Passing aviation safety audits is absolutely critical for safety managers.
Their jobs may depend on satisfactorily managing both:
- The aviation safety audit; and
- Followup and tracking of corrective actions resulting from the findings.
Aviation SMS audits have increasingly become a common and often stressful task at all managerial levels of the aviation industry. Maintaining or acquiring an operating certificate is often the overall objective, but there are many private aviation service providers who need a fully functioning SMS program in order to satisfy contractual obligations or to acquire new business.
Aviation SMS audits are necessary to ensure the compliance and health of aviation SMS programs. Moreover, audits give valuable feedback to organizations concerning the integrity of their safety program.
Clients May Demand Aviation SMS Audits for Contractual Purposes
From a client's perspective, an aviation SMS audit offers some assurance that the service provider has a handle on their safety management processes. When a client neglects to audit an aviation service provider, they could be seen as implicitly accepting the additional risk to their business relationship.
On the flip side of the coin, when an aviation service provider outsources safety critical activities to vendors, the service provider must ensure that the vendor has implemented an acceptable aviation SMS program.
It’s only natural than that for safety managers, audits are generally times of stress, anxiety, and focus. For one, poor results from an audit reflect directly on the safety manager, and can:
- Damage the safety managers reputation
- Possibly endanger the safety managers job
- Hurt faith in the SMS program
- Lose essential revenue for the company
But the poor safety audit results can have even great ramifications and can result in the loss of operating licenses for:
- Flight schools
- Aviation maintenance organizations
It’s no wonder safety officers and safety teams can be “slightly” tense before audits. There’s a lot at stake. Here’s are some 101 level tips for preparing and passing aviation safety audits.
Be a Documentation Stickler from the Beginning
Mainly this means making sure that you have thorough, thoughtful, well classified, and easy to access:
And so on. Any type of documentation that can be associated with the SMS program, especially documents that show levels of actual performance, should be included.
It’s why many organizations have a company-specific SMS manual or reputable aviation SMS software – the latter of which makes a good impression on auditors as they are more suspicious of home-grown aviation SMS programs. Having thorough documentation is the main resource for audit preparation because it allows you to comprehensively focus an SMS program around the SMS Four Pillars.
Review and Update Documentation (i.e. SMS Manual)
Ideally, you have been on top of documentation from day one, and you can start your audit preparation with this step. Assuming that you much of your documentation in one place, start by reviewing it and make sure that
Documentation is fully up to date with current practices.
This is because one of the most common findings for an audit is that documentation and actual practice do not line up. Documentation and practice should be as close to in sync as possible.
Be especially thorough in areas that involve training, such as procedures, duties, and responsibilities.
- Ensure that policies are compliant with most up to date civil aviation authority requirements
- Procedures should be backed up by documented evidence that they function in practice as they do in documentation
- Review civil aviation authority’s current requirements for various duties and responsibilities in an SMS program
- Ensure that you have up to date documentation of employees’ training that complies with your civil aviation authority
Having a well-organized manual or system of documentation will expedite this process. For organizations whose documentation is disorganized, performing reviews and updates will prove to be especially challenging.
Up to Date Hazard Register and Issue Management
Hazard registers can make or break an SMS system. Professionally designed, aviation-hazard-tracking SMS databases are robust and well-organized systems that can handle a vast expanse of data.
And many other complex methods and tools for safety management. Moreover, developing such sophisticated tools, charts, graphs, etc., further demonstrate tangible evidence of the robustness of your SMS program in the eyes of the auditor. And let’s make no mistake,
the auditors' impression of your SMS program is very important.
If you have an SMS program that functions well, but on paper is disorganized or impossible to navigate, it will reflect worse than it actually is in the eyes of the auditor and the audit itself.
In addition to having an up to date, robust hazard register with sophisticated tools, make sure you have:
- Documented evidence of how issues are managed
- Updated status on all managed issues
Not making sure all managed issues have a closed or at least up to date status would be an inexcusable and major eyesore for any auditor.
Have SMS Documentation Ready
Think Christmas: have your documents ready to go in a package so neat you could put a bow on it.
Auditors are people too, with aspects of their job that they probably don’t look forward to. I am willing to bet walking into a disorganized mess of documentation, hazard register, and issue management is pretty high their list of dislikes.
Having all audit documentation ready to go starts the audit out on the right foot. It’s impressive and is a testament to how regulated the aviation safety program is.
Perform Internal Audit
Internal audits are great practice. They give an SMS program some idea of:
- How well the SMS program is performing
- How developed the SMS program is
- What it’s weak/strong points are
- Indications of what to expect from an actual audit
It’s a given that internal audits should use similar auditing criteria as the audit organization. For example, your internal audit might use an SMS audit checklist from the auditing organization. We have some examples at the bottom of this article.
What to Expect and How to Act
Well, first of all, don’t be surprised by audits. While performing the above steps regularly may seem tedious and tiresome, it will save you much time and energy on being surprised and stressed by an impending audit.
Make sure employees are aware of the audit date and know the “language” of their role as based on their responsibility in the SMS program. Not only will this help your audit, but it will give employees confidence by providing something to lean on should they interact with the auditor.
Or, if it’s your first audit or you don’t feel quite prepared: simply relax. Focus. Accomplish as much as possible until the date of the audit, but don’t rip your hair out.
Only give what is asked for. Offering too much either be irritating, confusing, contradictory and in some cases condemning – in other words, offering more than what is asked for doesn’t help your audit findings.
Different auditors will stress different concerns about an SMS program. No two auditor will have the exact same audit findings. Don’t be surprised therefore when your current audit findings look different from your last audit.
As stressful as they can be, it's important to remember that audits are beneficial. For one, they act as a valuable and objective reference point for assessing the health of your program. Thus, audits are a natural catalyst for improvement.
Moreover, they force safety managers/teams to “get their SMS act” together and rigorously stay on top of the aviation SMS program.
Airport Security (1973) image by Hunter Des Portes via Flickr