Leading Indicators vs. Lagging Indicators: Why OSHA is Championing Change

January 13, 2020 David Irvine

How to Balance Indicators and Fight Complacency in Health and Safety Outcomes in the Workplace

As a worker, we expect safety and wellbeing safeguards from our employer given that this modern world is driven by regulation and compliance. We want to feel assured that safety and wellbeing provisions have been effectively put in place, so we can go home to our families safe and sound each day. In safety-centric organizations, the rules and processes that guide daily working practices are so instilled that they trigger automatic behaviors or responses to protect workers from harm.

However, we should take a moment to reflect that we work in such a progressive environment when it comes to occupational safety and health. Imagine being a miner back in late 19th century America, for example, when around three out of every 1,000 workers were fatally injured each year — such was the disregard for safety compared to profit. Thankfully, most organizations today strive for an entrenched culture of safety. 

Ensuring workplace safety and wellness is a dynamic process that facilitates continuous change. Rather than resting on our laurels, we should strive to overcome the challenges presented by new technology, practices and cultures in the workplace. To achieve this, we must adopt a proactive approach to safeguarding each organization’s most important asset: Our people. 

A Time for Change

Unfortunately, the regulatory framework has traditionally focused on measuring past incidents or conditions – known as lagging indicators – rather than more preventative measures. But even that approach continues to evolve. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has announced that it’s moving away from relying on lagging indicators to measure the effectiveness of workplace safety and health programs. According to OSHA, the time has come to concentrate its enforcement efforts on what the agency defines as leading indicators.

Lagging Behind? 

So, what are lagging indicators exactly and why are they lagging behind when it comes to delivering progressive occupational safety and health programs?

Lagging indicators are key performance indicators (KPIs) that use past statistics to record performance. These reactive KPIs are used to track how many incidents took place within an organization and how severe the injuries or illnesses were. Examples include:

  • Injury frequency and severity
  • OSHA recordable injuries – e.g., any work-related fatality, injury or illness that results in loss of consciousness and any work-related injury or illness requiring medical treatment beyond first aid
  • Lost workdays
  • Worker’s compensation costs

These traditional indicators can contribute to a safer working environment by alerting employers to a failure in an area of its safety and health program or to the existence of a hazard. However, their reactionary nature means if used in isolation they provide limited direction and insight into the behaviors and conditions that precede incidents, making them an unsatisfactory gauge for prevention.

Leading the Way

Leading indicators are commonly defined as: “Proactive, preventative measures that monitor and provide current information about the effective performance, activities, and processes of an EHS management system.” Examples include:

  • Safety training
  • Ergonomic opportunities identified and corrected
  • Reduction of MSD risk factors
  • Employee perception surveys
  • Safety audits

These predictive metrics focus on continuous improvement by providing safety professionals with advanced warning of potential problems so that preventive measures can be implemented. Therefore, while lagging indicators can alert you to a failure in an area, leading indicators allow you to take proactive action to address a failure or hazard before it becomes an issue.

If implemented effectively, leading indicators can:

  • Mitigate the risk of workplace injuries and illnesses
  • Reduce costs associated with incidents
  • Improve productivity and overall organizational performance
  • Optimize safety and health performance
  • Raise worker engagement

Organizations that use leading indicators as a tool for continuous improvement can gain an advantage over their competitors. By implementing proactive measures that are designed to prevent incidents and illnesses, employers demonstrate their commitment to maintaining a socially responsible workplace that values employees. Employers that use leading indicators effectively can also experience savings to their bottom line and improve their overall performance. 

“A good… program uses leading indicators to drive change and lagging indicators to measure effectiveness.”


A comprehensive health and safety program applies a well-structured combination of both leading and lagging indicators.

Clients of SAI Global are partnering with us to take advantage of technologies that actively promote a culture of safety in the workplace by leveraging both leading and lagging indicators.  Our EHS solution encourages the management of near misses, hazards, safety observations, Take 5, inspections and more. 

By combining leading and lagging indicators, organizations are empowered to:

  • Identify trends associated with at-risk behavior and encourage desired behaviors
  • Promote a safety culture by identifying opportunities before adverse events occur
  • Include all personnel in making a safe working culture
  • Encourage proactive hazard identification
  • Cascade good practices across the organization


Learn more about our EHS Solutions.

Or, request a demo to see how SAI Global has helped organizations like yours.

About the Author

David Irvine

David Irvine is the Senior Vice President, EHS for SAI Global. David has worked in the EHS software industry for 19 years in senior leadership positions with a global remit including professional services, product development and business development. David has extensive experience in a range of functional and technical areas across EHS software as well as being involved directly with a broad cross-section of customers.

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