What Are Lagging and Leading Indicators? - Lisam

10 March 2023

What Are Lagging and Leading Indicators?

This article is part of our Back To Basics series, which highlights fundamental principles of environmental, health, and safety management. The series is written for EHS professionals new to this industry, as well as experienced pros who want to keep their skills fresh. Measuring safety performance is something that happens in almost every organization, and it can be done using a variety of key performance indicators (KPIs). Historically, injury rates and days away from work have been the most common KPIs for measuring safety performance. However, these KPIs can only tell you what has already happened — not what might happen in the future. This has led companies to look for other KPIs that can help predict injuries and accidents before they occur. Together, these metrics are known as lagging and leading indicators.

Read on to learn more about lagging and leading indicators and which ones your organization should be using.

What are lagging indicators?

As the name implies, lagging indicators lag behind safety performance. They measure safety performance by telling you what has already happened in the past. Examples of lagging indicators include recordable injuries, days away from work, and worker’s compensation costs.

What are leading indicators?

Leading indicators, on the other hand, lead out in front of accidents and injuries. They predict safety performance by telling you about what might happen in the future. Examples of leading indicators include near miss observations, number of hours of safety training provided, and the amount of time it takes to close out a safety hazard report.

Lagging vs. leading indicators: What’s the difference?

The main difference between lagging and leading indicators is that lagging indicators are reactive, while leading indicators are proactive. However, both types of metrics have their place in safety programs.

Lagging indicators are useful for identifying patterns or changes in patterns of performance. But because they are backward-looking, they don’t warn you of upcoming issues.

Unlike lagging indicators, leading indicators are useful for spotting future trends and events before they occur. Leading indicators allow you to monitor safety conditions and detect issues before they cause an accident, rather than responding to incidents after they occur. Leading indicators are also sometimes called “inputs” because they specify what actions need to be taken to achieve a specific outcome, such as reducing accidents and injuries.

What are good leading indicators to use? 

The best leading indicators are those that directly correlate to improvements in safety performance.

So if you track a leading indicator (or ‘input’) like near misses, and focus on improving that, it should result in an improvement in the lagging indicator (or ‘output’).

In its annual Safety Performance Report, Associated Builders and Contractors identified five leading indicators that significantly lowered recordable injuries — regardless of company size or type of work. Below, we’ve ranked these leading indicators by their impact on overall safety so you can see which actions will get the most bang for your buck:

The metrics

ABC measured safety improvements based on two metrics: total recordable incident rate (TRIR) and days away, restricted, or transferred (DART). Under OSHA’s e-reporting rule, organizations must report these metrics on forms 300 & 300A. High TRIR or DART scores can trigger an OSHA inspection or even lead to fines.

1. Leading indicator: Employee participation counts

Impact: Organizations with employee participation throughout their safety management system reduced TRIR by 70% and DART rates by 71%.

Action step: Identify and eliminate barriers to worker participation in your safety program. Provide more opportunities for employees to participate in hazard reporting and risk identification, such as the use of mobile reporting apps.

2. Leading indicator: Weekly safety meetings

Impact: Organizations that hold weekly safety meetings with supervisors and share their notes had TRIR rates 73% lower and DART 72% lower than those that don’t.

Action step: Leverage safety dashboards to provide status updates and rollups of incidents and safety activities at weekly meetings.

3. Leading indicator: Pre-planning

Impact: Organizations that pre-plan for project safety and communicate these plans to all site employees reduced TRIR and DART rates by 73%.

Action step: Use standardized checklists to evaluate job site hazards and plan for adequate safety resources.

4. Leading indicator: Use of PPE 

Impact: Organizations that enforce their written PPE policies, conduct annual needs assessments, and invest in new PPE reduced TRIR by 65% and DART rates by 66%.

Action step: Take advantage of technology to make it easier to complete PPE inspections. With audit & inspection software, you can create a standardized inspection form or question library, assign inspections to specific staff, and get alerts to follow-up.

5. Leading indicator: Incident investigations

Impact: Organizations that have a systematic process to investigate the root cause of issues and identify corrective actions had a TRIR and DART rate 74% lower than those that didn’t.

Action step: Incident management software can help you keep tabs on unplanned incidents and events all the way through the inspection process and drive appropriate actions for improved accountability.

Final takeaway

Taken together, leading and lagging indicators are important tools to improve safety performance. By selecting the right indicators, you can prevent costly incidents before they occur.