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3 Things Preventing Effective Proactive Risk Management in Aviation SMS

Posted by Tyler Britton on Apr 19, 2019 6:09:00 AM

What Is Proactive Risk Management?

Proactive risk management in aviation SMS

I see many misnomers about what proactive risk management is when talking in context of an aviation safety management system (SMS).

Often one sees the proactive risk management concept clumped together with risk management in general, as if they are one in the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not only in reference to maturing aviation SMS, proactive risk management is a specific level of risk management achievement in day to day operations.

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Misconceptions of Proactive Risk Management Affects SMS Performance

When you confuse what proactive risk management is, you will inevitably do things that adversely affect your organization's ability to practice proactive risk management. For example, I commonly see it associated with things like:

  • Total capacity for managing risk;
  • Crisis management; and
  • Predictive risk management.

Proactively managing risk is none of these things, nor are they similar. Risk management happens on a spectrum for managing risks anywhere from precursors to damage control. Proactive risk management are activities specifically tied to activities that happen in the early stages of a potential risk event, such as:

  • Precursors to risk – unlike predictive risk management, precursors have a direct and strong correlation to risks;
  • Identifying threats as they emerge; and
  • Constant evaluation of potential new threats and needed risk controls.

Of course, being able to achieve this level of risk management takes time, training, and motivation. Here are 3 things you may be doing to hurt your ability to manage risk proactively.

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1 – Don’t Understand What a Risk Is

Aviation professionals get hazards, risk, and impacts mixed up all the time.

To have any shot of developing proactive hazard identification and risk management processes in your aviation SMS, you need to know what risk is. You also need to know the difference between hazards, risks, and impacts. If you don’t, you can’t possibly know what to be proactive with.

Here’s what risk is: the point in a situation at which safety control is lost, and requires immediate reaction. With a risk, immediate action can either avoid the risk or mitigate the impacts.

Commonly however, safety professionals confuse risk with:

  • Hazards, which are things that are inherently not dangerous but have the potential to be dangerous; and
  • Impacts or risk consequences, which are damages done because of the events following the risk.

For example, a mountain is a hazard. It’s not dangerous in and of itself, but it can be dangerous in the right situation. Flying too close to the mountain is a risk, because a pilot will have to take immediate action to avoid serious impacts. Depending on the pilots actions:

  • There may be no impacts/risk consequences;
  • An impact may be that evasive actions cause injuries or plane damage; or
  • A serious impact could be that the plane may crash into the mountain.

It’s critical that when you are creating risk scenarios or conducting risk analysis, that you identify the “risk” as the point at which safety was lost but that the situation could still have been saved.

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2 – Not Accounting for All Major Types of Risk

This is something I am guilty of in my own articles. It’s easy to only focus on strictly SMS items like

  • hazards;
  • safety culture;
  • risk controls;
  • risk management strategies; etc.

Of course, these are the core items in an aviation SMS program, but they are not the whole picture.

Unfortunately for safety professionals, proactive risk management has to account for risk beyond safety management system related items. There are other external factors that can have serious bearing on risk management, like:

  • Politics of the company, oversight agency, or nation;
  • Company reputation;
  • Emerging risks (i.e., because of technological advances); and
  • Workplace quality, such as employee compensation, benefits, etc.

These items and more have direct bearing on your ability to develop proactive risk management practices. When employee working conditions are poor, it can be extremely hard for safety management teams to inspire the kind of safety behavior needed for effective hazard identification and proactive risk management activities.

Safety managers need to stay abreast of emerging technologies and impose controls before they become an issue. A good example of this would be the Federal Aviation Administration, who recognized the drone problem fairly early on and rapidly implemented controls to get a handle on the situation before any accidents.

The primary point here is that if you only focus on being proactive within your aviation SMS, you expose yourself to many other external risks. In this scenario, you will quickly find yourself practicing only reactive risk management activities.

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3 – Focusing Too Much on Safety Data

I actively enjoy reviewing statistics and raw numerical data. Numbers are concrete, reliable, and easy to represent in interesting ways. Aviation leading indicator metrics are the finest examples of proactively managing risk.

However, proactive management is only half data. Safety data is only as useful as helping safety management:

  • Create incentives for safety behavior;
  • Communicate with employees in the way that employees need;
  • Make decisions about changes to the safety program;
  • Address the specific needs and underlying causes; and
  • Make the right decisions to influence safety culture.

Remember, that risk management is not just the responsibility of safety management teams. Risk management also involves;

  • Developing hazard identification and risk awareness;
  • Mature safety culture; and
  • Desirable safety behavior.

So as useful as safety data is, proactively managing risk means using that data to influence the more “qualifiable” aspects of your SMS implementation, such as behavior and attitude.

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Final Thought: Don’t Try Proactive Management Too Early

Risk management that is proactive takes time to develop. To do it, you need 3 things:

  • Historical precedent to establish patterns, data, and experience with employees;
  • Well-developed risk management tools, such as Bowtie analysis, aviation leading indicators, etc.; and
  • Baseline risk management operators in place, such as checklists, risk controls, etc.

Trying to operate proactively too early has great potential to be a waste of your time. More importantly, it can distract you from the more pressing needs of your organization. Be aware and work towards proactive risk management, and it will develop naturally with patience, hard work and a healthy safety culture.


Proactively managing risk requires solid workflows. Here are free, industry tested risk management workflow charts and procedural workflows. Are they an improvement over your current workflows?

Download the workflow charts:

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Published October 2016. Last updated April 2019.

Topics: 2-Safety Risk Management

Site content provided by Northwest Data Solutions is meant for informational purposes only. Opinions presented here are not provided by any civil aviation authority or standards body.

 

 

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