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Move Your Culture Forward with Leading Indicators

CollaborationLiterature throughout the Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) field has long discussed the importance of using leading indicators to measure safety performance. Despite this long-established idea, many companies still fall into the pitfall of putting too much focus on lagging indicators.

Well-meaning leaders want to set a clear vision for the direction of the company, and as a result, they put most of their focus on the company’s total recordable incident rate (TRIR), lost-time incident rate (LTIR), and experience modifier rate (EMR). What gets measured gets done, and these are easy metrics for safety performance, right?

The unfortunate and unintended side effect is that without a clear focus on leading indicators, the heavy focus on these lagging indicators will actually result in decreased safety performance. Consider the following scenarios that can result from focusing too heavily on TRIR:

  • Upper managers putting financial pressure on middle managers to reduce their incident rate
  • Managers putting pressure on employees to not report incidents
  • Managers paying employees to submit an injury under personal insurance
  • Development of a negative stigma (shaming) around reporting incidents
  • Employees choosing of their own accord not to report incidents, or electing not to receive necessary care
  • Employees resenting managers, and the company, for the shaming associated with an injury
  • Employees recognizing or suspecting dishonest unscrupulous behavior by other employees
  • Trust is degraded and/or dishonest behavior is promoted as the norm
  • Company culture suffers (and with it, so does morale, productivity, quality, etc.)

Even though a company might initially see positive performance in the lagging metric (i.e. lower TRIR), the end result could actually be a deteriorating safety culture, which could eventually even drive that metric back up.

I firmly believe that culture drives performance, and that a positive work culture that values safety will eventually improve the lagging indicators. When employees – management and workers alike – recognize hazardous conditions, systems, and behaviors, and constantly look out for themselves and each other, incident rates drop.

Companies do not have to entirely stop reporting lagging indicators, but they should make sure they take a backseat to the leading indicators. If you’re going to hold managers and employees accountable, try using metrics like these:

  • How well/often leaders demonstrate their commitment to safety
  • Impactful safety training (as a percentage of total classes offered or total number of hours)
  • Number of safety observations by department or group (maybe make it a competition)
  • Number of safety audits per jobsite or work area (by all levels of managers and employees)
  • Pre-task planning (quality, quantity, and/or percentage of participation, etc.)

Focusing on these leading metrics will drive positive behaviors and factors, which will in turn improve your company culture, lowering your organization’s tolerance for at-risk behaviors and conditions. This will result in fewer injuries, which drives down your incident rate for the long-haul, in a healthy way.