Below the Waterline: Leading Indicators of Safety Performance

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Getting a measure of injuries, incidents, and near misses can tell leaders a lot about the state of safety in the organization. How and where people are getting hurt provides valuable insight that can be used to remove hazards and protect against at-risk behavior. As important as injury reporting is, however, it's only the tip of the iceberg.

Below the waterline is the vast bulk of injury causation—the organizational decisions, procedural breakdowns, equipment failure, and exposures that, if left undetected, will surely lead to harm. Measuring these leading indicators will buoy safety performance and give leaders the information they need to intervene in advance of injuries.

Keep a lookout for multiple indicators

Safety metrics attempt to predict future incidents, but often only give a murky view of the injury iceberg's submerged underbelly. That's why organizations need to get as many eyes on the threat as possible. A broad set of measures provides leaders with useful and robust indicators to navigate the workforce in the right direction. There is no perfect suite of leading indicators common to all companies. Their upstream nature means they often need special attention to determine which makes sense to a given organization. But like adding multiple lookouts to an artic cruiser, the extra effort can preserve lives and protect the ship of business.

Here are some leading metrics and why they're important:

  • Inspections planned vs. completed—Tracks the number of inspections (including safety committee and supervisory walkarounds) completed compared to the number planned.
  • Open safety work orders > 60 days—Tracks the number of open items in the work order system that are designated as safety items and that have been open for > 60 days. Items will include actions arising from inspections and audits as well as employee-raised issues.
  • Leadership Audits—Tracks the number of field audits, inspections, or walkarounds done by a location's senior leadership team members per team member during the quarter.

These first four measures are control metrics. They assure accountability and confirm that the company is doing what it can to contain exposures. Control metrics help the workforce keep from straying into accidents, but they're rarely direct predictors of future injury. For that, focus on some of these exposure metrics:

  • Number of safe work permits—Tracks the number of tasks that require safe work permits—tasks that, by definition, are higher risk. An increase in the number of these tasks is indicative of a higher exposure profile.
  • Newer workers—A monthly measure that tracks the number of workers who performed work for which they had less than one year of experience. Workers are more likely to be injured and make errors during their first year, so growth in the number of newer workers is indicative of increased exposure in both personal and process safety.
  • Percent safe behaviors—Tracks observations of safe behaviors, which are indicators of exposure when the observation process is specifically designed and implemented to produce 'measurement quality' behavioral data. This means that the behaviors being observed accurately reflect the exposure profile in the work, the observation strategy produces a valid representation of the work, inter-observer consistency is assured, and there are clear decision rules for classifying what is observed.

A full complement of safety metrics helps leaders monitor performance and spot potential injuries before they occur. In addition to the exposure metrics covered here, organizations should develop a set of leading indicators and precursor events that target serious and fatal injuries. Experience shows that meaningful leading metrics vary from company to company and from task to task.

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