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What OSHA’s Switch to Leading Indicators Means for Your Safety Program

Posted on January 14, 2020

Late last year, OSHA announced that it would move toward using leading indicators to assess workplace safety programs. This article reviews what leading indicators are, how they can benefit corporate safety programs, and where you can find more information about how to implement the new approach in your company.

Understanding leading indicators

OSHA defines leading indicators as “proactive, preventive, and predictive measures that provide information about the effective performance of your safety and health activities.”

The easiest way to understand leading indicators is in contrast to their opposite, lagging indicators:

  • Lagging indicators measure safety incidents that have already happened, such as the number or rate of injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. In other words, they tell you when you already have a problem.
  • Leading indicators measure the events that lead up to those injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. They help you take preventive action so that safety incidents don’t occur in the first place.

As an example of a leading indicator, OSHA identifies the amount of time it takes to respond to a safety hazard report. In this case, an increase in response time could indicate a lack of management concern about the hazard, which means it’s likely to remain uncontrolled and cause an incident. On the flip side, a decrease in response time suggests a heightened awareness of the hazard and a commitment by management to doing something about it.

The benefits of leading indicators

The most significant benefit of leading indicators is that they are preventive rather than reactive. For those in the food industry, this is similar to the paradigm shift that came along with FSMA — rather than waiting until a problem occurs to take corrective action, problems are identified and addressed in advance.

OSHA identifies five main ways using leading indicators improves organizational performance:

  • Preventing workplace injuries and illnesses
  • Reducing costs associated with incidents
  • Improving productivity and overall organizational performance
  • Optimizing safety and health performance
  • Raising worker participation

How to use leading indicators in your organization

There is no single right way to use leading indicators in your organization. The best course of action depends on your current safety program.

In general, OSHA recommends following the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) model:

  • Plan
    • Choose a leading indicator to measure / improve
    • Set a SMART goal
  • Do
    • Communicate the goal and how you will track the indicator
    • Measure your progress toward the goal and take corrective action if necessary
  • Check
    • Assess your goal and progress regularly
  • Act
    • Share information about your goal and progress
    • Change your leading indicator based on what you learn

OSHA’s guide to using leading indicators provides several step-by-step examples of how to implement this model.

Cleaning metrics as leading indicators

We mentioned above that there are several ways to use leading indicators to improve your organization’s performance. One of them is to control an identified hazard, such as a lack of cleanliness.

Here are some examples of safety problems that can result from lax attention to cleaning:

  • Slip, trip, and fall accidents
  • Silica dust exposure
  • Combustible dust fires and explosions

All of these incidents can be controlled by proper cleaning, and metrics related to cleaning are leading indicators. In fact, OSHA uses the example of slip, trip, and fall incidents in an automotive assembly facility as one of its step-by-step examples. In it, the goal is to reduce trips and falls, and the leading indicator is the frequency of inspecting and clearing the floors.

As you choose the leading indicators to focus on, be sure to assess your cleaning metrics. If you have a cleaning plan in place, making sure that it’s followed is an easy way to quickly improve your safety outcomes.

Resources for more information

Explore these resources for more information about leading indicators and how to use them to improve your safety programs: