For a safer workforce, use leading indicators to avoid lagging

Preliminary results from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show work-related fatal injuries decreased from 4,690 in 2010 to 4,609 in 2011, while private industry employers reported nearly 3 million workplace injuries and illnesses for an incidence rate of 3.5 per 100 workers, unchanged from 2010.

Although the numbers are trending in the right direction, there is still much room to grow and create an environment of total worker safety. As safety and health professionals, we strive for zero injuries and illnesses. This isn’t an easy task, but it should be our main objective.

As a tool, lagging indicators have limitations. In the past, many EHS professionals looked at lagging indicators (i.e., past injury and illness rates) to manage future rates of injuries and illnesses. Now we are finally seeing a shift to the use of leading indicators in place of or in combination with lagging indicators.

Future indicators give us a better chance of preventing injuries and illnesses. Leading indicators measure proactive efforts that can uncover weak spots in the system before they become larger complications. Where lagging indicators look at the demonstrated failure of a specific characteristic, leading indicators look to guide and create safer actions that will influence future performance. This is a key component to creating a safer workforce.

Leading indicators allow you to:

  • Observe, record and act on near-misses
  • Use job hazard analyses to quantify risk
  • Head off problems before they occur
  • Create more meaningful inspections and audits,
  • Become a safer employer/employee

A culture that promotes safety and health first and foremost should be implemented from the top down. Every employee must feel accountable for safety and understand that is not just something for the “safety guy” to worry about or exclusively the employer’s responsibility. In this culture, everyone considers safety as a priority, and they follow-through because it’s the right thing to do, not just because they have to comply.

Next, the employee/employer should review observations. These are your clues. It could be a near-miss (someone almost got hit by a forklift) or simply an unsafe behavior (someone not wearing safety glasses in a required area). Where are they losing employees to incidents? What types of injuries and illnesses are being accrued? Are many near-misses occurring? Questions like these are important when looking back at observations, because they are your best indicators of accidents that almost happened. Understanding and eliminating those is how you target the real threats and lower risk.

Another way to create a safer work force is by providing proper safety training. It’s important to educate employees about potential safety hazards and teach them proper work techniques. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be about trying to get as much done as possible, but about getting as much done in the safest way possible.

Most importantly, the message has to flow through the organization. A proper safety culture will make the greatest difference in a facility. Employees emulate managers who are truly devoted to having the best possible safety and health program.

UL gives safety professionals more of the tools they need to proactively address risks, reduce costs and keep people safe, healthy and on the job.