Recently in the workplace there has been more focus placed on safety incentive programs using leading or lagging indicators to determine the effectiveness of the safety program. There appear to be convincing arguments on both sides, but a closer look at the subject can reveal that a program heavily based on lagging indicators may do more harm than good.

Lagging indicators
Lagging indicators tie the safety incentives to goals like injury rates, incidents, and near misses. The company would set a goal, such as “injury and illness rate below industry average” and base a percentage of the reward on whether or not the goal was achieved. This type of incentive program usually would result in an incentive to not report accidents or near misses for fear of losing the award.

This is especially true of programs that are based on department or team goals. Employees would be injured, and due to peer pressure, either real or perceived, would leave at the end of their shift without reporting, the accident or incident. Even worse, in some cases employees may take vacation time to nurse an injury and avoid reporting, or claim that the injury happened at home.

Safety incentive programs that use lagging indicators as the basis of the program will always stop you from getting to solve small problems before they get to be incidents and accidents. The result is a workplace that is less safe instead of being safer. OSHA has recognized this, and in fact they tend to look more closely at facilities that rely heavily on lagging indicators to evaluate safety performance. So, what are the alternatives?

Leading indicator-based programs
Safety incentive programs that use leading indicators as a basis for the program focus on safety activities and behaviors rather than results. These programs may help to foster a culture in the workplace that actively promotes safety. Leading indicator programs require greater employee involvement, which may be one reason for their success. Coupling this program with an active safety committee is a one-two punch that will move you from focusing after-the-fact on accidents and incidents to where the prevention of accidents and incidents occurs.

Many leading indicator programs use an observation-based method. Employees are encouraged to observe their workspace and to report unsafe conditions, near misses and all incidents no matter how minor. This can take the form of observation cards that are supplied to employees. Employees may be required to turn in a set number of cards per quarter, say 25 or so to meet the goal. Employees may also be encouraged to provide ideas to solve problems. In many cases, employees are usually the best source of information regarding a specific safety issue since they may be more familiar with a process, machine or procedure than the site safety professional.

Safety committees can be an important part of this process. They can serve as a clearinghouse for the data that is collected. The idea is to have all employees involved in the safety committee, not just a select few.

Structuring a safety committee to include all employees has two advantages. First, it allows the safety manager to tap into the best source of information on what is really happening in the workplace — the employees. Second, the employees have a sense of ownership in the process and as a result, tend to be more safety conscious.

The safety committee would keep a database of all observations made by employees. Each unsafe condition would be assigned to a responsible person or department; a corrective action would be identified and would be tracked to closure. Near misses and incidents would follow a similar path. This method also provides a way for the facility to look back to see what has been accomplished.

Leading indicator-based programs are not without their problems. Employees must be willing to be involved and must be educated in what to look for. This is where the work of a good safety manager comes in. While it may seem like a huge task to educate all employees on OSHA and EPA regulations, this strategy will actually save time and money in the long run. Training can be done in safety meetings where regulations are discussed. Make regulatory information easily available in an easy to understand format.

Leading indicator-based programs should still keep track of lagging indicators, but not make them the meat of the program. Giving an employee or department an extra bonus if there are no injuries or environmental incidents could still be a part of the program. This keeps the definitive goals in view, the prevention of accidents and incidents, without making a major part of the program.

Other aspects of leading indicator-based programs are inspections, audits, risk assessments and hazard analyses. These tools are used in conjunction with an observation-based safety program.

Annual inspections and audits can either be performed in house or by a third party. There are many software programs that can assist a facility in the performance of a self-audit. Getting employees involved in this process can serve as both an education tool and as a means of getting buy-in to the safety program. Having a third party perform a facility audit every other year helps to keep the audit program on track.

Risk Assessments should be done on a regular basis to verify the overall effectiveness of the safety program. Hazard analysis must also be a regular part of the program. Employees know their jobs better than anyone else and are the best choice to perform the hazard analysis.

Bottom line
Keeping the incentive in a safety incentive program requires a good balance of both leading and lagging indicators. Leading indicators should be the heaviest weighting in the program. This encourages employees to adopt a safety culture in the workplace since they feel that they are part of the force that is driving the safety program. This also encourages a proactive approach to safety, where potential problems are identified and corrective actions are taken before an incident or accident occurs.

A program with a heavy weighting in lagging indicators results in a safety program that is reactive and always solving problems after there has been an accident or incident. The main problem with these types of reactive programs is that employees tend to not report accidents and incidents so that the award is not lost.

Everyone wins when safety incentives are given based on behavior and not purely on results. The result is a safer workplace for everyone.