Safety Managers often struggle with identifying safety leading Indicators. They’re confused about what to measure, how to measure it, or what to do with that data.

Leading indicators are your most important data points.  But you don’t want to discount the lagging indicators either.  The ones that come from reactive data.

In today’s video, we’ll look at how to use both to identify your problem areas.  When you know what to focus on, your incident rates will drop.


Reactive or lagging indicators are derived from things that have already happened.

After an accident, you gather all the details about it, including the how, what, and why it occurred.  These are all reactive data points.

Like the saying goes “This has all happened before, and it will all happen again” (thank you, Peter Pan, for that lesson)

If you don’t take action on the data from reactive indicators, the accident will happen again.  The past does predict the future. The bad news is you have to wait for bad stuff to happen first.

This is not a very good strategy.


Leading Indicators are proactive.  These are activities that you’re going to track before an accident happens. Focusing on safety leading indicators is like being the forecasters of the future.

Safety leading indicators can be things such as inspections, maintenance work orders, employee surveys, disciplinary actions, accountability, and production quotas.  More often than not, they’re behaviors and compliance with safe work practices.

Most incidents happen due to some form of human error. Watching the behaviors that caused them are the best safety leading indicators.


Heinrich’s Accident Triangle is an accident theory.  It states there’s a relationship between the number of minor, serious, and fatal accidents.  There is a lot of debate in safety circles on the validity of this theory. But the theory is significant in managing your program.

The numbers vary, but for example, for every 1 fatality, there’s a greater number of severe accidents. For all those severe accidents, there’s a greater number of first aid accidents.  These derive from a greater number of near misses. Which comes from a greater number of unsafe acts and unsafe conditions.

Proactive Indicators are looking at those unsafe acts and unsafe conditions. The theory states that if you can get rid of unsafe acts and conditions, your accident rate reduces.

Safety Pyramid


The Broken Window Theory is a criminology theory. It states that if you pay attention to the small stuff, the big stuff tends to reduce as well.

Safety leading indicators are the small stuff.  A twist of the back here, poor housekeeping there, an uptick in maintenance report…

When you start getting rid of all these small things that cumulate and the larger accidents don’t happen. (like the back strains, slip and falls, or breakdowns)


Proactive indicators are found all over your workplace. They’re in your policies, procedures, job hazard analysis, inspections, and even your reactive data.

Looking at the data from accidents can give you clues to what proactive indicators to watch for. By looking at the tasks they were doing when the incident happened and examining the behaviors that would have prevented the accident or eliminated it, you can then create data points for the rest of your workforce.

Don’t look for one safety leading indicator when doing your accident investigations. Identify several.

Plug those behaviors into your training and observation processes. Giving you more data points to measure and improve upon.


If you can’t measure it, you will never know if you’re focused on the right thing.  This is why SMART goals include measurement. And why the saying “What gets measured, gets managed” is so true.

Everything can be measured, even the most obscure indicators. 

Look at the safety leading indicator you want to improve.  Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What does success look like?
  2. What’s happening now and what’s the first step to change it?
  3. Is it repeatable?
  4. What can I count? (units, items, actions)
  5. What training is involved?
  6. How many employees are involved?

All these questions will get you thinking in terms of numbers.  Once you determine an action, an item, of behavior you can put a number to and start measuring.

Create a baseline; where you are now.

Create a goal; where you want to be.

Observe and track the data, create reports, and share the results with your team.  Don’t forget to compare those results with your incident numbers.  Show a correlation of the safety leading indicator with the reduction in accidents.


Do you know how when you’re asked about how your safety program it’s usually about your injuries rates?  You need to flip that.

Reporting on your claims data and incident numbers does not help move your program forward.  It keeps you and your team in a reactive mindset.  So stop talking about it and looking at it so often.

Lagging or reactive indicator trends don’t change that often. But safety leading indicators change frequently.  That’s why these should be the center of any discussion of your safety program.

Proactive indicators, like safe working behaviors, can change month over month.  Giving you a new problem area to focus your efforts on. Chasing the trends of your proactive indicators is what will move your program forward and closer to zero.

Reactive Lagging Indicators – look at them every 6 months

Proactive Leading Indicators – look at them monthly, with a weekly progress review


Look at all of your data. When you have enough data you will be able to predict your trends. 

The Law of Large Numbers states that the larger your sample size the more accurate your data is.  This means you need a very large sample size to find your problem areas.

Do more inspections, observations. Have other people do more inspections and observations.  Plug their results into your data sets.

Do more investigations. Start investigating every unsafe act. This gives you more reactive data to identify those safety leading indicators.


You now know the difference between proactive and reactive indicators. Take this information and apply it to your facility. Get your people in the habit of thinking proactively instead of reactively.

When they ask how the safety numbers are doing – your response will be a proactive indicator.


Do you struggle with finding safety leading indicators?  In the comments, tell me what indicators you’re currently tracking and how.

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Hi, I'm Brye (rhymes with sky)!  I am a self-proclaimed safety geek with two decades of general industry safety experience.  Specializing in bringing safety programs to a world-class level and building a safety culture, I have trained and coached many safety managers, just like you, on how to effectively manage workplace safety in the real world.   I would love to help you too.

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