How to incorporate leading indicators into EHS

“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” – Warren Buffet

Studies show that using safety leading indicators can significantly improve your EHS. Not only do they help you to track visible health and safety performance, they also let you measure and prevent undesired precursors before they develop into incidents.

Depending on the size of your organization, these indicators are best managed and measured through an enterprise safety management system.

Let’s have a look into that in more detail. First, we’ll start by differentiating leading vs. lagging indicators, and what role they play in safety. We’ll then explain how you can start measuring and getting proactive about leading indicators.

What are leading and lagging indicators in safety?

Leading indicators in safety are predictive. They shift attitudes from reactive to proactive, with the aim of avoiding injury through continuous improvement. OSHA defines a leading indicator as follows:

“Leading metrics are a preventive set of metrics that reveal the performance of key work processes, operating discipline, and layers of protection that prevent incidents. Leading metrics can provide an early indication of problems that can be corrected before a major process safety incident occurs.”

In contrast, lagging indicators track events that occurred in the past. They paint a picture of progress that is important for compliance. Lagging indicators use traditional measures such as injury frequency and severity, OSHA recordable injuries, and lost workdays.

Examples of safety leading indicators

A safety leading indicator suggests that an event may happen soon, based on what current trends show. These can be operations-, systems- or behavior-based.

For example, an injury that involves a conveyer belt may have been preceded by a number of near misses. Not only that, the monthly safety audit might have gone overdue, and workers could have been in and out of annual leave.

An organization that is tracking those leading indicator examples – near misses, observations, audits, and work patterns – could intervene and prevent an incident from happening.

Popular leading indicators include:

  • Near misses
  • Hazard observations
  • Inspections results
  • Training participation
  • Risk ratings from assessments

There are countless resources demonstrating the importance of and what can be done with leading indicators. A recent study in 2023 analyzed the implementation of safety leading indicators in construction, reporting that all participants found safety leading indicators as “important to providing early warnings of declining performance and driving proactive actions to prevent incidents and injuries”.

The more reliable our knowledge is, the more risk can be reduced. This applies in any practice, be that trading stocks and shares as our quotable friend Mr. Buffet dabbles in, quitting your job to travel the world, or managing the health and safety of thousands of employees.

So how do we measure and achieve these incredibly useful – but often out of reach – leading indicators?

How to measure safety leading indicators

The National Safety Council found that the success of preventing incidents by using leading indicators depends on the quality of the data and how it is measured. The study emphasizes that organizations need a rigorous EHS management system to set the foundation for leading indicators.

If you’re organization with thousands of employees, leading indicators are best managed through enterprise EHS management software that supports business intelligence (BI).

For example, Pro-Sapien’s EHS software enables organizations to leverage Microsoft’s Power BI. That way, you can easily share EHS statistics with the company throughout Microsoft 365raising EHS visibility and promoting a strong, inclusive EHS culture.

Using Power BI for EHS Analytics Download the guide →
However, measuring leading indicators is often underestimated and yet pushed to the back of the queue in specification phases, despite it being top of the list of desired software capabilities revealed in a global corporate EHS survey by independent research firm Verdantix.

The study showed that reliable BI was even more important to firms than increasing worker engagement. 20% said that making business intelligence reporting more reliable was their highest priority, while 13% found increasing worker engagement to be the most significant.

Therefore, EHS professionals should give the BI aspect of management systems the respect it deserves and start thinking about it from the get-go of any software implementation.

EHS can be a bit like an impressionist painting made up of dots, smears and marks; you can only understand the bigger picture when you take a step back.

Missing the big picture

That’s why it’s important to have access to all your EHS data in one place, with the ability to aggregate and roll-up (as well as drill-down). Equipped with KPIs—both leading and lagging—you’re able to spot emerging trends and act fast to reduce operational risk.

Now, let’s look at how to pinpoint those leading indicators.

Do you have the data?

Leading indicators are the pinnacle of EHS management, but as Trinity Consultants often reminds, you need to ask yourself the question “Do we have the data?”

It’s easy to be impressed by graphs and charts in demonstrations, but without the data to drive leading metrics it’s much ado about nothing. An enterprise EHS system will provide the means for data capture that you need to start building up a database of trends or, if you’ve already got a backlog, historical data can be migrated into the new system for use in reports.

Is it easy for employees to use?

Choosing the right EHS software for your business boils down to one question: how useful is it going to be?

Usefulness considers utility (whether it provides the features you need) and usability (how easy these features are to use).

According to Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think:

“It [usability] really just means making sure that something works well: that a person of average ability and experience can use the thing — whether it’s a website, a toaster, or a revolving door — for its intended purpose without getting hopelessly frustrated.”

In 2019, NAEM found that user friendliness was the third most important criteria when buying a new EHS software system (48%), behind only IT integration and real-time metrics tracking—all of which go towards an easy-to-use EHS system.

In the context of leading indicators, usability is necessary to ensure you have the right data to analyze. For example, if it’s not easy to report near misses, chances are, workers won’t do it!

If you don’t ask, you don’t get

As part of your software selection process, speak to vendors to voice your specific BI requirements.

Metrics can be explored in more detail further down the tender process, but it’s important to get these three questions answered at the outset:

  1. Can all data captured by the system be reported on? (This is important to enhance the accuracy of complex calculations.)
  2. Where is all the data kept? (This impacts the level of effort required to calculate metrics if datasets are stored in numerous data warehouses.)
  3. How easy is it to share reports? (Whether sharing real-time charts or static snapshots, it must be easy to disseminate information.)

Third party integration will improve indicators quality

Furthermore, the ability to pull in data from third party systems enhances and strengthens the reliability of EHS predictors.

Integration with programs such as SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft 365 should be available as part of a leading indicators project.

This is likely something the vendor is best placed to implement themselves (rather than in-house IT teams) but the EHS team should have considerable input into data mapping, always with the end-result in mind.

Take part in specification workshops with your vendor

Down the line, we recommend taking part in workshops with your chosen vendor to work through the details of the system.

BI and analytics should be high on the agenda. Form fields, workflows, actions, document management and KPIs should all have the ability to be reported on to achieve the leading indicators that you’re looking for.

Go through your goals in-depth, and although Teams has revolutionized international business, don’t forget that face-to-face meetings can go a long way in facilitating accurate communication.

Consider EHS software that utilizes existing tools like Power BI

To meet the growing demand for transparency, business intelligence must be understandable to all users.

It’s important not to limit yourself to the tools provided by your commercial EHS solution.

The leading (no pun intended!) BI technology, Microsoft Power BI allows EHS professionals to gain control of the leading and lagging indicators that matter. When set up correctly, Power BI dashboards can provide the stats you need without the need for extensive analytical skills.

Not all EHS solutions afford such flexibility with their in-system BI functionality so considering specialist alternatives will be a worthwhile exercise. If you’re a Microsoft 365 enterprise, you’ll likely already have licenses for Power BI which Pro-Sapien integrates with seamlessly.

Step into the light…

In summary, our advice is threefold:

  1. Tracking and responding to leading indicators like near misses can help you reduce risk of injury
  2. Using EHS software is the most efficient way to track leading indicators
  3. Leveraging a for-purpose tool like Microsoft Power BI will transform your EHS analytics

With reliable leading indicators, you’re no longer in the dark when it comes to how to use your data proactively. No longer a mushroom, but a healthy tree of knowledge.

Mushroom in the dark

If you’re ready to look further into your possibilities, download our EHS Leader’s Guide to Power BI.

Predict Safety Trends with Power BI

Work injuries can be predicted with very high accuracy rates. Some companies have reduced injury rates by more than 90%! Read this whitepaper by JSA Services today and find out how FMC Lithium is using Power BI for predictive trending.

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  • Hannah Stewart

    As the Communications Manager at Pro-Sapien, providers of EHS software on Microsoft 365, Hannah has been researching and writing about EHS technology since 2015 with a keen interest in employee engagement.

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