Why leading indicators need quality control

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

The standard measure of an organisation’s safety and health performance has long been the number of people injured or made ill despite its preventive efforts. 

When reporting systems are robust, accident frequency rates are the most obvious sign of the state of OSH management.

But they also come late, trailing interventions by months and telling a story about their effect sometimes too late to be much use.

Gathering data on near-misses and unpicking those that had the potential to do serious harm adds a predictive element, but it’s still a measure of what you didn’t do rather than what you did.

Inspired by recent trends in OSH thinking that emphasise the value of positive efforts to improve safety as a quantum rather than focusing solely on failings, many larger organisations have added new indicators to those inescapable ones of accident and illness rates.

These “leading indicators” record the active attempts to improve the safety culture, such as the number of behavioural safety observations recorded, toolbox talks and training sessions held or site safety tours by senior management.

Measuring what you put into a system makes sense, but it only gives you half the picture if you don’t check the effectiveness of that input.

Just as most practitioners know that it’s not the quantity or detail of risk assessments that helps make a workplace safer, rather how the resulting control measures are enacted, the same is true of training and toolbox talks.

The meaningful indicator of how an input contributed to improving safety and health is not how many people turned up and sat through a session but how many of them thought it was useful, could remember the instructions a few weeks later, or acted on them on the job.

(There is a more basic argument for evaluation, of course, which is that it’s the only way that you can be sure it was worth spending the money or effort in the first place.)

This kind of assessment makes more work and, as Bridget Leathley notes in our Lexicon article on benchmarking (IOSH Magazine May 2018), it is tempting to measure things that are easy to count.

But congratulating yourself on a job well done based on numerical inputs is like a manufacturer judging its success by the quantity of raw materials it uses while ignoring the scrap rates for finished units. Or, more widely, it’s like any business that congratulates itself on rising revenues but pays less attention to profitability.

Turnover is vanity but profit is sanity, the saying goes. Adding some guaranteed sanity to your leading indicators by assessing their impact may be a slog but it will be effort well spent.


Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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