How Do You Talk about Aviation Safety Risk Management
Aviation safety managers have jobs that others may find unrewarding, or difficult for them to witness results. The safety manager may spend years performing routine "safety manager stuff," while others may wonder: "just what do you do around here?"
Managing safety is similar to managing security. The job is often a thankless one. Safety managers don't get the daily slap on the back or hear much rewarding praise. After all, when was the last time you told a safety manager: "Good work today, safety manager. We had no accidents today! Keep up the good work!"
Do you hear these words of praise? I doubt it. Yet when there are safety audit findings or an accident occurs, fingers naturally start pointing to the safety manager. "Where were you at, safety manager? Why haven't you been doing your job?"
Do you think others in your organization know what is your job, safety manager? What about your friends and family? What do you tell them? How do you explain what you do every day as a safety manager? Let me see...
Do you say, "Well, I analyze reported safety events and choose a green box, yellow box or red box to determine the risk, and then I tell managers that we are dealing with a green box event, or a red box event..." Is this what you tell them? Of course not!
Talking about safety can be tough, especially if your audience are laypersons and not conversant in aviation risk management lingo.
When talking to friends, family members and employees, aviation safety managers can use storytelling as an effective method for answering nebulous questions, such as:
- What is safety risk management?
- What do aviation safety professionals do?
- Why is aviation safety management important?
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Telling Memorable Stories about Aviation Safety
Having an informative but interesting answer to these questions is hard. Stock and often used phrases are ripe in the aviation industry, but for most people, and in this case your audience – J Doe – these phrases are essentially meaningless to any layperson.
Let's explore two points to effectively talk about risk management in a way that doesn't make you sound like an ICAO safety manual.
The storytelling method is:
- Comprehensive – the “main idea” of aviation safety management systems (SMS) and safety risk management;
- Specific – the main issues an aviation SMS is designed to address;
- Demonstrative – a common scenario that the average person can relate to;
- Contextual – why it matters to whom you are talking to; i.e. why SMS keep everyone safe;
The last bullets that we will explore in this post are the “punchline” for making your career or job duties personal for J Doe. They demonstrate a tangible, real-life example that he/she can digest. Moreover, they give context to why aviation SMS and safety matters. In other words, next time J Doe is in the airport or on a plane – what will he/she remember?
How Safety Managers Talk about Safety Risk Management
Giving specific, interesting details of common aviation hazards that are particular to your workplace can be an effective technique for explaining aviation risk management to laypersons from the 32,000-foot view.
John Doe may be starting to get what you do. But let’s land the plane and give him/her something to really chew on.
A specific situation where you:
- Saved what would have otherwise been a disaster
- Dealt a funny but nonetheless risky situation
- Oversaw a very intriguing safety dilemma/situation
You get the idea. Something that demonstrates how working safety risk management principles can be interesting, and what they specifically involve.
Of the four sentences in your "SMS story", this one is perhaps the easiest. You simply need to ask yourself:
“Of my time as a Safety Manager, what sticks out to me the most?”
Not the situation you think might be the most interesting, but the one that genuinely sticks out the most. Without a doubt it will inherently be:
- Intriguing; or
Most importantly it will be authentic – and there is no substitute for authenticity.
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Making Safety Risk Management Personal to the Listener
For some safety managers, this is the hard part. In the "who, what, when, where, why" spectrum of telling your friends and family about what you do, let us focus on the "why," which will therefore be very different from person to person.
Why for me is not why for you. We can conclude that why for you is not why for J Doe, right? Wrong.
Why for me is not why for you, nor any other safety manager because we work with aviation SMS every day - it's already personal for us.
But as we have discussed, our prototype J Doe knows very little about aviation safety risk management except what you just told him/her.
Concerning aviation safety risk management, J Doe is impressionable. That takes some of the pressure off.
But it also forces you to ask the hard question:
"Why does being a safety manager, and safety management activities, matter to J Doe?"
Your answer, naturally, will depend on your personal experience in the industry.
Whatever you come up with, here are three suggestions to include in your answer to drive home the point that safety management and your job as a safety professional matters to him/her:
- Effectively influence J Doe by making sure the sentence is directed at them. This would probably mean including the words "you" a couple of times.
A good example might start with, "So, the next time you are...."
- Give them a physical point of reference or action, such as in the plane, on the tarmac, walking through security, etc., that relates to your "Great example of safety risk management" from the previous section.
To continue the previous example, you might continue, "So the next time you are shaking the pilot's hand as you walk on the plane...."
- This is the easy part. Remind them that they can rest assured in their safety because you are doing your job.
To complete our example, "So the next time you are shaking the pilot's hand as you walk on the plane, you can sleep easy that someone like me has made sure that pilot has had enough coffee and sleep."
As I have said previously, I am sure that you can come up with a much better example than myself, but the point is clear - the last, punchline sentence needs to make things "stick" in your audience's mind.
What Is Your Safety Risk Management Story?
Being an aviation safety manager and overseeing an SMS can be an obscure, demanding, and complex profession. But talking about it doesn't have to be.
Creating a "story" about what your job as safety manager entails is an excellent communication tool. To be effective, make sure it is:
- Demonstrative; and
Having a prepared story is a great method to clarify what your career specifically means to you beyond the basic SMS principles.
At the very least, the next time you are at a dinner party and someone asks "what do you do?", you will have a compelling answer.
It would be great to hear your thoughts on the challenges of talking about being a safety manager and how you explain the principles of aviation SMS to your friends and family. Let us know what you think!
Do you have the proper tools to effectively manage AND document your safety risk management activities? If all you have to manage your SMS are paper and spreadsheets, then I guarantee that your SMS can be more efficient. An aviation SMS implementation is a long term project.
How do you manage years' worth of SMS data?
Is your SMS data management strategy sustainable?
How will you participate in predictive risk management activities using your spreadsheet?
An aviation SMS database is the preferred approach to manage all the SMS documentation requirements. You may save a few dollars in the early years using spreadsheets, but in the long run, they will end up costing more from:
- End user frustration;
- Damaged safety culture;
- Lack of employee participation;
- Risk management efficiencies;
- Lack of managerial transparency.
A low-cost, commercially available SMS database will help your organization take your SMS implementation to the next level - towards compliance with the ability to participate in predictive risk management activities. SMS Pro can help you appear more professional and help you reach regulatory compliance.
Posted September 2019. Last updated May 2020.