Audits, Occupational Safety

Safety KPIs that really matter

How to understand the current status of your occupational health and safety, set goals and communicate successes

10 minutes09/02/2021

Are you looking to make continuous improvements to the health and safety of your company? If so, it is important to figure out where you currently stand, define your goals and identify potential improvements. Key performance indicators (KPIs) play an important role in this process, as they make it possible to draw comparisons and place them in the context of measures you have put in place. This in turn enables you to find the weaknesses in your company’s existing occupational safety processes and also to communicate your successes. In this article, we will outline the most commonly used KPIs and discuss the aspects you should consider when selecting relevant metrics for your company.

Reactive or proactive indicators?

In the field of health and safety, key performance indicators are often also referred to as safety performance indicators (SPIs). Whatever term you choose, these indicators can be divided into two categories: lagging (trailing, reactive) and leading (forerunning, proactive) indicators. Similar to the process of selecting suitable methods and priorities for your occupational safety activities, it is important to find a healthy balance of leading and lagging indicators when selecting KPIs.

Lagging indicators are suitable for examining the current level of occupational safety retrospectively and in comparison with other companies. These indicators are based on data gathered regarding safety incidents and outcomes – events that have occurred and cannot be reversed. They are described as “lagging” because they concentrate on past events. However, lagging indicators do not provide any clues on how improvements could be made. It is therefore worth incorporating leading indicators, as these proactive indicators provide a future outlook. They are sometimes also referred to as “preventive indicators” because, unlike lagging indicators, they do not focus on past events but instead concentrate on measures that can be implemented or existing conditions that can be amended in an effort to prevent future safety incidents.

Now, there is this fascination with just looking at lagging data by accident rates, but it doesn’t move us forward. That’s the big issue here. So, it’s time to change the way we think, and instead of looking in the rear-view mirror, we need to look forward to where we want to go, rather than trying to get away from where we were.

Andrew Sharman, in an interview for the Safety Management Trend Report 2021

How to define and track your KPIs

When it comes to selecting lagging and leading indicators, there is no catch-all solution that works for every company. Looking at your company’s situation, the problems you face and the goals you have set should form the basis for making a decision about indicators. As ever, it is important to ensure comparability, continuity and transparency. To achieve this – and for your indicators to actually provide meaningful insights – it is essential that the goals you set fulfill the SMART criteria:

  • specific

  • measurable

  • attractive/agreed

  • realistic

  • timely

In addition to your goals and specific problems, make sure to consider your current safety culture. A large proportion of SPIs are based on employee reports; this means you need to clearly inform your workforce about the purpose and use of indicators so that employees embrace them in their daily work. It is also vital to have a simple, understandable system that makes it possible to submit reports and track events. You should therefore only use indicators you are sure you have enough meaningful data to support.

3 core points for your indicator set:

  • Combine lagging and leading indicators

  • KPIs need to give meaningful insight into your goals and problems

  • Only track KPIs you have enough meaningful data to support

The most commonly used KPIs for occupational health and safety

As part of our Safety Management Trend Report, we investigated which KPIs are most commonly employed by companies Europe-wide. The results of the survey of 629 safety specialists from across Europe are as follows:

Let’s take a more detailed look at the five areas and ways to determine indicators:

Reported accidents and incidents: Accident rate

It is essential that all workplace accidents are recorded and documented in the first-aid log. In Germany, if an accident results in an absence of over three days or in a fatality, it is deemed a “reportable accident”, which means the employer is obligated to report the incident to its occupational insurance association. As a result, all companies should gather the necessary data regarding accident severity and frequency. When considered in relation to the employee headcount or hours worked, this data allows you to draw conclusions about the quality of your occupational safety system. This relationship is illustrated by the accident rate, which is calculated in different ways around the world.

The lost time injury frequency rate (LTIFR) is broadly accepted as an international standard.

  • LTIFR: Lost-time injuries / hours worked x 2,000 (instead of using a factor of 2,000, you could also use 1,000 or 1,000,000 depending on the size of your company)

In some European countries, other commonly used accident rates focus on reportable accidents according to local regulations. In Germany, for instance, the LTIFR is supplemented by two additional formulas: accidents per thousand employees and the occupational accident rate.

  • Accidents per thousand employees: (reportable accidents ÷ headcount) x 1,000

  • Occupational accident rate: (reportable accidents ÷ hours worked) x 1,000

Accident-free days

Like the accident rate, the number of accident-free days is another reactive KPI used in incident management. The clue is in the name: it measures the number of days in which no workplace accidents have occurred. As the Safety Management Trend Report shows, tracking this indicator and celebrating successes is common practice. Nevertheless, you should approach this KPI with caution, as it can create false incentive structures. The fact that this figure initially appears to be rising does not necessarily mean that no accidents have occurred. Instead, it is possible that employees have simply chosen not to report accidents in a (misguided) effort to contribute to safety in the workplace.

What you see today are the LED boards with “200 days since the last injury” or “350 days since the last accident”. That’s in my opinion a little bit too reactive. When there is an accident, the board will be reset to zero and it’s not very motivating for the people. So, I believe that preventive KPIs are much more motivating for people. [... ] The preventive performance indicators are more important to measure and to publish and to be proud of than the reactive performance indicators.”

Gerd-Jan Frijters for the Safety Management Trend Report 2021

Near misses

Near misses are usually incidents in which nobody has been injured – but which could have resulted in injuries if circumstances had been slightly different.

Once again, focusing simply on achieving “zero” near misses is not advisable. It is more important to take a more nuanced view of the results. Instead of indicating a dangerous workplace, a high number of near misses might in fact indicate an open, high-functioning culture of failure in which employees freely and openly report near misses. As a safety manager, you rely on employees reporting near misses – as only then can you identify risks and take appropriate action. If employees fail to report a near miss, a repeat occurrence could result in a genuine accident. This is backed up by Heinrich’s accident triangle, which states that 300 unsafe situations will result in 29 accidents with minor injuries and 1 serious accident or fatality. Heinrich’s triangle also illustrates that, given their relative frequency, focusing on achieving “zero” near misses is hardly realistic.

Instead of reducing the number of near misses, a more sensible approach would be to look at the ratio of near misses to accidents. How closely does it correspond to the accident triangle? What conclusions can you draw from that? Employees and managers may not be bothered to record every minor incident in the first-aid log – and the same goes for near misses. It might, therefore, be sensible to aim to achieve a ratio of reported near misses to accidents as outlined in the accident triangle. The rise in this figure is a good indicator of improvements to your safety culture.

Audit and inspection results

A good structure and classification system ensures that all phases of internal and external audits generate KPIs that can support process improvement work, from planning and implementing measures to identifying and eradicating instances of non-conformance. Examples of these KPIs include:

  • Ratio of conducted audits to planned audits: This indicator is a target-actual comparison and shows how effectively audits are implemented in relation to a company’s goal attainment. An audit is deemed effective when the target ratio is reliably achieved within desired tolerances.

  • Ratio of non-conformities to corrective measures: The aim of this KPI is to provide insight into the quality of a company’s culture of failure. If non-conformities are do not result in any (or enough) corrective measures, the same non-conformities may reoccur.

  • Ratio of recommendations to preventive measures: This KPI provides an indication as to how a company handles recommendations from audits. If recommendations are not implemented or documented, this can result in non-conformities in future. The company’s CIP (continuous improvement process) can also help to encourage a focus on preventive measures.

  • Number of overdue deadlines for implementing measures (relative or absolute): Audits usually produce recommendations or identify non-conformities. All instances of non-conformity should be resolved before the follow-up inspection or the next audit. Overdue deadlines shed light on a company’s approach to its culture of failure.

  • Number of anomalies in certification/customer audits with regard to audit management: Taken in isolation, the number of anomalies does not give any indication of how a management system works. Instead, it is only possible to draw conclusions about how a company has developed in recent years (potentially also thanks to the CIP) by comparing data retrospectively.

The CAPA (corrective action and preventive action) system

The CAPA system investigates discrepancies, non-conformities and errors, implements corrective actions and then takes preventive actions. Unlike other quality management standards such as ISO 9001, the CAPA system (like ISO 13485) is a continuous improvement process; however, instead of serving to improve a product, it aims to eliminate instances of non-conformity with requirements set down in applicable regulations and technical standards.

BBS indicators

Behavior-based safety (BBS) is an active rather than reactive approach and makes it possible to implement and cultivate modern, contemporary occupational health and safety. The Safety Management Trend Report shows that a growing number of companies are incorporating this approach as they seek to promote safer behavior and, ultimately, a safer workplace overall.

BBS relies on integrating all employees (in a given team) and constantly observing safe behavior, either in a system where everyone “observes” each or by encouraging individual employees to report their observations. This approach examines safety behavior in the workplaces and can produce constructive feedback. BBS usually generates large volumes of data – a treasure trove for KPIs and analyses, but also a good reason to examine which data you actually need to track and analyze on a regular basis.

KPIs you could use to analyze BBS programs:

  • the number of observations relative to the total of all possible observations

  • the number of observationsof safe behavior relative to the total number of observations

  • the number of responses to observations relative to the total of all possible observations, or the number of measures implemented by managers

  • the number of employees who have received training on BBS

  • the number of safety-related behaviors that have been defined

Given the vast quantities of data that BBS programs can generate, cloud-based software solutions offer a major advantage. They allow you to store unlimited amounts of data and also structure this information. A dashboard makes key insights accessible in the form of KPIs and thereby also highlights the success of your safety system. You need to convince employees of the benefits of these KPIs, gaining their approval and consent, as the data will otherwise have to be anonymized. In any case, you must ensure that data processing is transparent and ensure data security.


There is a clear trend towards proactive occupational health and safety. Modern approaches such as behavior-based safety and safety II are excellent complements to traditional health and safety – and allow you to act promptly and pre-emptively rather than reacting once problems have occurred, which is a sizable advantage.

Proactive safety is also contributing to the rise of proactive (leading) KPIs, which are a useful addition to your existing lagging indicators. Although there are various types of KPI, you should ensure that you can compare and contrast your chosen KPIs as easily as possible. The ability to place traditional and modern KPIs side-by-side helps to assess the impact of theory on practice and identify which measures are really offering a meaningful contribution to making the work environment at your company safer.