What is Risk Analysis in Aviation SMS Programs?
Risk Analysis is the core of an aviation SMS program’s risk management and safety assurance processes. In short, it is the core element in Risk analysis is an activity whereby safety management qualifies a safety concern. In other words, risk analysis
In the safety risk management process, it:
- Arises from the hazard identification element; and
- Informs the system assessment activity (make sure you understand the difference between analysis and assessment!).
In the safety assurance process, it:
- Arises from the data acquisition process (i.e. hazard reports); and
- Informs the safety performance assessment activity.
There is no “right way” to perform risk analysis in aviation safety management systems. There are many different methods and tools used understand safety concerns. It’s not so important to understand how to perform risk analysis, as to develop your specific process for risk analysis.
That being said, all risk analysis activities should be performed with certain, loose guidelines to maximize the safety qualification process. Here are the 5 rules for risk analysis in aviation SMS programs that you can use as a guidepost when performing risk analysis.
1 – Know Goals of Risk Analysis in Aviation SMS
This is by far the most important of the rules for risk analysis in aviation SMS programs. Because risk analysis is a two-sided coin, used for two different processes, the purpose of risk analysis in aviation SMS programs depends on which process you are performing.
In the safety risk management process, the purpose or risk analysis primarily activity of discovery, such as to:
- Establish connections between hazard occurrence and risk;
- Understand risk-related exposure; and
- Document all hazard-risk related information.
In the safety assurance process, the purpose of risk analysis is to quality a safety incident, in terms of understanding its:
- What the primary concerns are with the safety incident;
- The flow of the safety incident’s events;
- How the safety incident unfolded – i.e., by what mechanisms it happened; and
- Why the safety incident unfolded as it did.
Understanding general goals of risk analysis is required to establish specific objectives and desired outcomes for risk analysis activities.
2 – Know Objectives of Risk Analysis
Objectives of risk analysis are very specific, and they arise from its goals. During the safety risk management process, the objectives of risk analysis are to:
- Identify risks that are likely to arise from hazardous conditions (i.e., a hazard occurrence);
- Identify the presence of existing risk controls;
- Identify the effectiveness of existing risk controls;
- Identify the need for new risk controls; and
- Establish basis and justification for hazard risk assessment – i.e., is a hazard adequately controlled?
Fulfilling these objectives will ensure that the risks that are being analyzed are adequately accounted for and documented.
During the safety assurance process, the goals are to:
- Identify root causes;
- Identify hazard mechanisms;
- Identify primary hazard;
- Have ability to make logical classifications;
- Understand Human Factor’s influence on events; and
- Assert context of current safety concern within larger framework of organizational safety trends.
Organizing these elements will paint a vivid picture of why/what/how a safety event occurred.
3 – Ensure that All Needed Data Has Been Acquired
Ensuring that all needed data has been acquired is a hard rule that, if not adhered to, will result in mis-analysis. Incorrect analysis leads to:
- Poor understanding of why/what/how a safety event occurred;
- Wrong basis for making safety decisions;
- Exposure to repeat safety incidents; and
- Poor performance on aviation safety audits.
Ensuring that all needed data has been acquired is a three-step process:
- Document all data, such as in list format;
- Ask many pointed questions about safety concern;
- Ensure that there is relevant data to answer all questions.
If a question has no corresponding data that can answer it, then more data may need to be collected.
4 – Establish Context: Don’t Analyze in Isolation
One of the more overlooked components of risk analysis is putting the data in context. What this means is that, in every part of your risk analysis process, you are aware of how analysis findings fit in with the larger safety trends. So the rule is, don’t analysis
Remember, risk analysis is about establishing the qualitative elements of safety concerns. Understanding safety concerns out of context is like feeling the fabric without seeing the overall design.
Take an example created by the FAA:
- An airline analyzes a recent unstable approach and finds that the unstable approach was due to exceeding flab and landing gear speeds on approach;
- IN ISOLATION: it would be logical to conclude that pilot error was the cause; but
- IN CONTEXT: the analysis would find that unstable approach type of issues were extremely common in organization and local airport, and were caused by flights' being vectored close and high.
In situation two, the logical decision would be retraining and counseling pilots. This would be an erroneous decision that may upset pilots and hurt safety culture, all because the incident was isolated out of context. In situation three, the situation could easily be resolved by managing flight vectors with air traffic control (less time, less money, less change needed).
Analyzing in context involves consistently consulting relevant data during the analysis process.
5 – Have Established Methods for Risk Analysis
Using the same methods is a process of:
- Choosing one or several risk analysis methods;
- Using them during every risk analysis activity; and
- Fine-tuning them to meet your specific process.
Inconsistent use of risk analysis methods is begging for mistakes, misuse of the method, and lack of customization. There are several good risk analysis methods to choose from, and then further customize:
- Historical analysis: good for putting current safety concern in context;
- Exposure analysis: good for identifying relationship between resources, mitigation, and exposure;
- SMS Shortfall Analysis: good for understanding where specifically an SMS program failed during safety incident;
- Event Trees: good for establishing flow of decision making during events;
- Fishbone diagrams: great root cause analysis tool;
- 5 Whys analysis: good for establishing relationship between each event in the entire incident; and
- Bowtie analysis: good for understanding the “big picture,” from flow of safety events, to root causes, to consequences.
For more information and resources about great risk analysis techniques in aviation SMS programs: