators measure failure, while leading indicators measure performance, and managers need knowledge of both to ensure workplace safety.