Preventing job-site injuries would be much simpler if you could predict them beforehand. But you don’t need a crystal ball to get a jump on creating a safer workplace. Using leading indicators can help you reach your goals of fewer job-site accidents and a healthier bottom line.

Andrew Baird, ARM, CRM, CBIA, Large Market Specialist at Builders Mutual, shares why contractors should consider setting up a leading indicator program and some tips for getting started.

Difference Between Leading and Lagging Indicators

According to OSHA, leading indicators are proactive, preventive, and predictive measures that provide information about the performance of your safety and health activities. In other words, these indicators can be observed and recorded prior to an injury or illness to help prevent them. For example, for roofers interested in reducing the number of worker falls, it could be useful to observe how often workers properly wear their safety harnesses.

In contrast, lagging indicators measure incidents that have occurred in the past. Many companies are familiar with lagging indicators, such as DART or LTIR rates or the number or rate of injuries, illnesses, and fatalities among workers. These measures can help evaluate the effectiveness of a company’s safety program—but only after the fact.

But looking backward can be tricky, especially when you’re only measuring negative events. Were you able to avoid an accident simply because of luck? How many near misses occurred that could have led to catastrophic loss? Is there an unknown issue—for example, a worker hiding a bad back—that could lead to safety problems down the road?

It’s important for companies to use both leading and lagging indicators together. Leading indicators measure ongoing performance, while lagging indicators track results. Both are necessary for an effective safety program. If you think of leading indicators as a car’s windshield and lagging indicators as the rearview mirror, then it’s obvious you need both to drive safely.

Benefits of a leading indicator program

Leading indicators can be used to control risk across a company’s operations, including production and quality. As predictive measures, they help a company project expenses and losses, giving them greater confidence to strategically invest and expand their business.

When applied to safety, the use of leading indicators can help:

  • Prevent injuries and illnesses
  • Reduce costs associated with loss events
  • Improve safety and health performance
  • Increase worker participation in safety initiatives

Additionally, developing a reputation as a company committed to safety is increasingly important in a time when finding and hiring construction workers remains difficult. It’s been shown that companies with a strong safety record are better able to attract new employees and retain current workers longer.

These positive benefits don’t come without costs. Setting up a leading indicator program can be time-consuming because it requires several people from various levels of your organization to come together and determine what key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure and track. Devoting time and resources to these efforts will invariably take away from other responsibilities at work.

However, the payoff can be worth it. Studies have shown that companies that use leading indicators as a way to prevent dangerous incidents have improved safety practices and profitability.

Tips for Creating a Leading Indicator Program

While large companies often have more resources to develop a leading indicator program, organizations of all sizes can reap their rewards. Here’s how.

Get started. Determining which KPIs to measure and track can be paralyzing. After all, so many things can affect job-site safety. Don’t get overwhelmed. One or two leading indicators can make a positive impact. Once your organization gets more experience under its belt, you can evolve your program.

Get the right team in place. Make sure you have a cross-functional team from every level—management alone may not always be aware of potential hazards on the ground. A good place to start is with your existing safety committee. But to demonstrate how critical safety is to your whole organization, consider renaming this particular group the Company Improvement Committee.

Identify the right indicators to track. Start by thinking about the sources of greatest potential hazard. In masonry, that might be the use of scaffolding. For a roofer, it might be fall prevention. In this example, indicators can align to one of three categories:

  • Observation-based. You could look at different behaviors related to fall protection, such as how often roofers wear their harnesses and whether they’re worn correctly.
  • Operation-based. These indicators relate to your infrastructure—for example, how long it takes for a safety incident to be reported or how much training is offered on fall prevention.
  • System-based. These relate to management—for example, how committed management is to safety (e.g., how often managers attend safety training) or the organization’s culture (e.g., how strongly safety is emphasized during meetings).

Create a benchmark, set a goal, and track progress. Once you’ve selected your KPIs, assess how well you’re performing against them. This data will serve as your starting point, or benchmark, from which you can set goals and track progress. For example, if your KPI is how frequently roofers are wearing their safety harnesses to prevent falls, you may find that only 60% of workers are currently doing so. This would be your benchmark. If you ultimately want 100% compliance, you can set an intermediate goal of 80% and track progress toward it.

Use learnings to try different approaches. As you track your progress, you will get objective feedback on the effectiveness of your intervention methods—one of the great benefits of a leading indicator program. For example, if you’re trying to improve fall protection you may perform company-wide training one quarter and individual coaching the next. How much, if any, did each approach improve your KPIs? You will now know which intervention is more effective and focus on that approach going forward to drive improvements.

Communicate progress—and purpose. Any safety program needs employee buy-in to be successful. Communicate with your workers how well they’re doing and where they can improve. But make sure you’re also communicating why you’ve developed a program—to keep workers safer, not to “get more out of them.” Knowing this important why is critical for program success.

Need help getting a plan in place? Builders Mutual’s Risk Management staff are experts at protecting you, your employees, and your business. They can help you set up a leading indicator program by visiting your job-site and helping you identify which KPIs to track to make the biggest impact. Contact your risk management consultant to set up a job-site visit today.