What is Aviation Safety Culture
By definition, aviation safety culture is an organization’s commitment to safety. I tend to find this definition limiting. A better way to understand safety culture is the means of realizing safety success, in which commitment is just one part.
Of course, safety culture in the aviation industry needs to be couple with an organized, compliant SMS backbone in order to achieve safety success. By safety success, I mean that your SMS program demonstrates:
- Good performance on aviation safety audits;
- Well-developed performance metrics;
- High quality hazard reporting culture; and
- An aviation safety database that demonstrates a strong historical precedent of continuous improvement.
Safety culture is the “means” to success because it:
- Reflects the attitudes in an organization;
- Needs safety awareness to be successful;
- Is exemplified by behavior of employees at all levels of an organization; and
- Indicates future commitment and safety performance.
Attitude, awareness, behavior, commitment – these are the primary tenants of safety culture. Here are 3 ways aviation safety culture leads directly to safety performance.
1 – Quality Safety Culture Entails Considerate Safety Behavior
Safety culture is something that happens on an organization level and individual level. When aviation safety culture is successful, it always entails considerate safety behavior. Another way of saying this is that behavior demonstrates a commitment to the SMS program.
What is difficult about behavior is how to measure it. In other words, while it would be great for any safety manager to be able to say, “Employees in my organization behave extremely well,” what we really want is some proof.
Consider the following as quantifiable and trackable ways of measuring safety behavior:
- Frequency of safety meetings;
- Average end of training assessment test scores;
- Average number of days to complete corrective preventative actions (CPAs);
- Average number of days to close issues (organized by risk level);
- Average number of reported issues per employee;
- Number of incidents related to failure to follow checklist, policy, or procedure;
- Number of high, medium, and low risk issues reported over time; and
- Number of updates to policies and procedures (including number of new policies/procedures).
The above list demonstrates the kind of data that quantifies safety behavior. Each point requires specific action on the part of general employees and management in order to achieve safety success.
2 – New Employees Pose Less Risk
It’s no secret that new employees by far pose the greatest risk to safety in the aviation industry and beyond. For example, nearly 1/3 of all nonfatal occupational injuries that involved time away from work were suffered by workers with less than one year of service (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
New employees generally pose a risk because they are:
- Unfamiliar with the work environment;
- Impressionable to existing Norms in the work environment; and
- Unfamiliar with existing policies/procedures.
A strong aviation safety culture successfully mitigates a considerable amount of risk involved with new employees because strong safety culture:
- Requires Teamwork that acts as a natural monitor and guide for new employees;
- Exhibits very little negative Norms that could potentially lead a new employee into dangerous action;
- Almost always has a strong precedent of safety training (induction and recurring); and
- Will surely have strong leaders to keep new employees “on track” in terms of behaving safely.
Before organizations begin expanding, it greatly benefits them to pour resources into building safety culture in order to mitigate exposure when hiring an influx of new employees.
3 – Employees Perform When Boss Isn’t Watching
What are you doing when your boss isn’t watching? Or, if you are the boss, what are you employees doing when you aren’t watching. In most organizations (we know from experience), employees only loosely follow policies and procedures when management isn’t around.
This is especially true when management doesn’t take an active role in its relationship with front line employees.
One of the financial incentives in building safety culture, besides saving money due to workplace injuries, is that workers are more productive because their work is consistent. This productivity does not come at the cost of safety. Rather, employees:
- Are set back by safety issues less often;
- Maintain working standard and adherence to company policy most of the time; and
- Are better at monitoring and responding more quickly to their environment.
On the management side, managers can devote more time to important safety tasks, and less time to micromanaging employees and other managers. Good safety culture removes the removes the burden of “authority” inherent in top-down structure of SMS programs. Employees better manage themselves, and the top-down structure remains important for guidance rather than discipline.
Final Thought: Safety Culture Building Tips
Developing a mature safety culture is one of the hardest things to do in a safety program. It takes a lot of time, effort, resources, and overcoming of hurdles. A few simple ways to stimulate safety culture are:
- Create a safety culture manifesto;
- Be clear (in policies and in practice) about teamwork and blamelessness (non-punitive safety culture);
- Be clear that employees are expected to question and act;
- Have an open dialogue about human error, without blaming; and
- Build safety responsibility from the bottom up.
If you are interested in monitoring your safety culture, learn how to do it in this step by step guide for how to monitor safety performance: