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Don’t Live in the Past: The Power of Leading Indicators in Safety

Most prequalification systems only look at lagging indicators such as Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR), incidents that resulted in days away, restricted work activity, and/or job transfer (DART), and Experience Modification Rating (EMR) to determine if a contractor is safe enough to work on a project.

For the best outcomes, project teams should look at leading indicators, in addition to lagging indicators, to gain a full view of safety risk. Leading indicators are components of a contractor’s safety programs, management practices, and culture that give insight into their overall ability to mitigate risk. Leading indicators should be collected, verified, and tracked for optimal impact.

Lagging indicators vs. leading indicators

Lagging Indicators are the historical metrics that detail a contractor’s safety record. They can be gathered from documents like OSHA form 300A, which contain data like recordable incidents.

Leading indicators provide insight into a contractor’s safety maturity and can provide a more predictive view of safety risk than lagging indicators alone. Here are a few examples of common questions used to gather leading safety indicators:

  1. Does the contractor have an inspection and hazard identification program?

  2. Does the contractor have a defined accountability program?

  3. Does the contractor have an incentive and recognition program?

The predictive value of leading indicators

Results of a study conducted at Northeastern University and published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (AJIM) suggest evaluating subcontractors using leading indicators can result in reducing the rates of injury in construction. This analysis was completed using data from contractors enrolled in Highwire (known as ConstructSecure at the time of publication).

An increase in safety management systems was associated with a:

  • 34% decrease in odds of a recordable incident;

  • 28% decrease in odds of a DART incident;

  • 9% lower recordable rate; and,

  • 9% lower DART rate.

Instead of relying entirely on historical data to estimate how safe a partner is, leading indicators better predict a contractor’s ability to manage risk.

Yet 90% of safety prequalification surveys fail to evaluate leading indicators

In another study, researchers looked at 52 construction safety prequalification surveys and found that the majority of them needed more consistent and thorough evaluation of leading indicators. 

This may come as a surprise to construction industry professionals who are responsible for hiring contractors. They know that choosing the right partners requires some screening beyond bid, capability, and availability, but are they collecting the right data?

The gap between the traditional approach and the best approach

We can separate project teams into 3 levels – the traditional, the good, and the best.


  • Collects lagging indicators like TRIR, DART, and EMR

  • GOOD

  • Collects lagging indicators like TRIR, DART, and EMR

  • Reviews contractors’ safety manuals for site-specific requirements

  • BEST

  • Collects lagging indicators like EMR, DART rate, TRIR

  • Reviews contractors’ safety manuals for site-specific requirements

  • Verifies contractors’ ability to execute requirements

  • Captures and tracks job site behaviors indicative of safety culture

Traditional teams collect lagging indicators like TRIR and DART. And some continue to focus primarily on EMR.

Good teams collect the lagging indicators listed above as well as some leading indicators, such as ensuring a contractor has site-specific safety procedures. For example, a good EHS team reviews a contractor’s confined space entry program if the project scope involved work in confined spaces.

The best owners and builders evaluate contractors’ safety history, their safety manuals, and their ability to mitigate risk, as well as capture real-time data in the field. This allows them to select the right partners, support those that are at higher risk and need improvement, and verify a partner’s ability to execute. This practice facilitates better performance over time. They are not just thinking about the current project, but how to make the next one better.

What does “the best” look like in practice?

Collecting more (and better) leading indicators is an opportunity to strengthen safety outcomes. Certain leading indicators are a matter of evaluating written program handbooks—whereas others, like reporting and investigating near misses, program and management system audits, and behavioral observations, require capturing data on the job site in real time.

Selecting the right partners

Safety evaluations are conducted by project teams to determine which contractors are qualified to work on their projects. Leading indicators are essential to a proper safety evaluation since they give a more predictive estimate of safety outcomes.

For example, even though a contractor has outlined a confined space program, they may need more management systems to execute the safety program. This is where a more complete assessment of leading indicators comes in:

  • Does the company have an employee involvement program?

  • Do they conduct job hazard analysis?

  • Do they have a program to train their employees to recognize task-specific hazards?

Questions like these provide project teams with additional leading indicators that help them choose the right partners before work begins by providing an indication of a contractor’s ability to execute any defined safety program.

Verifying contractor performance

If you are overseeing project safety, and all you do is ask if a contractor has a confined space program in place, how do you ensure implementation? Specifically, is the contractor capable of training their employees to be proficient in a real-world situation? Or verifying they are able to put that training into practice in recognizing hazards and implementing controls in the field? How are the employees being held accountable? How are they monitoring their workforce to ensure execution?

Conducting inspections and safety audits leads to accountability. A contractor with a low EMR, below average low TRIR, safety manuals, and a well-defined training program gives a good indication of their commitment to safety. But safety inspections are an essential tool for ensuring the information collected during the assessment reflects the way the contractor executes their work.

It is imperative for safety teams to observe and document positive and negative findings in the field. This is in addition to documenting and investigating incidents. Inspections should be performed to verify that the work is being planned, training is understood and implemented, and the contractor is able to execute in accordance with defined safety programs and management systems.

Highwire’s Approach

Highwire Safety collects data and insights throughout the project lifecycle. Leading indicators are a major component of the product’s safety assessment. After gathering data on contractors during the bid phase to make an informed decision, higher-risk partners can be engaged to develop data-driven action plans. Then, Highwire’s Inspect and Tracker enables project teams to track performance against the action plan, identify and address emerging trends, and improve safety performance over time.

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