How to Put Leading Indicators into Practice

By March 4, 2016 No Comments

Article by Joy Inouye, NIOSH, February 17, 2016

The use of leading indicators is a growing hot topic in occupational and environmental health and safety.  The Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council has been studying leading indicators for the past two years to help more organizations take advantage of their predictive power. The Institute defines leading indicators as proactive, preventive, and predictive measures to identify and eliminate risks and hazards in the workplace that can cause incidents and injuries.  Consider an indicator as a concept that a company would like to measure, such as “employee engagement.”  In contrast, a metric is a way of actually measuring this concept, such as “number of employees leading safety meetings.”

While the Institute’s research described leading indicators, explained their importance and provided specific examples of indicators, many organizations were still unsure about how to start using them.  This became the focus for the most recent stage of research released by the Campbell Institute in a new white paper, Elevating EHS Leading Indicators: From Defining to Designing.  The paper describes how eight Campbell Institute members and partners used leading indicators and outlines important lessons learned along the way.

Four common themes and takeaways arose among the Institute participants:

  • Leverage what is already being measured
  • Just get started – don’t spend too much time deliberating
  • Make sure indicators communicate meaningful and actionable information
  • Secure leadership support

Leverage What is Already Being Measured

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Take an inventory of all your existing indicators to see what might work well. Schneider Electric started looking at safety training hours because this was already being measured.  Don’t be afraid of the “bottom up” approach.  The tracking of training hours as a leading indicator was first adopted at individual Schneider Electric sites before being rolled up to corporate.

Just Get Started

It may seem overwhelming to start a leading indicators program, but even Institute members admit they began with very small programs.  Don’t get tied up in trying to find the “perfect” leading indicator, as a universal one doesn’t exist. You really won’t know the true value of an indicator until you give it a chance.  Knowing that most leading indicators will have to be adjusted in the future makes it even more practical to just begin somewhere.

Cummins, Inc. started small by tracking health and safety assessments and corrective/preventive actions.  The main reason for choosing these two indicators was that these data were readily available at the site level and work sites would not be burdened by gathering additional information.

Track Meaningful and Actionable Information

Leading indicators should provide a clear path forward on how to improve safety.  Over time, Schneider Electric realized that merely tracking training hours was not as predictive as it had been at the beginning.  They shifted their focus to instead track the effectiveness of training by periodically quizzing employees in the months following the training.  They found that retention of training information was more indicative of injuries and near misses.

Secure Leadership Support

Leadership support for leading indicators is crucial.  It’s great when the mandate comes from top management, as it was for Johnson Controls and ExxonMobil.  However, this isn’t always the case.  A couple of participants noted that getting buy-in from different parts of the organization (management, human resources, frontline workers, engineers, etc.) required speaking “different languages” to appeal to their unique needs.  Jeff Ruebesam of Fluor states, “Most people understand the concept of identifying and managing risk.  Would you rather be chasing incidents or would you rather be proactive about addressing hazards?  No matter what function you’re in, you can wrap your head around that.

Differences among the research participants were few, but raise some interesting points for future discussion.  Not all participants agree that near misses should be considered leading indicators, or that individual sites should determine their own leading indicators.  There is also not consensus that leading indicators should be tied to leadership’s performance evaluations.

Any successful safety management system should have a balance of predictive leading indicators as well as more outcome-based lagging indicators, such as fatality and injury rates.  However, the research shows that every organization’s journey is slightly different, and a strategy that works for one may not be relevant to another.  The key is to just dive in and find what makes sense for you.

Additionally, “Occupational Health Indicators” (OHIs) are being used by states with NIOSH sponsored OSH surveillance programs, as well as other states to evaluate their state’s occupational health status and needs.  OHIs are measures of health (work-related disease or injury) or factors associated with health (workplace exposures, hazards, or interventions).  OHIs give states the opportunity to evaluate trends over time and the effectiveness of prevention activities and interventions.

For more details on this white paper and on all of the stages of leading indicators research from the Campbell Institute, visit
You can also register to attend a webinar at no charge on this new research taking place March 10, 2016 at 11:00 a.m. EST.

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