Safety Leadership Spotlight | Using Leading Indicators to Drive Organizational Safety Performance


On January 18th, I sat down with EHSQ Community member, and Principal, Larry Coco, of ESH & Quality Consulting, to hear his thoughts on how leading indicators are transforming workplace safety in business. Over the last 30 years, Larry has managed ESHQ teams in the commercial nuclear industry with Westinghouse and on operations contractor teams at Department of Energy weapons production facilities and on nuclear/chemical waste clean-up sites. Site sizes varied from a few acres and plants with hundreds of thousands of square feet up to thousands of acres and many millions of square feet of work area. His EHSQ teams varied in size from 10 to 160 staff on larger government sites with thousands of workers.

Companies that experience the lowest lost-time and reportable injury rates are also the ones with high levels of management commitment and employee involvement. Larry coaches, “It is important that management demonstrates their commitment to safety by constantly talking about safety, leading by example, and taking the necessary steps to fix safety issues quickly and effectively.” In order to maintain and continuously improve safe workplace behavior, establishing a “safety-centric culture” is an imperative for company and facility leadership and management teams. Worker trust in their leaders and managers to support improvement and change for a safe work environment is earned every day by “leading by example.” Managers and senior administrators need to lead by “Walking the talk!”

Larry spoke about how over the last 25 years he and his teams have been trying to predict safety outcomes more and more by collecting and analyzing data on leading indicators such as near misses, unsafe conditions and unsafe acts. Collecting this important leading indicator data can be difficult due to the degree of worker willingness to report safety issues and occurrences in the workplace. Management-worker collaboration and cooperation depends heavily on the workers’ perception of the company’s commitment to a “safety-centric culture.” Worker trust in the management team to treat employee reporting of safety issues fairly is imperative. There must be no fear of reprisal for reporting. Worker trust and confidence in the occurrence vetting process is built in this type of work environment.

Larry finds another challenge to overcome is the manual nature by which the company’s supervisors and managers document safety issues. These workers are the ones chiefly responsible for documenting unsafe behaviors and conditions and doing daily safety walk-downs of their work areas. Accuracy and forthrightness in reporting are important so that the information provided to the EHSQ team for analysis and delivered to senior management or audit reviewers is valid, accurate, insightful and actionable, as necessary.

During our discussion about “unsafe conditions”, Larry shared that these are commonly regarded by Safety Managers as “essential data” that should initiate an immediate remedial action that results in meaningful worker safety improvements. When these issues are addressed and corrected quickly they have a significant impact on safety program success.

Interpretation of safety data is one of the key functions of the Safety Team. Larry points out that all safety audit data collected by operations management, the safety team or safety committees needs to be expeditiously reported in an executable manner for continuous proactive safety improvement. The key to making this information work for you is being able to easily uncover the data insights that lead to opportunities for improvement. Only then can you implement plans to counteract the situations that have been identified as “unsafe” and fix them correctly the first time.

When looking at “training,” Larry points out that it is not enough to look at the training of the worker and the test results they’ve had. There is a need to look wider. Review your emergency simulations exercises. What percentage of your employees knows and can demonstrate what to do in an emergency situation? This is a great leading indicator of what can happen during an emergency and how your staff will react to counteract potentially dangerous situations that can cause serious injury or death and property loss. Larry believes that during any emergency simulation exercise it is important to look at the response times and simulated actions for each exercise scenario. Are staff assessments of the situation correct and their responses appropriate? He pointed out that these are good leading indicators of how successful your team will be in reducing or eliminating negative impacts during a real emergency situation. Evaluating the performance data from each exercise also provides insight into the type and frequency of emergency response worker training required to ensure peak performance at all times.

Sometimes negative trends in safety performance are not readily discoverable. Larry says,

“’Deep-diving’ into your safety data and other administrative or human resources-related data, to identify trends that may have otherwise not been apparent, may reveal the root cause of a negative trend.” In other words, “expand your viewpoint to look at safety data more holistically .”

For example, Larry has worked in facilities where they had a spike in first aid or reportable cases. By examining and trending other sources of data, he has learned that it’s often helpful in uncovering underlying issues such as “work-related stress.” Taking a quality management or root cause analysis approach… asking the “5 whys,” can most often reveal a true root cause. He points out the importance of addressing psychological issues because they can influence accident rates in the workplace. What caused the stress? Did an event occur or a rumor spread regarding impending lay-offs, a contract cancelation or union dispute during the same timeframe? You need to find out what is causing the distraction from safe work practices that contributes to or is a potential root cause of rising negative trends.

As a former senior EHSQ program and project manager, and now consultant, Larry has worked with many different organizations over the years and observed how various EHSQ management teams collect safety performance data. In his experience, safety managers often collect data using excel spreadsheets and/or paper methods. Many larger organizations have evolved past this to implement in-house-developed or purchased software solutions to collect and track EHSQ information. In organizations with more than 200 to 300 employees, the volume of data is often too high to rely on manual collection and analysis methods and customized software is necessary to streamline, standardize, and automate compliance with regulatory reporting requirements and EHSQ performance goals.

Larry worked in high-hazard facilities his entire career. In commercial and Department of Energy nuclear/chemical facilities where a “safety-centric culture” was mandatory, his ESHQ teams routinely communicated their key findings to the fully-committed Senior Level Management team on demand. In addition to detailed weekly and monthly reports, requests for updates often came on short notice and with the expectation of a professional presentation of 15 minutes of pertinent data analysis. Being able to quickly get the data and present it in a straightforward, digestible format was essential.

This led us to a discussion around bench-marking. “It’s important, Larry says, to benchmark your safety trends and issues across similar industries, work sites and geographies to discover ‘best practices’ and opportunities for continuous improvement.” His EHSQ teams have looked at data from organizations in the same or similar industries and used the combined statistics to bench-mark their performance. They’ve relied on a variety of sources for an aggregate representation including, industrial data sites, such as OSHA or international databases.

A tip he shared as his own “best practice” is forming a network of people within your own industry, or in very large corporations, between similar or sister facilities, to share best practices and safety performance data across the organization. This includes reaching out to EHSQ colleagues in competitor organizations. To build up your network, connect with colleagues at conferences, through professional societies, corporate-sponsored safety meetings, on line communities and by attending pertinent public events. He advises that building and leveraging relationships this way will prove more fruitful than attempting to ascertain this potentially proprietary information using the internet or other public data sources. Especially when engaging with colleagues in a competitor business, offering to share your company’s data with them in exchange for their data often gets a positive response. Exchanges like these generally also require advance permission for release of data from the respective companies’ senior management. He stressed as a community, we need to share best practices and data collection and analytical techniques more openly with one another to learn and promote excellent safety practices in pursuit of our common goal.

Larry firmly believes in Integrated Safety Management Systems (ISMS) as a first line of defense to ensure job safety excellence, especially in high-hazard operations. An ISMS comprises the


  • Defining the Work and Conducting Pre-job Procedure Review Meetings with all Assigned Workers
  • Analyzing the Real and Potential Hazards
  • Developing Engineering and Passive Protective Controls to Mitigate Risks
  • Conducting a Worker “Pre-job Procedure Walk-through” and Performing the Work Safely
  • Ensuring Performance through a Post-job Quality of Procedures, Work and Safety Review

In a fully implemented ISMS, we need to collect data and input our findings before, during and after the fact, in each of the Core Function stages. Most often, this is done manually job by job. The overall process is intended to thoroughly plan work to create as safe a work environment as possible. In addition, the collection of planning and performance data from each job needs to be available to reference for similar future jobs and include documentation of all real and potential hazards, risks and possible incidents. The challenge of creating a database of job performance data that can be “mined” for similar or identical operations is significant and difficult to do with manual paper or simple software solutions. Simple software solutions often allow only word search capability and little else that allows categorization of specific types of operations and procedures. It can also be difficult to utilize a basic database approach to connect related database sources of pertinent supporting data. Depending on the amount of data and the criticality of the need to mine related databases, a pre-packaged customizable software solution may be the right answer for your organization.

An ISMS also comprises GUIDING PRINCIPALS for operations. They mimic “Conduct of Operations” principles common in military operations and include:

  • Line Management Responsibility for Safety
  • Clear Roles and Responsibilities for all Workers, Supervision and Management
  • Worker Competence Commensurate with Responsibilities
  • Balanced Safety Priorities with Production Schedule Commitments
  • Identification of Safety Standards and Requirements
  • Engineered Hazard Controls
  • Operations Authorization to Perform all Work

Larry’s two top of mind challenges about collecting and sharing information are:

  1. Getting supervisors to collect and input data into the safety management system database in a timely manner and continuously communicating safety performance statistics to their worker teams.
  2. Clearly and simply communicating safety performance data back to the workforce at large, who are stakeholders in the overall success of the company, to enable them to address challenges and act on safety improvement opportunities in a timely manner.

At the end of the day, safety is the responsibility of every employee. To make your safety program successful, focus on these three core elements:

  1. EMPLOYEE TRUST – is a key element in developing a “safety-centric culture” where the company leadership is fully engaged in promoting and creating a safe work environment in a collaborative and cooperative manner with workers.
  2. COMMUNICATION – is essential for safety success… upward from the worker level without fear of reprisal to top management, who must listen… and then downward from the top to set the standard for safe work performance.
  3. TOOLS & TECHNOLOGY – to create safety-related solutions to mitigate workplace job hazards and enable job planning that relies on engineered fail-safe capabilities more than less-reliable passive protective solutions.

In the end, the quality and success of a safety program is based in the same basic principle of continuous improvement, which is a foundation block of all quality management systems. Indeed, safety performance is one of the most important quality indicators in all businesses and a true indicator of the overall success of an organization.

It is a matter of continuous improvement because safety is part of quality


Larry M. Coco is a Senior EHS & Quality Program and Project Executive-Consultant with commercial manufacturing and government project and facility operations experience. He primarily serves energy and defense-related industries; however, his expertise also applies to standard manufacturing and fabrication operations, and healthcare-related operations. Larry is available as a confidential consultant and auditor for firms with new facility start-up EHS and quality support needs or firms whose EHS and quality programs need to be re-baselined or improved. Contact details;, LinkedIn:

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