One of the reasons safety programs fail is that they rely too heavily on lagging indicators and too little on leading indicators. Before we look at why that is, it's important to make sure everyone is on the same page and understands the difference between these two types of performance indicators.

Lagging Indicators

Lagging indicators are the data gathered regarding safety incidents or outcomes that have already occurred and cannot be reversed. They are lagging, in other words, because they're focused on past events.

Lagging indicators include tallies of:

Leading Indicators

Like lagging indicators, leading indicators are made up of safety-related data. What makes them different, however, is that they are not concerned with incidents that have already happened but with measures that can be implemented or conditions that can be influenced to help avoid future incidents.

Leading indicators include proactive measures, such as:

Illustrating the Problem: The Soccer Example

Picture a soccer game. During the game, all eyes are on the field and on the players. Everything that is happening on the field or is influencing the players makes up the leading indicators—the positioning of the players, the other team’s strategy, control of the ball, field conditions, weather, and so on. If they're going to have a good chance of winning, teams and coaches must continuously adjust their strategies based on these kinds of factors.

The scoreboard, on the other hand, shows us all the lagging indicators, such as the number of points scored during the game. Once points are on the board, they're not coming off. Once the clock runs out, the teams (usually) can’t do anything to change the score.

Stop Focusing on Lagging Indicators

The soccer example helps us understand why successful safety programs cannot be driven by lagging indicators. A coach might look at the scoreboard and say, "In retrospect, we should have opted for this position and these types of plays" but once the game is over, it won't do anything to change the outcome.

Now, on the other hand, if the coach has a good talk with the players before the game about the things to watch out for (a Toolbox talk), makes sure that the field is in good condition before the players step out on it (a Hazard ID evaluation), and keeps coaching the players throughout the game (a mentorship program), they'll be in a good position to adjust their strategy and control the outcome of the game.

Likewise, every construction worker needs to understand and recognize the importance of implementing a culture and adopting behaviors aimed at avoiding safety incidents (learn about the Essential Elements of Creating a Workplace Safety Culture). These are the things workers can control in order to drive safety.

Why Leading Indicators Are So Important

So, what makes monitoring leading indicators so important? To understand that, we need to consider three basic human tendencies:
  1. Taking shortcuts
  2. Making snap decisions
  3. Being complacent

Taking Shortcuts
There are three motivators that guide most of our actions: the avoidance of pain, the desire for reward, and the conservation of our energy. The instinct to conserve our energy is what pushes us to take shortcuts, even when we know we're dealing with an important task. This built-in drive for efficiency has a lot of benefits—we would be a lot less productive without it—but the problem is that safety almost always requires extra time and effort. It takes time to properly put on PPE, to chalk tires, and to get the right tools. So, when employees take safety shortcuts, it's an indication that accidents are just around the corner.

Making Snap Decisions
We're constantly multitasking, juggling many activities at once. At work, we quickly shift our priorities from moment to moment and try to do more than one thing at a time so we can complete all of our assigned tasks. In any environment where there is an over-emphasis on performance, it's easy to make a snap decision to get things done more quickly by forgoing safety “just this once.” But safety is never optional; it must be seen as important enough to continually require attention.

Being Complacent
Unsafe working conditions are created quickly and through small, seemingly innocent actions, such as spilling water on the floor. Employees must be trained to be safety experts. Workers need to constantly use their “hazard radar” to identify unsafe conditions. Employees also learn to value what management values. A safety-first culture tells employees that management believes they and their safety are a priority. Complacency sets in when the importance of safety isn't constantly reinforced. Unless employees get the message that safety is genuinely important, they're not likely to give it the effort it requires.

Promoting Safety Leadership

These basic human behaviors highlight why it's absolutely important for construction companies to monitor safety meetings, FLHAs, field competency checks, safety inspections, and so on.

And there's no need to worry that a focus on leading indicators is going to make us miss important safety issues and problems. In fact, measuring leading indicators to assess HSE performance is exactly what is going to prevent the occurrence of incidents (lagging indicators). The reason is simple: monitoring leading indicators is, in and of itself, the best way to bring about the behavioral changes that will naturally result in an improvement in lagging indicator performance. Every team in the field becomes responsible for taking all the necessary steps to ensure that the job is done safely. And before you know it, those steps become second nature, which means behaviors have changed… for the best.

The Gallup organization defines a leader as someone who has willing followers. That means safety leadership isn't just about putting in safeguards to protect employees, it's also about having a positive influence on them. It's critical, then, that safety leaders constantly promote safety by teaching and observing leading indicators of safety.