The Safety Leader’s Quick Guide to Leading Indicators of Safety Performance

The Safety Leader’s Quick Guide to Leading Indicators of Safety Performance

Taking proactive steps to improve your environmental, health, and safety performance is necessary, if not critical.

That’s where leading indicators become important to put to use.

But being preventive and predictive is beneficial only if and when those leading indicators give information that can be turned into action, as pointed out in The Campbell Institute’s white paper, “Practical Guide to Leading Indicators: Metrics, Case Studies & Strategies” (1).

So what exactly makes a leading indicator useful and valuable? The expert panel in The Campbell Institute’s research says that leading indicators should be:

  • Detailed
  • Actionable
  • Timely
  • Achievable
  • Meaningful and valid
  • Transparent
  • Easy to communicate

While these are great metrics as a baseline, leading indicators are going to be different (and are going to change over time) for every company.

Best Practices in Leading Indicators: Here’s Where to Start

Now that we have a list of what makes for valuable data, what does that kind of list look like? This same group of industry experts created a list of these kinds of leading indicators.

The Campbell Institutes classifies indicators into 3 main categories to help guide EHS leaders find the metrics that may be appropriate for their specific company. Those categories include:

1. Operations-based leading indicators: These are indicators that have to do with a company’s infrastructure. That could include things like machinery or the operations.

What that could include: Compliance, risk assessment, preventive and corrective actions, prevention through design and training.

2. Systems-based leading indicators: These are indicators that deal with the management of a safety system and program. “[This can] be rolled up from a facility level to a region/business unit or corporate level,” says the paper.

What that could include: hazard identification and recognition, leading indicator component evaluation tools, communication of safety, reinforcement system, hazard analysis, EHS system component evaluation, and preventive and corrective actions, among others.

3. Behavior-based leading indicators: Just as it sounds, these indicators measure the behavior or actions of individuals or teams (1).

What that could include: Employee and leadership engagement, at-risk behaviors, employee involvement in safety, area observations and walk-arounds.

Categories like these can help us think differently about our leading indicators. What is being measured is specific to your company, your processes and structure, and your challenges. And, when that’s the case, you’ll be focused on the right actions that will make the most impact given all those variables. That’s why it’s so critical to collect, organize, and structure your data in a way that allows for easy analysis. Otherwise, it’s going to be difficult to know if what you’re tracking the right things.

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Leading Indicators: Lessons from Best-in-Class Companies

Case Study #1: Changing the Safety Process at Cummins

Leaders at Cummins started by asking several key questions when implementing a leading indicator program. According to The Campbell Institute, those questions included, “Which indicators would be most likely to reduce injuries? Which indicators would motivate desired behaviors? How can the organization contribute to that motivation?”

Michelle Garner-Janna, director of Corporate Health and Safety at Cummins, expressed the company’s eventual learnings from the program, acknowledging how there is no such thing as a “perfect” leading indicator. “At some time, there may be a saturation point for a certain indicator where you see less of an impact,” she explained. “It’s a continual improvement process where you’re actively measuring the effectiveness and adjusting your indicators based on what that indicator is telling you,” she said. “You have to continuously evaluate where you stand and make sure you’ve got the most valid indicator possible.”

A related lesson from Cummins was the importance of continually evaluating the leading indicators themselves.

“You identify custom leading indicators for each site…Once a year, we update our indicators. If something is not working, we consider dropping it and identifying a new indicator that might be more effective,” Garner-Janna shared (1).

Case Study #2: Transforming the “Eyes and Ears” at Honeywell

Prior to its new safety observation program, only managers and supervisors had access to Honeywell’s reporting system for near-misses. Unlike the previous system, the new system allows for timely input of detailed data, greater ongoing access to data, data on corrective actions is included, and now the correlation between safety observation and injury rate is clear. In fact, the business unit reduced the number of recordable injuries from 108 in the year 2010 to 54 in 2013 (1).

“During this same
 time period, the number of safety observations increased nearly one hundred percent,” reports The Campbell Institute.

One of the biggest milestones: Cary Gherman, global director of HSE for Honeywell Building Solutions, said the new safety system has “increased the level of employee involvement and changed the focus at Honeywell from only incidence rate to key leading indicators.”

She noted that the purpose of the Safety Observation System goes beyond collecting observations. “If your observations aren’t focused on the things causing injuries, you’re going to have a lot of observations, but they will have no effect on your injury rate… If a company really wants to systematically reduce the number of incidents, it must identify the risks that lead to incidents,” she explained (1).

Case Study #3: Continual Improvement at Fluor 

Like many companies, Fluor’s aim is to continue to learn faster, spot problem areas, and to have the ability take action before incidents or any accidents happen. Over time, Fluor has learned factors for success also include: leadership buy-in, active participation, and consistent actions being in place to support health and safety messages.

After their existing audit tool was redesigned so that it put more emphasis on leading indicators specifically, Fluor saw the opportunity to improve in one critical area: the management in action category.

The turnaround in this area included greater participation by managers in field workers’ orientations and a clearer demonstration of values related to safe work behavior. After taking many steps to improve their management engagement, this category became the highest scoring category for the company.

Jeff Ruebesam, VP of Corporate HSE, explained how powerful the visible demonstrations of management’s values was for the company: “It does take a lot of time, but it’s very impactful if you do it. It promotes getting out in front of things, making sure you’re managing on a daily basis and making sure you’re visible as a leader,” he explained (1).

Lessons in Effective EHS Management

These case studies show how other organizations prioritize the recording and tracking of leading indicators. The underlying theme is clear: the processes and systems to do so must be widely accessible and it must help to capture metrics that are detailed, meaningful, useful, and actionable. Put simply, while no “perfect mix” of leading indicators will ever exist, the system in place has to help teams to quickly implement preventive and corrective actions (1).

Reinforce a Safe Workplace With Your Proactive Activities

With iReport, you can easily collect the data you need to understand your leading indicators. That way, you can understand your highest risk areas and take meaningful action to prevent future accidents. Go from “I think” to “I know”.

Learn more about how you can easily and quickly complete near-misses, site audits, and the FROI immediately onsite with iReport.


National Safety Council & The Campbell Institute. “Practical Guide to Leading Indicators: Metrics, Case Studies & Strategies.”

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