Are Near Misses Lagging or Leading Indicators?

April 27, 2017

We have written extensively on the topic of leading indicators on Enablon Insights, including a number of Safetips. Throughout all the articles, white papers and reports we have seen from thought leaders, industry associations and EHS publications, we noticed that there is no unanimous agreement over whether near misses are lagging or leading indicators.

Regular followers of our blog may be a little puzzled, since one of our Safetips promotes the idea of . Rest assured that there is no contradiction. Rather, some organizations use near misses as leading indicators, while others use them are lagging indicators.

Defining Lagging and Leading Indicators, and Near Misses

Let’s briefly define lagging and leading indicators. The former measure what has already occurred (injuries, days away from work, etc.). The latter measure proactive initiatives that aim to improve safety performance and prevent incidents (training hours, safety meetings, inspections, etc.). An Aberdeen report on leading indicators gives this great description: “Leading indicators assist in improving safety by providing early warning signs of potential failures.”

Regarding the definition of a near miss, I like to use this formula to put things in context:

Incidents = Accidents (Fatalities + Injuries + Illnesses + Property Damage) + Near Misses

I like this formula because there are still too many instances where incidents and near misses are described as if they are two completely different things. They’re not. A near miss is an incident. The difference is that, unlike an accident, a near miss is an incident that did not result in a fatality, injury, illness or property damage. Think about a misplaced hammer that falls on the ground. If it hits the foot of a construction worker and results in an injury, it’s an accident. If it misses the worker’s foot, it’s a near miss.

And the Answer Is…

Are near misses lagging or leading indicators? The answer depends on how you use the information. Let’s start with some context from the Campbell Institute’s white paper “Elevating EHS Leading Indicators: From Defining to Designing”. For some research participants, near misses do not provide a clear indication of the state of an organization’s safety management system. If an organization has an increase in near miss reporting, it may simply mean that workers are becoming more observant and vigilant. However, others argue that near misses, while still events with consequences, can be leading indicators for major incidents resulting in injuries. The white paper offers this sound conclusion:

“If the intent is to treat near misses as ‘actual incidents’, especially when it comes to mandatory reporting, the near miss itself can be seen as an event with negative consequences and considered more of a lagging indicator. If the intent of tracking near misses is to find weaknesses in a safety management system and improve organizational safety performance, then near misses become more leading in nature.”

The Aberdeen report on leading indicators makes a good point that can also help determine if near misses are used as lagging or leading indicators in your organization. The report says that the most important part of a safety program is to have corrective actions to prevent adverse events from happening again. If you analyze near misses to identify weaknesses, and implement corrective and preventive action plans to address them, then you are using near misses as leading indicators.

Finally, here’s another question: If you are using near misses as lagging indicators, should you take the steps required to make them leading indicators instead? Based on your safety performance, industry, or the type of occupational hazards, you may decide that it is worthwhile to bring changes to your safety management practices, and leverage near misses as leading indicators.

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