Understanding What Aviation Safety Culture Is
“Safety culture” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in aviation SMS programs as a vague reference to different aspects of safety.
Understanding the meaning of aviation safety culture is less a practice in philosophy as it is recognition of what it looks like in actual practice for:
- Safety management’s responsibility;
- Employees’ responsibilities;
- Management-employee relationships; and
- The structure of an aviation SMS program.
Understanding what healthy and unhealthy safety culture looks like, and then incorporating healthy aspects into your own SMS program is certainly easier said than done. But if you don’t have a firm grasp on what safety culture means for your organization, chances are that your safety culture is not very well developed.
To create a strong culture of safety, aviation safety management must encourage the following attributes in their safety program.
1 – Build Safety Responsibility from the Bottom Up
Building from the bottom up is a serious aviation safety management commitment to recognizing that hazard mitigation happens with front line employees. By recognizing, we mean building communication structures that build confidence through:
- Hazard identification ability; and
- Safety responsibility.
The last bullet point, safety responsibility, is an aspect of safety culture that often goes unaddressed, or unnoticed. One of the primary problems we have seen in most aviation SMS programs is that organizations who struggle with corporate culture, management tyranny, or excessive top-down structure kill a sense of safety responsibility in front line employees.
It creates a mindset in workers that management will deal with it, or I’m not qualified to make X decision, or I’ll defer to the “expert” instead of taking action. In short: apathy. Most people like at least some sense of responsibility because responsibility and the sense that “this matters” often go hand in hand. Healthy aviation safety cultures actively remind employees of the fact that they are the primarily line of defense between safety hazards and safety problems.
2 – Open Dialogue about Human Error
When employees make mistakes, the normal response in many organizations is to not discuss it openly. The reasons seem rather clear: the most obvious being the idea of making the people involved uncomfortable by “singling them out” is contrary to a non-punitive safety culture.
But in fact the opposite is true.
Practicing an open dialogue about safety issues, without judgment, makes several things about errors very clear:
- Valuable insights into the SMS program’s vulnerabilities;
- A key safety learning opportunity; and
- A natural part of any program.
An old manager used to tell me that the mistakes aren’t a problem so long as you don’t repeat them, and having open dialogues about human error stresses the same points.
If anything, not openly discussing safety issues in fear of making employees uncomfortable actually has some rather insidious side effects. For one, it communicates to employees that mistakes are unacceptable. More importantly, it implies that management may be hiding safety information. Which is another way of saying “lack of transparency.”
3 – Practice of Healthy Unease
I sometimes tout that past success is not a future guarantee. Yet no matter how complicated or hazardous an activity is, most people don’t feel unsafe when they have effectively performed a task many times. Successful repetition has way of:
- Encouraging employees to let their guard down;
- Terminate a mindset of “continuous learning”;
- Make employees complacent about their task (in terms of safety); and
- Inspire overconfidence about safety concerns.
The main question is: how do healthy safety cultures tackle this natural human reaction to repetition? Organizations can’t force employees to be hyper vigilant at all times. The most practical approach to instilling “healthy unease” into actual practice is to have an SMS policy of “trust but double check.”
Such a prescription doesn’t try and force-feed a feeling of healthy unease so much as a practice of healthy unease concerning aviation safety hazards.
4 – Clear about Teamwork and Blamelessness
Teamwork is an allusive word in aviation safety management systems, as it can means many different things. But aviation SMS’s core value is risk management, and teamwork in terms of risk management means that the failure of one person is also the failure of the whole.
When problems do occur, the natural reaction is to:
- Start pointing fingers;
- Become defensive; and
- Use words like “him,” “her,” or “they.”
Some of you may be thinking that I am contradicting myself by saying not to “point fingers” when earlier I advocated for “singling out.” But this is precisely the problem many organizations struggle to grasp: singling out and blame are not the same thing. Singling out is simply pointing out the specific actions and mindset that lead to a problem, whereas blame is assigning “fault.”
Healthy aviation safety cultures are able to speak openly about the relationship between specific individual’s actions (singling out) and the environment that permitted such actions to lead to a problem. The focus on the environment as leading to the problem is ultimately how organizations accept failure as a whole rather than assigning fault, and reinforce the idea that the organization is a team.
5 – Employees are Expected to Question and Act
Healthy aviation safety cultures universally share two things in common when it comes to the behavior of employees:
- Employees are involved through assertiveness; and
- Employees are empowered to take action when things don’t seem right.
In many ways, empowerment is a natural outcome of cultivating safety responsibility in employees. Part of that responsibility is to ask questions and stop when something seems “wrong.”
A necessary part of having empowered employees is that aviation safety management systems have a zero tolerance policy towards intimidating behaviors. Intimidating behavior can come in many forms from both management and front line employees – but such behavior needs to be heavily discouraged.
Final Thought: Safety Tools to Cultivate Safety Culture
Much of a safety culture will be a natural result of how companies react to and treat various safety issues, accidents, and problems. Beyond this, there are myriad aviation risk management tools in which organizations can help instill certain values in management and employees:
- Safety training, both informal and formal;
- Regular safety promotion;
- Aviation safety surveys; and
- Aviation safety management system software;
These are just some of the places organizations can help streamline methods of promoting a positive safety culture.