Why Being a Safety Manager Is Tough
Being an aviation safety officer is an often unrewarding and challenging job. In many ways, an aviation safety manager is like a professional plate spinner balancing delicate interests and priorities, such as:
- Gaining management support for safety programs
- Overcoming resistance to change from management and general workforce
- Upholding transparency and Just Culture
- Maintaining objectivity
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In all respects, there are pitfalls everywhere for an aviation safety manager - he/she walks a thin line. There are many interests and stakeholders at play, including:
- Employee interests in rewarding, interesting careers;
- Management interest to accomplish a mission and achieve profit goals;
- Vendor/contractor interests to earn a profit;
- Regulatory agencies' interest in "system" safety;
- Customer interests to receive the most value for their investment;
- Safety teams' sincere interest and dedication in promoting safety; and
- Standards bodies' interests (IS-BAO, IATA, Flight Safety Foundation, etc.).
Safety Managers Walking Various Tightropes
Aviation safety managers struggle to juggle stakeholders' often competing interests. They are weighing their relationships' goals and the tactics the safety manager must adopt when dealing with these stakeholders.
The approaches they often consider are the differences between being:
- Calm and assertive vs aggressive
- Careful vs unnecessary
- Collaborative vs authoritative
- Tactful vs bold
But what are the greatest pitfalls that stretch a safety manager's ability to walk the fine line? Several SMS officers weighed in.
Below are the 3 greatest challenges these safety managers came up with.
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Implementing Organizational Changes
Almost without question, this issue was mentioned first.
Changes are happening constantly in the operating and legal environments. Regulations and policies change on a weekly basis. Risk management strategies become necessary to adapt to those changes. But change is sticky. Nobody likes change, especially when they are comfortable in their
- job position; or
- interactions with others.
As one safety manager put it, "Everybody seems to find something to complain about."
And as many of you well know, implementing new aviation safety policies and procedures is a magic button for turning on employees' ability to find fault and resist. Safety cultures are strengthened or weakened based on how management approaches change management.
Because change tends to feel:
- Like more rules
- Like a power game between
- management and the general workforce
- regulators and management
- Totally unnecessary
There are tactful safety managers who are good at overcoming this challenge. What they do well is helping employees and management see the necessity of change - doing that is tricky and another topic entirely.
Another subtle safety manager trick is to slowly acclimate employees to the proposed change, sort of like "humanely" boiling a live lobster. Start out with cold water and heat it slowly. The lobster at first has no complaints and soon becomes "compliant" and slowly surrenders to his predicament without much of a struggle.
I'm an SMS database expert and not a "lobster expert." But from experience, I personally need time to accept an idea instead of having change dumped into my lap on a Monday morning.
Maintaining Good Relationships
Few people like being the bad guy. And as one safety officer said, "I just try to stay on everybody's good side."
To add on to this, staying on everybody's good side doesn't simply mean not making anybody mad, it also means upholding a sense of collaboration.
While the goal should be to write, implement and enforce the non-punitive safety policy, a safety officer is the harbinger of SMS changes and, when necessary, punitive action. As such he/she can easily become a judge's gavel or the police officer's badge in the eyes of fellow employees.
On the flip side, if he/she is viewed as too "soft," employees will lose faith in
- the safety manager's authority
- the credibility of the aviation SMS
- management trust
Both being too "soft" and being the judges' gavel can ruin meaningful relationships with fellow employees and/or management that leads to a sense of collaboration. Safety culture, safety culture, safety culture!
Trusting relationships between management and line employees remains critical to developing a healthy safety culture. Without a healthy safety culture, you will never have a functioning SMS. You will have a paper SMS. Your company will be bearing all the labor pains, but never be able to take the baby home and enjoy the benefits.
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Meetings. Legislation. Rules and procedures. More meetings. Changes.
Navigating through the week of a safety officer can feel like an exercise in bumping into red tape.
Integrated safety and quality management systems are highly structured, and their tight-knit design constantly changes
- as a result of accidents;
- to proactively prevent accidents; and
- in response to changing technology.
It’s a double-edged sword because changes in SMS are impacted from both internal factors – such as the equipment and environment at a particular airline or airport – as well as external factors – such as government agencies with regulatory and political initiatives.
And all changes must all go through the mill before they can be implemented, which is the process of:
- Compliance analysis
- Regulation meetings
- Hazard identification and analysis
- Implementation plan
- Follow up meetings
At the best of times, the bureaucracy can be kind of a pain, and a little bit tiring. At worst it is a major frustration and a roadblock that leaves safety officers feeling no more than a rubber stamp.
Unfortunately, it seems to be part of the job. However, it is a consolation that the very highly structured nature of SMS that creates bureaucracy also directly contributes to the wonderful aviation safety results we have seen in the last 15 years.
Why the Challenges Are Worth It
For all of the tightrope walking aviation safety managers do to fill their role, there are certain perks that make the job very rewarding.
- Good work/life balance
- Very good pay
- Much room to rise in position
- Well represented by the Union
I think we can expect that maintaining relationships and implementing changes will increasingly become easier as SMS becomes more ubiquitous and effective in the aviation industry.
Do you have any challenges that you find to be significant that weren't mentioned?
See what tasks other safety officers are doing as part of their job duties. These checklists allow you to compare what you do to those of other safety professionals:
- Monthly; or
Published January 2016. Last updated June 2020.