How to Use Leading & Lagging Indicators to Evaluate Workplace Safety

Every company we work with says that safety is job one, safety is the most important thing, there’s no work goal that’s worth sacrificing safety, or something like that. And they’re sincere.

To that end, they come to us for help improving their safety training programs, using our 3D-animated training materials, our best-in-class learning management systems for use in industrial and manufacturing companies, or even our mobile training and work-support solutions.

Evaluating Workplace Safety

But how do you KNOW that you’ve got a safe workplace? For many, the answer is to look at the incident rate. The goal is always zero incidents; a decreasing incident rate is a good sign, and an increasing incident rate a bad one.

But that’s not enough. There’s more to safety than just your incident rate, right? So a lot of safety people talk about leading and lagging indicators of safety.

What does that mean? Well, let’s take a step back and look at the terms leading and lagging first. Leading indicators are things that occur before an incident could occur, and lagging indicators are things that happened after an event occurred. Leading is before; lagging after. It’s the same use of the terms that you hear when people on the news are discussing economics.

Lagging Indicators

Traditionally, safety management has focused on lagging indicators, the things that happen after incidents. These include incident rates, workmen’s compensation costs, incident-related days away from work, the OSHA 300 logs, safety-related production stoppages, and more.

You get valuable information from your lagging indicators, because they show you the real effects of your safety program in terms like cost, number of injuries, and severity of injuries.

Leading Indicators

But because focusing on the past isn’t enough, safety professionals also look at leading indicators, things that happen before an incident (and that hopefully can be used to prevent incidents).

Leading indicators including things like safety training, the performance of job hazard analyses (JHAs), employee surveys, safety audits, observation of good housekeeping (or the lack of it), discipline for safety violators, and more. Some people consider near misses a leading indicator, and others a lagging indicator–you’re getting to a fine philosophical point with near misses, I guess. I see them as a leading indicator, but the opposite point has merit too.

For more about this, check out our article on Leading Indicators for EHS Program Performance Evaluation.


So what’s the takeaway? The best way to evaluate safety at your workplace is to use both lagging and leading indicators. Doing so will give you the full, big-picture view. Lagging indicators will tell you the current “cost” of your safety situation, and leading indicators will help you predict safety problems and fix them before they lead to incidents.

Stay tuned for a future blog post that ties the ideas of leading and lagging safety indicators into Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of your safety training program.

Hungry for more information about leading indicators for safety? Here’s a nice article we found at the NSC’s Safety & Health online magazine, and here’s an interesting article on leading indicators at the Predictive Solutions blog.



Acknowledgement: This post originated as a result of two separate but nearly simultaneous discussions on LinkedIn. The first discussion was prompted by a post of my own and a follow-up question from Abdil Kareem of Nippon Jordan Fertilizer Company (NJFC). Shortly after participating in that discussion, I participated in another discussion originated by Shawn Galloway of ProAct Safety, Inc. that addressed similar issues. Thanks to both those gentlemen, and the other participants in those discussions, for their thoughts and contributions. LinkedIn is a good place to learn some stuff and kick around ideas.

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. Jeff has worked in education/training for more than twenty years and in safety training for more than ten. You can follow Jeff at LinkedIn as well.

One thought on “How to Use Leading & Lagging Indicators to Evaluate Workplace Safety

  1. There is not a lot of leeway here. Lagging indicators are a record of what has already occurred. They can not be changed. They could be considered a record of our failures. Hense the negative connotation. Leading indicators are chosen to reflect the current state. To be effective these indicators must be appropriate to the job site or project. Inappropriate indicators do not add any value to the

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