SMS Pro Aviation Safety Software Blog 4 Airlines & Airports

The 13th Aviation SMS Human Factor -- Adopting Risk Attitude

Posted by Tyler Britton on Jul 28, 2016 6:00:00 AM

Risk Attitude is the Informal 13th Human Factor

aviation-sms-human-factors-thirteenth.pngWhen analyzing the types of actions and behavior to address during implementation, you have to consider the risk management attitudes of individuals, groups (e.g., departments), managers, and the organization as a whole.

If your organization’s employees tend to respond better to extremely thorough procedures, then that should be a strong motivating factor in the structure of your aviation SMS program. If they respond better to quality reactive risk management training commonly found in Phase 2 of your SMS program, then focus your efforts there. And so on. 

The point is that knowing where your employees/organization lean on the risk management attitude spectrum will be critical for how you evaluate Human Factor related decisions.

This is because using Human Factors and identifying risk attitudes is a part of the same process – this is the whole reason I am informally referring to risk attitude as the 13th Human Factor. To keep in line with The Dirty Dozen reference, we might call risk attitude the 13th Warrior.

Purpose of Aviation SMS Human Factors

I hardly need repeat this, but experience and Human Factors data tells us that they are central to most safety-related incidents and accidents. They can be central as unwitting contributors or catalysts for incidents, or they can be the barrier that mitigates the potential severity of the incident.

Human Factors were created with the idea that 12 types of human behaviors – known as The Dirty Dozen– can be associated with issues to quantify human motivations for behavior that is related to safety concerns. The central motif here is: aviation risk management through understanding.

When safety managers and front line employees can identify the reasons for their behavior, they are able to instigate formal (i.e., procedures) controls and informal (i.e. change behavior) controls over behavior. The Dirty Dozen were formulated to identify the 12 motivating factors that can be at the root of almost any type of behavior.

Yet over the course of my involvement with aviation safety management systems, both in terms of experience and academic research, I increasingly see the necessity of considering risk management attitude as the 13 Human Factor. Risk attitudes are a ubiquitous motivator in every decision that is made in an aviation safety program.

How to Use Human Factors in Aviation SMS Programs

Approaching aviation SMS programs through Human Factors is a fantastic way to start off on the right foot because it necessitates making decisions based on human employees rather than bureaucratic processes. While aviation SMS implementation must be processed and facilitated from the top down, improvement and changes but be formulated from the bottom up. Human Factors are a bottom up approach to SMS programs – build your program around behavior.

So what does this look like in actual practice? For one, instead of employing rigid policies and procedures in an attempt penalize or deter certain behavior (negative policies), use policies to address Human Factors in a way that promotes certain behaviors (positive policies) based on existing behavior.

To implement an SMS that promotes behavior (top-down process), you must first consider the type of behavior that needs promotion (bottom-up process). This approach to aviation risk management is a more sustainable, positive approach to safety culture Norms, and it promotes quality human interactions.

In short, positive safety culture tends to use Human Factors as areas to empower employees rather than a reason to treat them as a problem. It uses The Dirty Dozen as something to “work up” from, rather than “stay away” from.

Why Risk Attitude is Not a Part of the Dirty Dozen Canon

If you still feel dubious about risk attitude as an informal Human Factor, and are thinking that if risk attitude should be a Human Factor then it would be, let’s consider why it is not. First and foremost, there are several plausible reasons why such an important concept is not Human Factor canon:

  1. Because it is so ubiquitous, it can be hard to quantify single instances where: YES this incident is a direct result of poor risk attitude;
  2. Risk attitude is also closely related to the nebulous, under-addressed, and hard to quantify aviation safety culture;
  3. Risk attitudes are misunderstood as the way someone “feels," and are therefore uncontrollable; and
  4. Risk attitude consciousness simply is not a Norm in aviation SMS programs.

Concerning point number 3, risk attitudes are not just the way someone feels. Risk attitudes CAN be identified, described, and therefore CHOSEN. Risk attitude happens through:

All of these things can be influenced, promoted, and used to better understand your safety program and influence safety performance. It’s simply a matter of incorporating them into the bureaucratic processes of your aviation SMS program.  

Final Thought: Incorporating Risk Attitude Into Your Documentation

That being said, a more difficult question to answer is: How do I use risk attitude as a Human Factor in my safety program? The first step is to get a documentable grasp of your organization’s risk management attitudes through things like:

  • Safety surveys: which use yes and no, or multiple choice, risk attitude questions. This is a great method for garnering data about individuals’ risk attitudes, as well as the attitude of program as a whole; and
  • Informal Discussion: you can find out a lot about one’s risk management stance simply by talking to them and making notes afterward – while not as “objective” as a safety survey it is still another source to gather information.

After this, using risk attitude is simply a matter of specifically defining what risk attitude means for your company (just as each Human Factor has a definition) and associating risk attitude with an issue when it seems appropriate.


Identifying issues related to human factors is a beginning. Having tools to easily classify accidents and incidents according to related human factors offers your company the power take your aviation SMS program to the next level.

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