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Enhancing workplace safety: The role of leading indicators

Steven Naylor BSc MSc, Research Scientist. Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

In today's world, ensuring the safety of workers across all industries is paramount. Lloyd’s Register Foundation recognises this imperative and so has supported new research into the use of leading indicators for safety. These leading indicators – such as the quality of safe working procedures, how well they are communicated, and the extent to which they are adhered to – serve as proactive measures aimed at preventing workplace injuries and illnesses, rather than merely reacting to them after they occur.

Traditionally, many organisations have relied heavily on lagging indicators such as injury frequency rates and incidence of worker ill-health to measure their health and safety performance. However, this reactive approach fails to address the root causes of safety issues and often comes too late to prevent harm. As a result, there has been a growing shift towards adopting leading indicators that focus on identifying and measuring the effectiveness of proactive health and safety management practices.

These measures are what are commonly referred to as leading indicators of health and safety performance. They are ‘leading’ in the sense that they naturally precede the occurrence of those undesired endpoints that health and safety functions are looking to prevent – that is, cases of worker injury and ill-health.


What research evidence is there assessing the impact of leading indicators on safety?

This is the question that a research study undertaken by a team of researchers at York Health Economics Consortium (YHEC), funded by a research grant from the Foundation, looked to address. The aim of the work was to carry out a comprehensive, systematic review of published academic literature to evaluate evidence supporting effective use of leading indicators of health and safety performance in different organisational contexts.

The findings of the assessment revealed a mixed and generally weak evidence base for the use of leading indicators. While certain industries or management arrangements may show stronger evidence, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. This underscores the importance for organisations to develop their own processes for selecting and implementing leading indicators tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.


What might such an organisational process for choosing leading indicators look like?

Drawing inspiration from process and major hazards industries, which routinely embed safety leading indicators into their operations, organisations can establish their own internal processes for choosing leading indicators. Guidance documents such as Great Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s HSG254 publication provide valuable insights into selecting leading indicators and establishing performance measurement systems.

Emerging digital technologies, including 3D digital twins, wireless sensors, and artificial intelligence, are poised to play a crucial role in this endeavour. These technologies enable organisations to measure performance dynamically and analyse vast amounts of data in real-time, allowing for more informed decision-making and proactive risk management.

Moving forward, ongoing research funded by Lloyd’s Register Foundation aims to explore how these new approaches to leading indicators and digital technologies can be successfully implemented to drive improvements in health and safety performance.

Enhancing workplace safety requires a proactive approach that goes beyond traditional lagging indicators. By embracing leading indicators tailored to their specific needs and leveraging emerging digital technologies, organisations can create safer and healthier work environments for their employees.

Read the YHEC report into the evidence behind leading indicator use now.

For more information on HSE’s work on leading indicators, visit discoveringsafety.com.


About the author

Steven is a Research Scientist within the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the national regulator of health and safety for Great Britain, working within its Science and Research Centre, and a technical lead on the HSE’s Discovering Safety Research Programme. He’s part of a team of scientists who deliver projects for the HSE, government departments and for industry, both in the UK and internationally. Steven’s main areas of research interests centre around the use of data analytic techniques to generate intelligence from datasets to support better health and safety decision-making. Central to this is how organisations can bring together the right data and leverage the knowledge contained to enable a more preventative form of health and safety to be practiced. Steven is passionate about realising the potential for AI and emerging industrial technologies, such as industrial safetytech, to help address the world's most complex problems, in a safe and ethical manner, for the benefit of all.

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