Certainty Blog

The Difference Between Leading and Lagging Safety Indicators

Leading and lagging safety indicators help your organization better understand how potential hazards occur and what you can do to limit overall risk.

But what are lagging and leading indicators? How do they differ, where are they similar, and what benefits do they offer to your organization? Here’s what you need to know. 

What are Lagging Safety Indicators?

Lagging safety indicators are reports of incidents that have occurred in the past. They might include statistics on workplace accidents, near misses, the total work time lost to workplace injuries, or recordable incident rates. Lagging indicators offer insight into what has already happened to help businesses make occupational safety adjustments going forward. 

What are Leading Safety Indicators?

Safety leading indicators are measured and evaluated before incidents occur in the work environment. The goal of leading safety indicators is to help companies predict the likelihood of potential problems and take corrective action before accidents or injuries occur. Common leading safety indicators include staff surveys and safety audits that assess current processes and procedures to determine likely failure points. Pre-job safety training and regular safety meetings are also help determine where preventative actions can help drive safety improvement.

How do Leading and Lagging Safety Indicators Differ?

The biggest difference between leading and lagging safety indicators is time. Where lagging indicators are measured after safety incidents occur, leading performance indicators are measured before problems present themselves. 

The measurement itself also differs, with lagging indicators more quantitative and leading indicators more qualitative. For example, while common lagging indicator reports include hard data on injury rates, fatalities, or worker’s compensation claims, leading indicators look for emerging trends based on employee feedback and near misses. In other words, they’re looking to help predict the future while lagging indicators report the past. 

Difference between lagging and leading safety indicators

Where are Leading and Lagging Indicators Similar?

Where these indicators overlap is in the overall purpose: Making your business safer.

Consider lagging indicators. While these reports provide insight into what’s already happened, the post-incident nature of data means that even if processes are changed moving forward, there’s no way to change what has already happened. And depending on the severity of the incidents, companies could be facing significant losses of both time and money.

Leading indicators, meanwhile, provide insight into what might happen. Additionally, they allow companies to create proactive initiatives that improve workplace safety and drive continuous improvement. Where they fall short, however, is hard data.  While the qualitative nature of staff surveys and regular audits provides a general sense of the safety landscape, it lacks the hard data required to determine if changes will have measurable outcomes.

By leveraging both leading and lagging indicators simultaneously, however, businesses can get the best of both worlds. That being hard data about what’s already happened combined with predictive measures about what’s likely to happen. Collectively, this allows them to specifically target areas of high risk with safety program efforts and identify root causes.

How to Make Best Use of Both Leading and Lagging Indicators

It’s one thing to understand the value of risk assessment using leading and lagging indicators – it’s another to combine them at scale. 

Start with a comprehensive safety management inspection. This determines where operations are working as intended and where additional safety processes may be required. By understanding your current circumstances, you’re better prepared to specifically target lagging indicators that provide post-incident value and identify leading indicators that make the most sense to regularly measure and assess. Not sure where to start? Use our facility safety inspection checklist.

It’s also critical to regularly combine lagging and leading data to determine where safety protocols are having a positive impact. Additionally, it shows where more work is required to create a sustainable safety culture that includes regular worker participation.

For example, if your safety team identifies a leading issue that could potentially disrupt operations, you have the opportunity to implement new safety processes that address the problem prior to an injury or accident. Lagging safety indicators, meanwhile, can help measure the impact of new safety processes. If lagging indicator metrics show a drop in the measured incident type, you know actions taken in response to leading indicators were the correct choice to improve safety outcomes.

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