Leading vs Lagging Indicators: How to Enhance Workplace Safety

March 20, 2024

A proactive safety management system requires both lagging and leading indicators for comprehensive data and insights.

The world of workplace safety has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. Industries have steadily improved in terms of incident rates, and yet, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 5,486 U.S. workers never made it safely home in 2022. Business and safety leaders, who are more and more invested in their workers’ well-being, are driving a major shift of perspective in addressing the safety concerns of their organizations to further reduce the number of incidents.

Today, traditional incident reporting and analysis team up with technology to prevent incidents and fatalities before they happen. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) for collecting and analyzing data, along with frontline workers reporting incidents on mobile devices, have revolutionized health and safety. This blog examines how data from leading and lagging indicators contributes to proactive safety management systems and highlights the crucial role of frontline workers in establishing a safety-conscious workplace.

Lagging Indicators: Traditional Safety Metrics

Traditionally, safety programs have relied heavily on lagging indicators, which represent data from previous incidents. These indicators result from practices like root-cause analysis, incident investigations and corrective actions. Examples of lagging indicators include reported injuries, Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate (LTIFR), severity rate, workers’ compensation costs and equipment damage costs. This approach, which combines extensive data analysis and subsequent corrective actions, has significantly reduced fatal and nonfatal injuries in industry. Still, while the primary goal of safety programs is to prevent incidents, the reality is that lagging indicators require fatalities, injuries and equipment damage that have taken place. Only once this data is available can safety practitioners improve their safety programs.

This reactive approach has two significant shortcomings. First, as we have seen, it is based on actual incident and fatality data. As such, it does nothing to protect those who have been harmed or killed or to promote a sense of trust in the organization’s safety culture. Second, as workplace safety programs improve, there are fewer incidents, which means less data to support analytics. Declining numbers of incidents present challenges for organizations as insufficient data might give a false impression of safety performance and generate less accurate preventative models.

Leading Indicators: Industry-Tailored Proactive Safety Metrics

Recognizing the shortcomings of this reactive approach, safety professionals increasingly rely on a new generation of data-based tools that have the potential to prevent injuries and fatalities before they happen. These tools use leading indicators to analyze and evaluate risks that predict the likelihood of workplace accidents in the future.

Rather than relying on incident-derived data, leading indicators precede incidents by using information from two primary metrics: observations and inspections. An observation is a single instance of a behavior or condition that can be either safe or at-risk, whereas inspections are a collection of one or more observations. With timely data from the field at their fingertips, safety leaders can analyze, identify and predict trends before they escalate into serious injury or fatality events on the job.

Observations of unsafe practices like workers walking in designated vehicle-only zones or disregarding machine safeguards provide valuable data about high-risk activities. Other job specific examples of leading indicators may be inadequate use of personal protective equipment (PPE) or lack of emergency response drills, which may eventually lead to serious incidents.

Once safety leaders analyze the metrics derived from leading indicators tailored to their specific industry, they can implement effective corrective actions. These may include targeted training and education, supervision, monitoring, communication and behavior-based safety programs.

Today’s workplace safety programs increasingly integrate both categories of indicators. Recognizing the limitations of reactive measures only, proactive safety cultures consistently employ leading indicators as a preventive tool to address potential risks before their escalation into incidents. Meanwhile, organizations also use lagging indicators to analyze historical metrics and refine safety protocols with the ultimate aim of reducing event frequency rates and enhancing the overall safety performance.

The synergy of both categories of indicators carries a great potential to further reduce workplace fatalities and incidents and build trust in frontline workers that the organization is serious about their well-being.

The Role of the Frontline Worker

In this combined approach, it’s crucial to recognize the human factor. In reality, frontline workers are those who face the full impact of workplace accidents and often witness unsafe practices that may cost their lives. Factual statistics confirm that workplace hazards persist with steady numbers of fatalities among frontline workers. Transportation and material moving occupations, which are traditionally the highest-risk industries, experienced 1,620 fatal work injuries in the U.S. in 2022. And this is only one industry sector.

Knowing that their lives are at risk every day, frontline workers must feel assured that their leadership cares about and takes preventive measures to ensure their protection. At the same time, they must realize they have an active role to play in a reciprocal process if they want to promote a sound safety culture.

With the implementation of advanced technology, including AI and mobile devices, workers can now submit real-time reports from any location and send immediate updates to the safety management system. This instantaneous data about near misses and at-risk behaviors can be a real game changer in identifying high-risk practices that have remained unaccounted for in the traditional delayed reporting model.

A quote from James Pomeroy of Lloyd's Register's Group: The beauty of IoT technology is that we can do it in real time and we can take hundreds of data points. So the opportunity for this technology is about how we transform worker engagement and take people with us on that journey.

At the core of this innovative approach is a continuous feedback loop, which fosters a sense of autonomy, agency and ownership among frontline workers. Workers who feel empowered to report observations anytime and anywhere become a dedicated force of vigilant safety inspectors. This motivated team consistently contributes ongoing safety data, which safety leaders analyze to identify leading indicators and potential issues before they become major problems. Moving forward, safety leaders can share their insights with frontline workers through bulletins, communications and microlearning sessions to prevent recurrent or predictable unsafe practices.

In this bi-directional communication channel, frontline workers are both receivers and transmitters of critical safety data and are empowered to bring change by making real-time corrective actions, as shown in Figure 1.

A graph depicting how safety leaders, frontline workers and Intelex contribute to a digitally empowered safety management system.

Advanced Technology Weighs In

In many complex industries and environments, health and safety practitioners use a combination of frontline workers’ reports and cutting-edge technology to get a comprehensive picture of the risk factors in processes and operations.

A good illustration of such innovative workplace safety technology is the partnership between Intelex and Protex AI. Protex AI uses computer vision with artificial intelligence, deep learning and closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to identify a range of safety hazards and events. It provides real-time data and categorizes hazardous workplace activities, such as poor on-site evacuation route hygiene, workers entering an exclusion zone, vehicles moving too quickly or operators not wearing the required PPE. By using this data, safety leaders can filter, analyze and investigate the riskiest activities and scenarios in the field. This results in enhanced visibility, better risk mitigation and improved safety KPIs, which eventually contribute to an improved data-driven safety culture.

The Internet of things (IoT) joins forces with mobile devices and AI to enhance the model of instantaneous data submission. It enables seamless connectivity and data exchange between various devices to improve workplace safety measures. As James Pomeroy, Security, Environmental and Sustainability Director of Lloyd’s Register’s Group Safety, says, “The beauty of IoT technology is that we can do it in real time and we can take hundreds of data points. So the opportunity for this technology is about how we transform worker engagement and take people with us on that journey.”

Learn more about how to use AI to promote a data-driven safety culture.

Proactive Safety Management Systems and the Role of Intelex

Organizations that promote their workers’ welfare implement proactive safety management systems that are built on technology, data, analytics, training, communication and frontline workers’ engagement. These systems rely on tailored leading indicators with the ultimate goal of reducing on-site safety risks and building an effective safety culture.

Intelex, as a global leader in EHS software, supports and enhances proactive safety management systems with advanced safety-critical applications. These include Safety Inspection Software, Audit Management, Training Management, Job Safety Analysis, Safety Observations Management, Behavior-Based Safety, Compliance Tracking and Bulletins. These applications have proven to be powerful tools contributing to safer work environments.

A Case in Point: Spotlight on Leaders with Intelex

Coats is a world leader in thread manufacturing and structural components for apparel and footwear, and an innovative pioneer in performance materials. With 17,000 employees on six continents, the company implemented Intelex Incident Management Application in 2018 to ensure proactive safety management in its locations.

With the help of Intelex and as part of its Journey to Zero strategy, Coats achieved seamless reporting and visibility of incidents. “We had a tremendous increase in the identification of improvement actions,” says Andrew Morgan, Group Health and Safety Director at Coats, “which in turn has resulted in a reduction in the number of injuries or other incidents.” The data since 2018 showcases Coats’ safety success.

A chart of the indicators and successes that Intelex client Coats achieved.

The notable rise in submitting data about near misses and hazards has demonstrated heightened risk awareness among employees. This proactive safety-conscious reporting reinforces a continuous improvement mindset within the organization.

The Journey Ahead

Safety management systems in organizations are there to serve a clear purpose: they have to keep workers safe. As workplaces, markets and demographics change, there will be new safety challenges, which will require innovative approaches to ensure workers’ well-being.

As James Pomeroy points out, “For me safety is personal. It is about keeping people safe and making sure that we focus on the things that matter to them. What we are going through in terms of the data, the innovation and the technology, for me the big game changer is how it can help people to be safer and how we can prevent the serious and major accidents and ill health that I’ve had exposure to in my career.”

The integration of leading and lagging indicators with advanced technology is a winning proactive strategy for safety-conscious organizations. By also empowering frontline workers with the right tools, knowledge and incentives to engage in safety protocols, safety practitioners can effectively prevent incidents and create a more secure work environment. An environment where workers can feel confident they can go home safe and healthy at the end of the day.