"In Search of" the Best Safety Leading Indicators

If, like me, you are old enough to have watched TV in the late seventies and early eighties, you may recall a slightly offbeat TV show called “In Search of…”  The show was narrated by Leonard Nimoy – the famed actor who played Dr. Spock on the original Star Trek television series.  The show was often focused on exploring controversial and mysterious topics such as UFO’s, the existence of Bigfoot, and the Bermuda Triangle.

Due in part to some of the dubious theories and claims explored on the show, a disclaimer ran before each episode.  According to Wikipedia, it read as follows: “This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer's purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”

I often feel as if a similar disclaimer should be attached to a lot of recent claims about safety leading indicators.  Many leading indicators are based on just that, theory and conjecture, rather than quantifiable research and supporting facts and analysis.  As W. Edwards Deming is reported to have said, “In God we trust; all others bring data.”

I have been in countless safety meetings where folks have failed to “bring data”.  They do this by proposing leading indicators that should be tracked to improve safety performance but cannot show any actual results that prove these leading indicators drive improvement.  In one meeting, a safety consultant pulled out an exhaustive list of safety leading indicators so long it took up five, double-sided, single-spaced pages.  There was not a single piece of supporting evidence that any of them were effective in reducing injuries and safety incidents.

We at Predictive Solutions wholeheartedly believe that leading indicators that help companies predict where and when safety incidents will occur are one of the most important elements of a 21st century safety program.  Most importantly, these leading indicators need to be supported by data that show they actually work.

After studying over a decade’s worth of real world safety data – including over 150 million safety observations from nearly 4 million inspections collected by over 45,000 unique individuals – we’ve identified approximately 16 leading indicators that predict future safety incidents with high levels of accuracy and, we’ve got the data to back it up!  We’ve tied these 16 leading indicators to Four Safety Truths that act as leading indicators of future safety incident risk:

  1. Inspection levels – as inspections and observations increase, incidents fall
  2. Inspector levels – as the number and diversity of inspectors increase, incidents fall
  3. Safe observations  – as 100% safe inspections increase, so do incident levels
  4. Unsafe observations – as larger numbers of unsafe observations are recorded and are not fixed quickly, incidents increase

While many of these indicators have been understood by savvy safety professionals for some time, we now have the quantifiable data to support their use.  Our research also shows that 75% of the variation in incident rates can be explained by data found in safety inspections and observations.  So if you want to explain 75% of what is driving your incident levels, there is no better place to look than at your inspection and observation data.  And if you’re going to use that data, these four leading indicators are an easy, yet highly effective way to start.

So, the next time someone wants to suggest some leading indicators for you to use, ask to see the supporting data.  Don’t be like Leonard Nimoy and settle for “theory and conjecture”; be like Deming and demand supporting data.

For more information on the data supporting our Four Safety Truths, please read our whitepaper on the topic that can be found here.   In the next few weeks on this blog, we will continue to explore this topic of leading indicators.

Griffin Schultz

Written by Griffin Schultz

While employed by Predictive Solutions, Griffin Schulz was responsible for all aspects of the business including sales, delivery and strategy functions, as well as product management, software development and marketing initiatives.

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