Lagging versus leading indicators – what you need to know

Industry expert weighs in on how to strike the right balance

Lagging versus leading indicators – what you need to know

Health and safety aren’t mystical or esoteric concepts, they are very much measurable and quantifiable. The question really is, what metrics can we use? There are so many different ways to understand and improve the efficiency of an organization’s safety program.

Typically, employers and safety professionals will look at lagging and leading indicators to gauge success – and failures.

Lagging indicators, sometimes described as trailing indicators or trailing data, are essentially incident or injury metrics – a report of things that happened. These could include the number of reportable injuries, total recordable incident rates, number of injury claims (frequency or severity number), claims costs, etc.

“The thing to know about lagging indicators, it’s sometimes described as looking at what happened through the rear-view mirror,” says Scott DeBow, Principal HS/E: NORAM - LATAM – APAC, Avetta. “They’re associated with failure, so they’re also known as failure-based metrics. What we’re measuring here is how many things went wrong.” Lagging indicators describe what happened, but are really only limited to that.

On the other end of the spectrum, leading indicators are the “proactive preventative measures or activities of the things that we have got to do” and that are most effective when they’re designed to promote the practice of safe work. They can even help alert us to when work is deviating away from a known safe practice.

Leading indicators could be observations or risk assessments that the organization performs to help them understand what the employee needs in order to accomplish safe work. “To contrast lagging and leading indicators, lagging indicators describe what happened. Leading indicators help prescribe what we should be doing in order to continually monitor and assess risk and hazards, which is a vital part of creating safe work environments,” says DeBow.

There is often debate around which of the two is more effective, and which one organizations should focus on. DeBow says that it is important that we understand what the benefits of each are, as well as their limitations.

Lagging indicators can be an informative data source, “but the data needs to be clean and not overly burdensome to the teams that deal with it,” he says.

“We simply need to know something that tells the story of [the incident] as it is connected to the causal factors within the work system, rather than the assumed ‘root cause’ often attributed to employee error. 

Maturity in our use of incident data (lagging indicators) should guard against bias, understand the end-to-end system pressures and influences, and place the worker at the center of the system as part of the solution to improvement, rather than the source of blame when things go wrong.  Coupled with this approach should be the view of lagging indicator data as a rich source learning opportunity where leaders and workers solve problems as a team to achieve the outcomes we’re all working for together,” says DeBow.

The focus in recent years has more so been on leading indicators, but he says that employers should be careful to not de-emphasize the value of lagging indicators. “We need balance, and in fact should be training our teams that are in the process of recording lagging indicator data to recognize precursors associated with serious injury/fatality as a strategic intervention, immediately connecting lagging information with leading/prevention activity.”

Lagging indicators help organizations mature to the point where they are compliant and doing the required reporting (at the very least). But what about the next step? Leading indicators can play a part in levelling up, but even those metrics can get stale.

As organizations invest more and more in safety, the indicators that it relies on may also change as safety matures within the company. “We want to make that we’re using the data to help us continually monitor and assess the present state of risk,” says DeBow.

Using only lagging indicators or only leading indicators that do not match the job tasks hazards experienced by the workforce will not give a fair representation of the present state of affairs, this is why using both well is necessary.