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Safety Indicators: Measuring Something That Didn't Happen (Part 2)

June 5, 2013


Last week, we examined the concept of what makes a company “safe” and how our initial instinct is to use past events (i.e., lagging indicators such as recordable injury rates) to predict future safety performance. We also discussed how sole reliance on lagging indicators can give organizations an incomplete picture of safety performance, using the example of the driver who might reach their destination without having an accident, despite driving a vehicle in very poor condition (bad brakes, bald tires) in a highly unsafe manner (not wearing a seatbelt, with one eye closed, while texting). In that example, getting to the destination without incident would be the lagging indicator, whereas the state of the vehicle and the behaviors of the driver would be the leading indicators. Although both indicators are based on the same situation, they each give us a very different assessment of risk levels.

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Leading indicators allow us to measure safety performance independently of random variability, or “luck,” because they focus on the inputs rather than the outputs. They focus on what you are doing to reduce exposure, rather than on what has already happened in the past.

There’s a three step process to designing good leading indicators:

1. Identify what you want to do
2. Figure out what it takes to do that
3. Find a way to measure those things

So, let’s use our driving example.

1. The goal when driving is to not get seriously injured in an accident.
2. The next step is to figure out what it will take to not get seriously injured in an accident. This includes ensuring the vehicle is well maintained, wearing one’s seatbelt, following the rules of the road, avoiding distractions, etc.
3. Finally we need to figure out how to measure those things. To measure vehicle maintenance we could look at maintenance records, develop a preventative maintenance schedule and measure how often we follow that schedule. To measure the ability of the driver to follow the rules of the road and to practice safe behaviors we could use safety behavior assessments to evaluate the SafetyDNA of the driver. Then, with each driver we can develop a personal safety action plan based on their SafetyDNA with specific behavior measurements that can become leading indicators. You could also just implement a policy that only employees with a specific SafetyDNA are allowed to operate vehicles and measure compliance with that policy.

The key with leading indicators is to figure out what you want, what it takes to get there, and then ask yourself – if we were doing those things what specific things would we see? In this way leading indicators are specific to the goals and objectives that you want to achieve. They can be used on a micro-level, at the individual worker or job level, or they can be used on the macro-level, with indicators for overall organizational safety performance. Examples of some commonly used micro/job-level leading indicators include:

• Compliance with specific job procedures or a job hazard analysis
• Employee competence in regards to workplace hazards and procedures, as measured by     random sampling
• Employee use of PPE required for the job
• Employees following their personal safety development plans

Examples of some commonly used macro/organizational-level leading indicators include:

• Percent of employees receiving required training
• Safety audit frequency, results, and time before corrective action is taken
• Implementation of a safety management system
• Safety perception surveys
• Safety behavior assessments performed
• Use of the higher order controls on the hierarchy of control versus lower order controls

These lists are merely a small sample to get you thinking. Nonetheless, leading indicators are great at measuring safety performance for one primary reason – they take the emphasis off what doesn’t happen and place it on what does happen to make you and your organization safe. Karl Weick says that safety is a “dynamic non-event.” Most people focus on the “non-event.” But what are you doing to make your organization safe?


Our Guest Blogger this week is Ron Gantt, CSP, ARM - Vice President of Safety Compliance Management. Ron has been an integral part of SCM for more than a decade. 



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