7 Leading Indicators of Safety Worth Tracking
There's some confusion about leading indicators, but there are a number of simple ways to track them.
Leading indicators of safety are proactive measures and data points that organizations use to improve their safety performance, with the ultimate goal of preventing workplace accidents and incidents. While some of these indicators focus on compliance, many will track improvements and continuous learning.
While this sounds like a simple concept, there is some confusion regarding what leading indicators are and which ones are worth tracking for a given organization. It would be difficult to formulate the idea in a way that would apply to every organization and workplace, but the late Alan Quilley, OHS Canada Hall of Fame Inductee for 2023, provides us with a very useful breakdown. In his book, The Emperor Has No Hard Hat, Quilley provides four categories of leading indicators:
- What We Do - How employees behave at work. Do they follow established procedures, use the right PPE, or respond well when unexpected issues arise? This type of leading indicator can be observed during inspections, audits, and walkthroughs.
- What We Think - The attitudes and values found in the organization. This is more than lip service. While almost everybody says something to the effect that "safety is one of our core values," it's the attitudes that are revealed by the actions taken that really count. Do management and supervisors demonstrate the value of safety? After an accident, are employees sent back to work before controls are in place? When there's tension between production and safety, does production usually win?
- What We Spend Our Time Doing - Are there ongoing activities aimed at improving the safety of workers? Are there regular toolbox talks, inspections, audits, observations, and hazard IDs? Is there a mentoring program in place? Are workers given training before being sent to work alone?
- Where We Spend Our Money - In an organization, the activities that matter are the ones that get the investments. If safety is valued, this should be reflected in the budget and expenses. Does the organization invest in training, monitoring systems, and engineering controls? Is there a willingness to spend a bit more to get adequate equipment and tools to minimize employees' exposure?
Now that we have established this, let’s identify some leading indicators that are particularly valuable for improving the safety of your team. While the “What We Do” leading indicators (such as total number of inspections, hazard assessments, toolbox talks, and audits) are commonly accepted leading indicators, without additional provisions in place they can be misleading for two reasons:
- Data aggregation allows for social loafing, meaning parties that are more participative will compensate for the ones that are less so. This can happen at an individual level or at hierarchical levels. Either way, it can lead to a mistaken assumption that everyone is working safely.
- Outcomes like "100% Passed Inspections" might be far less impressive than they seem. You get what you ask for, after all. If you only ask for, let’s say, 50 inspections a month, this is exactly what you will get. People will engage in a race to “collect” the 50 inspections required but do it mechanically, to achieve a quota, without an intent to improve the system in which they operate.
With these considerations in mind, we'll look at seven valuable leading indicators from a hierarchical involvement perspective and with consideration to the quality of the act or initiative.
Leadership's level of involvement with safety is a good indication of the support everybody receives when it comes to safety. Though leadership is generally seen as intangible and hard to measure, we can find leading indicators by looking for documentation showing the following activity:
- Senior leaders meeting with safety personnel to receive updates on safety issues
- Senior leaders visiting active work sites
- Senior leaders leading formal safety conversations, such as safety meetings and toolbox talks
- Senior leaders receiving, reviewing, and signing safety reports
- Senior leaders reviewing and signing event reports (accident reports), inspections, or hazard assessments
- Senior leaders engaging with the joint health and safety committee
Supervisors are at the forefront of organizational culture. Their participation is crucial to establishing and maintaining a corporate culture conducive to safety. They receive the tone from leadership and, in turn, set the tone for their field team. If supervisors are engaged in occupational safety, chances are their teams are seeing this and mimicking the behavior.
Here are some leading indicators that demonstrate supervisor participation:
- Supervisors inspecting their sites at least at the prescribed frequency
- Supervisor inspections that are focused on learning, identifying, and addressing opportunities for improvement - looking not only for non-compliance but also for places where work-as-done deviates from work-as-imagined
- Supervisors leading safety meetings and toolbox talks and engaging their teams in them (look for crew feedback, follow-ups, and discussions about how the work is to be done safely)
- Supervisors reviewing and signing their teams’ hazard assessments - ideally, they also use these assessments as opportunities to coach their teams about how to properly identify and mitigate hazards (while the body of research comparing the safety outcomes of workers who complete a field hazard assessment to those who don't is miniscule, there is no debate about the benefits of engaging in a healthy conversation about how work should be done)
Employees should be involved in the planning and execution of all safety activities. If they are involved, chances are good that they will take ownership of the program, helping their supervisors and management team identify the gaps between work as done and work as imagined and contributing to continuous system improvement.
A few key indicators for this type of involvement might be:
- Participation in prescribed safety activities, such as safety committees, inspections, and hazard assessments
- Participation in the development of safe work practices, procedures, or policies (they should not only be consulted but their names should appear on these documents as well)
- Proactive identification and reporting of worksite hazards, deviations from expected outcomes, and ideas for better ways to perform a task (look for documentation of coaching moments, hazard IDs, near misses, suggestions for improvement, and so on)
- Making others aware of the hazards of their work, such as stopping other parties (management, supervisors, suppliers, contractors, visitors) and briefing them about site hazards or getting these parties to review and sign their hazard assessment
Safety Staffing and Functions
An organization that values the wellbeing of its employees will dedicate time and money to safety. The most visible way to do this is by hiring dedicated safety personnel. Look into their org chart and see if there is a safety person or department. Depending on the size of the organization and the way it operates, the safety function might be standalone or combined with other solution-seeking and improvement functions, such as HR or QA/QC.
Another good indicator of a proactive approach to safety is who the safety team reports to. Are they a standalone leadership-level department? Do they report to a senior leader? Either of these would be indicative of safety being valued by the organization.
On the other hand, a safety department that is subordinated to production might need to be revised since it sends a message that safety comes second to production and it is not a support function.
Project and Task Planning
It goes without saying that a planned project has a greater chance of being seamlessly executed than one that is done ad hoc. Planning allows us to imagine scenarios and have measures in place for when these scenarios become a reality. For example, if you have work that takes place on an elevated platform, have you considered how many employees will be working at heights? Are they trained in fall prevention and safety? Is the equipment you already have adequate, or will you need to order project-specific equipment? If a worker falls, what's the procedure for rescuing them?
Do you have a checklist of what is needed to safely execute the project and are you adhering to that list?
Make an inventory of ongoing or completed projects and see how many have a safe execution plan. A company that is proactive will have a written plan for all its projects.
Most organizations will confidently assert that their workforce is well-trained for the tasks they perform. But those same organizations generally think that providing new worker orientation and some additional training mandated by their state, province, or industry is all that is needed for a worker to know how to complete a task safely.
While being able to prove the above is a leading indicator and a sign of due diligence, the reality is that each organization is unique in terms of environment, equipment, and personnel. As such, the generic training indicated earlier should be supplemented with task-specific training and competency verifications, especially in high-risk environments. These latter forms of training are better suited for adult learners because as we age we are more interested in the practical aspects of work and, therefore, assimilate that kind of information more readily.
From this perspective, a good leading indicator would be the percentage of employees performing high-risk tasks who have received training adequate for the work they will be performing.
Working with contractors on-site is part of the daily routine in many organizations. But the fact that contractors are not employees of the organization doesn't give that organization license to be careless when it comes to their safety and wellbeing.
Here are some ideas for how to translate good contractor management into leading indicators:
- Create a formal pre-qualification process and run every single contractor through it in order to ensure that they are capable of doing the work safely (larger contractors typically have all they need to hit the ground running, but smaller contractors might need additional resources, support, and monitoring)
- Verify that all contractors have been adequately trained and provide training for those who haven't before the start of the project
- Check how often contractors have been included in your planned production and safety activities, such as inspections and hazard assessments
(Learn more in Managing Contractors from Start to Finish)
A safe organization is an organization in which everybody makes occupational safety their business. All hierarchical levels, from senior leadership to one-off contractors, should be involved in safety and their activities and participation measured.
Tracking leading indicators will help you identify and take proactive actions to mitigate potential safety issues. This may not prevent all serious accidents, but you can be certain that it will reduce their likelihood.