What Is Safety Culture in SMS
Safety culture is a word you see all over the place in aviation reference resources.
"Safety Culture" is used in different contexts and seemingly in very different ways.
Sometimes we say safety culture, and what we mean is hazard reporting culture. Sometimes we mean safety communication transparency. Sometimes we mean lack of safety culture.
Safety culture can mean many different things, so when we talk about how to build safety culture, what we are really talking about is:
- How to build hazard reporting culture;
- How to build safety awareness;
- How to build Just Culture (communication transparency); and
- How to build acceptance of SMS.
It’s important to always recognize the context of safety culture when you are making strategies for improving and building safety culture.
So instead of worrying about how to build safety culture in general, focus on building a particular piece (hazard reporting, awareness, etc.) of safety culture as a part of improving overall safety culture.
Why Is Safety Culture Crucial to Safety Performance
Before going further, we should establish why building safety culture is even worth your time.
Consider the fact that in aviation oversight guidance all around the globe, Safety Promotion gets significantly less attention that other aspects of SMS. For example, the FAA’s Advisory Circular 120-92B guidance on regulation only designates 10% of its guidance for Safety Promotion (the other 90% goes towards Safety Assurance, Safety Risk Management, and Safety Policy).
Should you really only spend 10% of your time promoting SMS and safety in your company? Absolutely not.
The reason is that safety culture translates directly to actual safety performance. Whereas having strong SA, policy, and SRM processes in place are good for compliance and are necessary for having an actual SMS, those aspects of SMS don’t correspond directly to safety performance. They correspond directly to compliance performance.
Building safety culture is a means of ensuring that employees are safety-minded enough to:
- Identify concerns;
- Report concerns;
- Mitigate concerns;
- Give feedback; and
- Involve themselves in the SMS.
What Are Signs of Effective Safety Culture
Knowing how to build safety culture involves knowing what you build towards. Signs of effective safety culture are:
- Upper management supports the safety program with proper resources and example;
- Proper financial investment has been made in in SMS tools;
- Employees exhibit dedication to prescribed safety behavior requirements;
- You have distributed information to company regarding which actions/behaviors are most valued;
- You have a strong non-punitive reporting policy, which is followed in actual practice;
- Employees are involved in change management process, such as by getting feedback and making changes in response to that feedback;
- Your hazard reporting process is easy to use, is accessible, and is actively used;
- You usually communicate with employees regarding latest safety concerns (so long as they are not sensitive concerns);
- Safety training includes end of course assessments; and
- Safety culture is regularly evaluated, such as with safety surveys.
Keep these bullet points in mind in the future and as we move forward in this article.
How to Build Hazard Reporting Culture
Building hazard reporting culture involves improving:
- The volume of reported issues; and
- Improving how early in the issue life cycle that the reporting occurs.
Reaching for this goal involves three important points:
- Employees recognize threats, hazards, etc.;
- Employees feel comfortable reporting safety issues; and
- Reporting safety issues is convenient in any given situation.
Given these three points, the way to build hazard reporting culture is:
- Training employees on hazard identification techniques;
- Creating, communicating, and repeatedly distributing your non-punitive reporting policy; and
- Having a top-notch hazard reporting process which includes many ways to report (email, offline, from cell phone, calling, on website, etc.).
Using safety surveys to gather feedback about how employees feel about hazard reporting is a good place to start.
How to Build Safety Awareness
Safety awareness is one of the most crucial aspects of safety culture. It involves:
- Being mindful of relationship between mindset, actions/behaviors, environment, and safety;
- Understanding historical safety concerns;
- Understanding trending safety concerns.
Conveniently, improving these aspects of your SMS are actually not terribly difficult:
- Make sure employees have access to information about historical issues, such as list of past issues including details;
- Make sure new concerns are communicated immediately to entire company;
- Do emergency drills to practice reactions to dangerous situations; and
- Of course, provide job-specific training so employees know the hazard and threats that are most relevant to their duties.
How to Build Just Culture (Communication Transparency)
Just Culture is by far the hardest safety culture attribute to build. For one, there is a lot about Just Culture that is out of safety management’s control:
- Existing corporate culture of executive management;
- Existing Norms and relationships of employees;
- Silos among management; and
- History of the SMS.
Especially in cases where there has been cronyism, management abuse of power, high turnover, and poor working relationships, establishing Just Culture can be downright impossible. But here are some tips:
- Carefully lay out a plan to, over time, slowly release more and more safety data to all employees;
- Fight hard to demonstrate that your safety program is not about cronyism, petty squabbles, and other poor Just Culture practices; and
- Put much energy into safety promotion, with newsletters, survey, meetings, and other forms of feedback.
Initially, be conservative and don’t allow much transparency in terms of employees’ being allowed to see what other employees are submitting. Over time, loosen up and let employees see desensitized information.
Then, you may or may not continue to loosen up and give employees full access to most reported issues’ data as the quality of aviation safety culture builds.
How to Build Acceptance of SMS
Acceptance of the SMS program has important implications in how willing people are to:
- Involve themselves in the SMS; and
- Accept changes to the SMS.
Feedback mechanisms are extremely important to this end. You need to communicate with employees and understand how they feel about the SMS. Gathering such data allows you to target your safety promotional efforts and make sure they are addressing undervalued aspects of your safety program.
Beyond this, some good tips to generate acceptance of your SMS program are:
- Involve employees as much as possible in change management;
- Make decisions based on employee feedback;
- Make sure employees know you are making changes based on their feedback;
- Communicate with employees often to keep them “in the loop”;
- Aviation safety managers should interface with employees so that there is a “face to the SMS”;
- Do safety surveys;
- Release safety newsletters and show how the SMS is working for employees.
See what the quality of your safety culture is with this free, 15 questions safety culture quiz:
Published February 2018. Last updated October 2019.