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Safety-sensitive workplaces often analyze safety performance metrics with leading and lagging indicators. The ability of managers and supervisors to identify these leading and lagging indicators and use them to influence workplace safety procedures is key in improving workplace safety and productivity. 

Here, we will identify what leading and lagging indicators are, their benefits, where to find them, and how to use them. 


What Are Lagging Indicators?

Lagging indicators, also known as trailing indicators, are measured by incident numbers, workers’ compensation claims, and past regulatory compliance.

Although monitoring and measuring lagging indicators is an important part of an organization’s safety system, writer and safety expert James C. Manzella, among others, has asserted that the lagging indicators rely on measuring past conditions and thus do not “indicate why a specific level of performance was achieved. Therefore, they cannot identify deficiencies that have the potential to produce future injuries or accidents.”1

Measuring lagging indicators alone provides no real evidence of a safety system’s efficacy because it can create the false impression that an absence of incidents necessarily indicates good safety performance.2

Improving a safety system in a way that positively affects present and future safety performance requires using data correctly to understand current conditions and forecast future conditions, and then using that information to eliminate or reduce safety risks.

Manzella explains:

"To maximize performance and reduce risks, safety and health measurements must focus on conformance to system activities before injury, not on the final outcome of the system (injury performance) – if a safety program relies on after-the-fact data to establish safety performance objectives, those goals will be difficult to reach or maintain.1"


What Are Leading Indicators?

Leading indicators provide information that can help avoid future problematic or unsafe conditions.

Unlike lagging indicators, which reflect past conditions, leading indicators are anticipatory rather than “after-the-fact.”

They help answer the questions “How are we doing right now?” and “How are we likely to do in the future?”

Identifying and measuring leading indicators provides “information while there is still time to intervene and offer a high degree of confidence that intervention is occurring at appropriate points,” according to occupational safety expert R. Scott Stricoff.3

Manzella explains that this intervention can be “incorporated into future plans in order to improve the system, not merely to address an individual incident.”1


Identifying Leading Indicators

Shifting away from over-reliance on lagging indicators and including a focus on identifying and measuring leading indicators could be a difficult process for many business leaders.

They may be uncertain about how to go about defining, identifying, and understanding specific available leading indicators within their organizations.

If they are not skeptical about the usefulness in identifying leading indicators, they doubt their ability to identify the measurable indicators that can lead to predictive data.


Sources of leading indicators:

Many organizations likely already measure and record information that can expose leading indicators.

These leading indicators include:

  • Production statistics

  • maintenance records

  • records of employee behavior

  • permits for hazardous work

  • reports of prior accidents

  • doctor visits

  • near misses

  • and other lagging indicators that can help discover leading ones. 

Additional sources of leading indicators include demographic information about personnel, like clock-in and clock-out times, and data regarding their usage of equipment, like mechanical diagnostics, location and speed data, and so on.

Generally, this data is used only for a single purpose, like for preventative equipment maintenance or the issuing of reprimands or warnings.

Safety expert Jack Toellner put it clearly: “Many safety professionals spend a significant amount of time gathering, analyzing and reporting statistics. If these efforts are not directly leading to improved performance, then a site’s safety resources are not being maximized.”4

Further examples of indicators that may suggest predictive trends include data on first-aid cases, near misses, the frequency and scores of safety inspections, employees’ input, management reviews, training completion, and closure of corrective actions, and industrial hygiene samples.

There is no universal formula for developing leading measures, but prioritizing safety initiatives that create the biggest impact is key.

Incorporating leading measures drives continuous improvement, and continuous improvement drives positive change.


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Using technology to monitor leading indicators

Predictive Safety’s AlertMeter and PRISM platforms provide leading indicators in real-time that correlate with worker performance and safety: individual alertness and fatigue level. Even though impairment and fatigue are cited as common contributors to occupational accidents and injuries, a safety system focused on lagging indicators may be oblivious when workers are dangerously fatigued, ill, on impairing medication, or intoxicated from illicit drugs or alcohol. Worker safety, worker productivity, and workplace culture are directly related, and Predictive Safety can show you how they can be positively affected by incorporating leading indicators into your organization’s safety system.

  • PRISM is a fatigue management platform that accurately predicts when a worker is approaching high fatigue risk, offers the worker timely countermeasures to ward off fatigue while at work, and then notifies a supervisor when worker fatigue is dangerously high. 
  • AlertMeter is a 60-second cognitive alertness test that workers take before beginning their shifts, and before starting critical tasks. It instantly identifies when a worker is impaired due to fatigue, illness, intoxication, etc. and alerts a supervisor. With AlertMeter, workplaces in various safety-sensitive industries have reduced incidents, cut costs, improved safety, and improved business.

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1. Manzella, J. C. (1999, September). Measuring safety performance to achieve long-term improvement. Professional Safety: 33­‑36.

2. Blair, E. H. & Spurlock, B. S. (2008). Leading measures of safety performance [Conference paper]. ASSE Professional Development Conference and Exhibition. American Society of Safety Engineers.

3. Stricoff, R. S. (2000, January). Identifying prospective indicators with high validity. Professional Safety: 36-39.

4. Toellner, J. (2001, September). Improving safety & health performance: Identifying & measuring leading indicators. Professional Safety: 42-48.