Occupational Health & Safety

Inspections and Severity: Two Leading Indicators to Use Today

More and more, we see severity of unsafe observations being tracked as a leading indicator.

Currently, much thought and discussion are being given to leading indicators in the world of safety. Everyone is drawn to the promise of getting ahead or seeing the potential for injury before it is realized. Only recently has technology evolved to the point where we can start to review leading indicators in real time, providing safety professionals with a new perspective and suite of tools from which to work. This article will provide some common working definitions and then explain how you can begin to use two leading indicators—at no cost—that may help you achieve your injury reduction goals.

First, let’s define what we mean by leading and lagging indicators. Lagging indicators can be thought of as the loss metrics you already capture and record today. These are your incidents, recordable incident rates, lost-time accidents, etc. In one sense, lagging indicators measure an organization’s safety consequences in the form of past accident statistics. On the other hand, leading indicators are the precursors that may “lead” to an accident or injury. Some examples of leading indicators include frequency of training, completion of pre-task planning, and number of at-risk conditions and behaviors.

In our first example, we consider inspections to be our leading indicators and incidents to be our lagging indicators. Here, we consider a typical inspection to be comprised of 20-30 observations of work site conditions or behaviors.

Tying Your Inspections to Your Incidents
A question that is often posed is,“If I increase my inspections, will I reduce my incidents?” There are software solutions available on the market today that can track the number of inspections (leading indicator) against the number of incidents (lagging indicator). The graph in Figure 1 shows one real-life example of this relationship.

In Figure 1, we see a higher level of incidents (blue line) during the time total inspections are very low. Beginning in February 2007, we find inspections are trending up and, by April 2007, incidents are steadily declining. However, sometime in mid-May 2007, incidents have hit a plateau and inspections have begun to sharply drop off. By July 2007, inspections are down and incidents are trending up again.

Based on this graph, we see at least a loose relationship between inspections and incidents. As this company increases inspections, incidents tend to trend downward. There are many potential reasons for this correlation. Increasing inspections may indicate more inspectors participating in the observation process or current inspectors performing inspections more frequently. In both instances— more eyes out in the field or increased inspections—it is implied there is increased awareness and improved identification of hazardous conditions and behaviors. Greater frequency of inspections also may indicate an observation process is gaining footing and becoming standardized, consistent, and predictable, which is no doubt beneficial for reducing incidents.

Yet, in some cases (having had the opportunity to work closely with more than 150 customers who have amassed more than 40 million work site observations over the past six years), we have encountered situations where incidents have increased or showed no correlation as inspections increase. What would explain incidents increasing as inspections increase? One explanation would be that the number of inspectors is increasing but newer inspectors may be poorly trained—they may not know what areas to inspect or they may be inspecting the wrong areas. Individual competencies ultimately affect the quality of the observation information that is collected, which can then impact loss. Another reason that loss may continue to rise even though inspections are increasing is that the action taken is either inappropriate, ineffective, or not timely enough to prevent future incidents. For example, have we taken action to address and fix the system that is causing the at-risk behavior, or are we focused only on individual behaviors?

What is interesting is that in both cases—when inspections are going up and incidents are going down, or when inspections are going up but there is no impact on incidents—we are compelled to understand why that is. Without seeing the leading and lagging information together, it is very hard to begin planning the next phase of safety improvement.

Considering Severity as a Leading Indicator
More and more, we see severity of unsafe observations being tracked as a leading indicator. A pattern that you can expect as inspectors perform more inspections is an increase in the count of high-severity observations. Stated another way, more inspections lead to more high-severity items being recorded. As inspectors mature, they tend to become more consistent in spotting hazards and in recording observations of medium, high, and life-threat unsafe conditions and behaviors. Our observation is that as processes and safety cultures evolve, inspectors are often recognized and appreciated for noting high-severity unsafe observations and, therefore, become less fearful of pointing out unsafe conditions or behaviors. These types of behavior and culture change lay the groundwork for proactive intervention.

Figure 2 shows two graphs that compare two companies’ inspections against their high severity count (the number of high and life-threat unsafe observations per inspection). The first company, company A, achieved an 8 percent reduction in incidents, and the second company achieved a 32 percent reduction in incidents. Company A did a good job collecting high-severity items but was unable to address the contributing factors for these at-risk conditions and behaviors. The second company, on the other hand, successfully captured management’s attention, focused in on resolving contributing factors at a system level, and was therefore able to have a much greater impact on reducing loss.

As a leading indicator, severity of unsafe observations not only provides important clues for the level of risk present on different work sites, but also presents a way to get management’s attention and engagement at a system level in order to make lasting change.

Collecting Leading Indicators There are many solutions in the marketplace today that can help you to measure and trend your leading and lagging indicators together so you can derive continuous value from your observation process. Both of the graphs depicted in Figure 2 were generated using reports engines that are part of a SaaS (software as a service) solution. Because the software is operated and maintained by a service provider, the OSH professional is freed from any IT headaches and requires only an Internet connection to access a wealth of analytics.

Technology today affords us the ability to quickly collect, analyze, and distribute work site information from the field, using handheld devices such as BlackBerries® or Pocket PCs. Once synchronized, observations are automatically aggregated and presented in the appropriate report format for relevant personnel. Any high-severity unsafe conditions or behaviors are automatically e-mailed out to predetermined persons for immediate intervention. Today’s software solutions and delivery models allow for the efficient and timely resolution of current issues taking place on the work site and have the added benefit of eliminating the administrative burden of collecting and filing paper-based inspections that often require extensive manipulation in order to extract value.

The continued use of such a service also presents long-term value as the centralized repository of leading and lagging indicators accumulates and grows over time. It is now possible to measure and benchmark leading metrics, such as those you have seen above, against hundreds of other observation metrics related to inspectors, service providers, and work sites to see how you compare against other companies in your industry and begin to leverage the lessons learned from others in situations similar to yours.

Conclusion and Recommendations Whether or not you take advantage of services such as the ones mentioned above or do it the old-fashioned way with Excel and email, you can use your safety observations— and the leading indicators inherent within them—to pinpoint risk areas, take preventive action, and focus your resources where they are most needed.

Start tracking your inspections against your incidents. If the results aren’t what you expect, dig deeper and evaluate the consistency and standardization of your observation process, the individual competencies of your inspectors, and the impact these factors may have on incidents. If you’re not tracking the severity of your unsafe observations, begin to do so. Just this one change can give you significant insight into what is driving your incidents and your risk. Ultimately, the most value will come from using the observation information you collect to make long-term, systemic change where needed. When you transform the latent insight within all those field observations into lasting cultural change, you will begin to extract the full power behind your leading and lagging indicators.


This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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