The Method of Talking about a Safety Management System
But as a good friend of mine who is a safety inspector told me – and this is true, “I don’t tell people what I do. I just tell people I’m a Civil Engineer because that’s
- no awkward silences,
- no fumbling around trying to explain it to people.”
For those safety managers who already work with aviation SMS on a daily basis and are familiar with its intricacies, it is a challenge to find the right words and descriptions for what you do to those who aren't familiar with it.
Furthermore, how should safety managers describe safety risk management to other employees and stakeholders of whom you must convince that SMS implementations have real, tangible benefits not only for the organization, but also for them?
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What Does Being a Safety Management Professional Really Mean?
Sure, your work involves “safety” and "reducing risk."
- You have procedures and standards that you follow.
- You identify hazards.
- You communicate with regulatory agencies, standards bodies, upper management and line-level employees.
- You facilitate risk mitigation associated with identified hazards.
- You create reports for upper management.
- You ensure required SMS documentation is both complete and current.
- You go to lots of meetings.
- And so on.
Safety management activities like these are valuable and informative to people in the aviation industry. Unfortunately for the average person - J Doe - they are too general, and moreover they aren't very exciting.
Finding the right words, phrases, and descriptions to illuminate aviation SMS in a way that is both enlightening and interesting is an extremely abstruse endeavor.
This is because safety management and aviation SMS itself is a nebulous topic, and the average J Doe has no clue what SMS is.
After hearing that my friend uses an "alter ego occupation," I concluded that it must be worthwhile to find a method to talk about aviation SMS that is:
- Comprehensive – the “main idea” of SMS;
- Specific – the main issues SMS addresses;
- 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 keeps everyone safe;
This is an important top-down order.
We start with a 32,000-foot perspective, the basic point of aviation SMS. Then we'll move through the details and arrive at what will ultimately interest your audience the most:
How SMS relates to themselves!
I especially stress the last point because if your audience can’t personally connect with what you are describing, the whole description will be lost on them.
Ultimately this method is a process of creating a story about your airline or airport's safety management system and how aviation SMS is not your traditional "safety program." In this post, we’ll move through the first two points in some detail and shed clarity on the best techniques.
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Communicating the “Main Idea” of Aviation SMS in One Sentence
It sounds easy at first glance. A Safety Inspector could say something like:
“Safety management offers a system that protects assets and helps keeps work environments safe.”
But that’s like a Project Manager describing their job as “managing projects."
- It doesn’t communicate much;
- It’s not very personal, and as stated earlier,
- It lacks interest.
What we need is a language that is both engaging and personal. If you are somewhat well acquainted with J Doe, this would be the perfect opportunity to:
- Describe your job through a general metaphor
- Make sure that metaphor directly relates to J Doe
Say, for example, an acquaintance of yours J Doe, a mechanic, inquires what you do at work. You know that you manage a system to keep people safe, but the main concern is how that fact translates to J Doe.
In other words, safety plus vehicles =?
Keeping our two previous bullet points in mind, here are some example responses:
- "Well at work, I’m the guy who tells everybody when and how to put their seatbelts on, checks the tire tread level, and makes sure all the blinkers are working before the car leaves the driveway.”
- “If my job were an engine, I’m the guy who keeps fixing leaks so oil doesn’t spill all over the road and CO2 doesn’t seep into to the car and make you fall asleep at the wheel.”
What both of these examples do well is that they:
- Communicate general ideas of aviation SMS, such as safety, systematic inspection, proactive maintenance, risk assessment, etc., without actually saying those words;
- Relate directly to something the listener probably has an interest/connection with, and are none the less still general enough that most people will probably "get it;"
- Are more interesting than a stock phrase, i.e. "safety manager;" and
- Are natural segues into discussing things in more specific detail.
This might seem silly, but considering how often the question “what do you do?” pops up, it would be a great idea to spend some time and think of a couple of sure-fire responses to satisfy the question from a 32,000-foot perspective.
So when the “what do you do” question does come up, you actually have something interesting to say.
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Being Specific about What Safety Management Systems Entail
You’ve already given an overview metaphor for what a safety management system is. You’ve intrigued J Doe, and he wants to know a little more about what aviation safety and risk management entails.
This is the tricky part. Being specific about aviation safety management is, to use a cliché, pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There are probably hundreds of things to be specific about mitigation strategies and statistical analysis – you could choose just about anything. Therefore, to choose two or three specifics feels almost like a random exercise.
Which makes it very easy to simply fall back on “stock words.” This is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
So continuing in the vein of storytelling, here’s the method: choose a few examples that pop up regularly that:
- Excite J. Doe’s imagination
- Stimulates his/her sense of
- Danger and/or
Case in point: years ago I was flying in a remote Alaskan village and the plane was delayed because of a flock of geese was holding the runway hostage. The passenger next to me explained that if one of the geese ended up going through the jet’s engine, it could bring the whole plane down.
This situation may be commonplace for you. But at the time for me, it was a danger I would never have thought of. I thought it humorously ironic that such a small bird could bring down an aircraft. It made me think about unexpected dangers.
Most people know next to nothing about all of the little dangers that safety professionals deal with every day. Pick two or three hazards you have dealt with in your aviation SMS that you think J Doe would have never thought of, and, if you have the chance, relate one of your examples to an interesting fact.
I might say something like:
- I make sure we have an emergency response plan in case geese bring down an aircraft." or
- I make sure the pilot has had enough time off so that he/she doesn’t make mistakes because 50% of aviation accidents are due to pilot error.
But you are the one dealing with your aviation SMS and various hazards every day. Undoubtedly, you have examples that are far superior to these quick examples listed above.
Being able to tell J Doe what you do as a safety manager or safety management professional takes forethought and a little spark of creativity.
So take a few moments and reflect on your experiences with your SMS.
- What are some unique hazards and risks in your workplace?
- What is a good metaphor for how you approach your company's aviation SMS?
- What are the best examples of hazards you have dealt with that J Doe has probably never thought of?
These answers to these questions will be the basis for your "what do you do?" story.
Compare your aviation risk management procedures with other operators. Studies have shown repeatedly that aviation safety management principles enhance safety at airlines and airports.
Published November 2015. Last updated July 2019.