OSHA Basics: OSHA’s Advice on Leading Indicators for Safety and Health Outcomes

Safety measurement is a big and important topic in occupational safety and health. We went into this issue in detail in a recorded discussion with Pam Walaski called Safety Metrics Reconsidered, we also discussed it during parts of recorded discussions with Ron Gantt (Safety Classics Reconsidered) and Carsten Busch (10 Common Safety Myths), and we plan on talking with Carsten Busch again soon on the topic, as he’s published a new book addressing issues around safety measurement (stay tuned for that).

In addition, the NSC/Campbell Library has done a lot of good research and publishing on the topic (we’ll cover that in an upcoming blog post) and OSHA published a document titled Using Leading Indicators to Improve Safety and Health Outcomes in June of 2019. It’s that newish OSHA document on using leading indicators for safety measurement and safety improvement we’re going to focus on in this article.

Before you read on, it’s definitely worth your while to download the OSHA document. And before you begin reading, know that we’ve got a free OSHA General Industry Compliance Guide for you, too!

OSHA’s New Guidance on Using Leading Indicators for Safety Management Evaluation

Of course, we recommend you read the entire OSHA document on leading indicators and how to use them to improve your occupational safety and health program, but here are a few items that caught our eye. All quotes below are from OSHA’s Leading Indicators document.

What Are Leading Indicators?

So what is a leading indicator, you ask, and in particular a leading indicator as applied to occupational safety and health? Here’s how OSHA explains it:

For purposes of this document, leading indicators are proactive, preventive, and predictive measures that provide information about the effective performance of your safety and health activities. They measure events leading up to injuries, illnesses, and other incidents and reveal potential problems in your safety and health program.

What’s a Lagging Indicator?

Now that you know what a leading indicator is, you may be wondering what a lagging indicator is (and, again, want to hear OSHA’s take on using lagging indicators in occupational safety and health). Here’s how OSHA explains lagging indicators:

In contrast, lagging indicators measure the occurrence and frequency of events that occurred in the past, such as the number or rate of injuries, illnesses, and fatalities.

How Should We Use Leading & Lagging Indicators Together?

Sometimes safety professionals who are eager to begin using leading indicators talk dismiss lagging indicators entirely. But this risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and it isn’t OSHA’s recommendation.

Here’s how OSHA suggests using leading and lagging indicators together for evaluating the effectiveness of your safety management program at work.

While lagging indicators can alert you to a failure in an area of your safety and health program or to the existence of a hazard, leading indicators allow you to take preventive action to address that failure or hazard before it turns into an incident. A good program uses leading indicators to drive change and lagging indicators to measure effectiveness.

So while it’s TRUE that safety professionals have relied too strongly on lagging indicators (incident rates, DART, TRIR, etc.) in the past, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them now. At least not according to OSHA, which might mean quite a bit to US employers.

Benefits of Using Leading Indicators

Great. Now we know what a leading indicator is. But why should we use them?

Here are a few benefits that OSHA suggests employers will see by adopting leading indicators in their safety management program:

  • [They] can play a vital role in preventing worker fatalities, injuries, and illnesses
  • [They] can strengthen safety and health outcomes
  • [They] provide companies who use them a significant advantage over their competitors
  • Using leading indicators allows an employer to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining a socially responsible workplace that values workers
  • They strength key/core elements of safety and health programs
  • Using them can improve overall organizational performance
  • Using them can result in direct financial savings to the bottom line, including savings in repair costs, production costs, worker’s comp costs, and other legal and/or regulatory costs associated with incidents

Creating SMART Leading Indicators

OSHA’s document says that leading indicators must be SMART, meaning they’re:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Accountable
  • Reasonable
  • Timely

Read pages 2 & 3 of OSHA’s document for more on this.

Is There One “Right” Way to Use Leading Indicators?

So if you’ve now bought into the idea of using leading indicators for safety management, you may want a paint-by-the-numbers playbook you can follow step-by-step to get started.

But, alas, it’s not that easy. As OSHA explains, “there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to use leading indicators.”

You’ll need to select and use leading indicators in ways that are appropriate for your organization. Here’s how OSHA explains it:

Employers with newer programs may use indicators that focus on starting a program, while employers with more mature programs may use them to monitor how close they are to achieving higher performance targets. Some employers may also find it helpful to limit the number of leading indicators they start out with or how many they use at any one time. How employers assign who will track and carry out goals for leading indicators can vary based on the size of the business, who the business has on staff, whether the business has a safety manager, and the scope of job duties of the employers’ workforce.

Three Suggested Ways to Use Leading Indicators

OSHA does list (and thoroughly explain, with helpful examples) three different ways organizations may use leading indicators.

These three ways are:

  • Leading indicators that use data your organization is already collecting to achieve a specific safety or health goal
  • Leading indictors for controlling an identified hazard (or hazards)
  • Leading indicators for improving an element of your safety and health program

See pages 4-16 for a LOT more information and examples on these three general approaches to using leading indicators for safety improvements.

Leading Indicators and P-D-C-A

On page 4, in explaining a process for using leading indicators, OSHA outlines a process within the familiar Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle for continuous improvement. In the “Plan” stage, they suggest “choosing a leading indicator” and “setting a goal.” In the “Do” stage, they list “Communicate” and “Start Using Your Indicators.” In the “Check” phase, they suggest “Periodically Rechecking Your Goal and Indicators.” And in the “Act” phase, they say you should “Respond to What You’ve Learned.”

Feel free to download our free P-D-C-A Cycle infographic for more on the plan-check-do-act cycle for continuous improvement.

Leading Indicators and The Core Elements of Your Safety and Health Program

The OSHA document Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs lists 7 core elements of a safety and health management program. They are:

  • Management leadership
  • Worker participation
  • Hazard identification and assessment
  • Hazard prevention and control
  • Education and training
  • Program evaluation and improvement
  • Communication and coordination for host employers, contractors, and staffing agencies

OSHA’s document on using leading indicators for safety improvements notes:

Leading indicators can help you improve on these core elements of your safety and health program. Tying elements of a safety and health program directly to lagging indicators such as injury rates may be difficult, but experience shows that better programs do improve safety.

See pages 10-16 of OSHA’s document on using leading indicators to see extensive ideas and examples on how to use leading indicators to support these core elements of your occupational safety and health program.

See our article on OSHA’s recommended practices for safety and health programs, download our free Get Started with Safety Management in 10 Steps infographic, and download the actual OSHA safety and health management program document.

OSHA’s Concluding Action Plan Checklist for Using Leading Indicators

OSHA concludes its document on using leading indicators by providing the following “action plan checklist” items for you:

Identify your top problem areas–start with hazards, and with hazards with the greatest likelihood of harming workers based on severity/frequency (see our articles What Is Risk? and Risk Management and Safety and download our free guide to risk-based safety management).

  • Talk with workers to find out what else could be improved
  • Consider actions to address your key areas/problems/hazards
  • Set a goal and use leading indicators to reach it
  • Collect the data related to your leading indicators and goals
  • Periodically review the results
  • Remember even one or two leading indicators can have a positive result

What Do YOU Think about Safety Metrics, Lagging Indicators, and Leading Indicators?

Let us know your opinion on all this–the comments section awaits.

And don’t forget to download our free guide to OSHA General Industry Compliance below!

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

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