Leading indicators precede and influence safe outcomes.
If incidents like injuries, near misses, and property damage are what come to mind when you think about measuring safety, then you're measuring lagging indicators. Those are important, to be sure, but identifying and measuring leading indicators helps us predict and control these.
By tracking and improving leading indicators, you can seriously improve the safety of your workplace.
The Preflight Checklist
Imagine this scenario. You board a plane, find your seat, and settle in for a three-hour flight. Just as you're getting comfortable, the pilot gets on the intercom to make an announcement:
Welcome to Misshap Airlines, Flight 1007. We will be flying into a strong headwind and possible storms. To make up time, we have decided to skip the preflight inspection. Thank you for choosing Misshap Airlines and please enjoy your flight.
At this point, you're probably no longer sitting comfortably. Heck, you're probably not even sitting anymore. If you're wise, you'll be making your way off the plane immediately.
That's because the preflight checklist is a leading indicator of safety. Conducting one means that the plane is more likely to stay in the sky until the pilot decides to land it.
We could also say that skipping the preflight inspection is a leading indicator for plane crashes. Plane crashes are lagging indicators (they're safety events that have already happened), and they're more likely to occur if nobody performs a proper preflight inspection.
We need predictability and control in our lives. Control gives us hope that things will be okay. It gives us security. The more important something is, the less we want to leave its outcome to chance (like keeping the plane up in the sky). And improving leading indicators of safety is one of the best ways we have of ensuring the outcomes we want.
What Are Leading Indicators of Safety?
We can define leading indicators as any observable factor that occurs before a lagging indicator takes place.
Leading indicators of safety include (but are in no way limited to):
- Having a safety policy and safety management system
- Following and enforcing safety rules
- Actively searching out unsafe conditions and behavior
- Safety walks
- Safety talks (find out Why Safety Moments Matter)
- Hazard assessments
- Use of lockout/tagout and other safety programs (see Lockout Tagout: 6 Essential Elements for related reading)
- Safety observations
- Safety training and certifications
- Safety projects and initiatives
- Pre-work safety inspections
There are more, but you get the idea. Any activity that positively influences safety counts.
Improving Safety with Leading Indicators
Safety is either proactive or inactive.
We are proactive when we use and promote leading indicators like the ones mentioned above. Doing this puts safety in our control. As these safety activities go up, you can count on incident rates going down.
Oddly enough, the best way to improve lagging indicators isn't to try to tackle them directly. Responding to lagging indicators is like running around with a fire extinguisher trying to put out a blaze while spreads. To really move the needle on lagging indicators, it's better to focus on leading indicators. Doing that is a lot more like preventing the fire from starting in the first place.
I have seen this myself in different manufacturing environments. Companies that shift their focus from lagging indicators (which they can't control anyway) to the leading indicators that they can influence get real results. Accident rates go down. Morale goes up.
Leading Indicators Have a Lot of Predictive Power
The fewer leading indicators of safety you engage in, the the more likely an accident is to occur.
But there aren't just leading indicators of safety; there are also leading indicators of accidents. These are the activities that predict that an accident is more likely to occur. The most common of these is the observation of unsafe conditions and behaviors, like routinely skipping safety procedures.
When we see someone disregard safety rules, no matter the reason (complacency, corner-cutting, snap decisions), it's an indication that accidents can be expected.
Employers must always be on the lookout for unsafe conditions, and those unsafe conditions must be addressed urgently. This is why we do safety walks and conduct hazard assessments. They allow us to identify and respond to unsafe conditions before they lead to accidents.
A lot of people say that accidents are unpredictable. But by paying close attention to leading indicators, we can get a good sense of how likely they are to occur.
Leading indicators precede lagging indicators. When you look at your work environment, what do you see? Do you see lots of leading indicators of safety, or do you see accidents waiting to happen?
For every risk you identify, you need to put a control measure in place as part of routine work. When you do that, you take control of the safety in your workplace instead of leaving it up to chance.
You would never dream of taking off in a commercial plane that didn't undergo a preflight inspection. So, why take the same kinds of risks in your workplace?