Definition of Safety Culture in Aviation Risk Management
Safety culture in aviation SMS is usually defined as being the safety attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and values of employees in an organization. Unfortunately, such a high-level, conceptual understanding of what safety culture is does not help address safety culture in your organization.
A better way to approach the question, what is safety culture, is to break it into multiple definitions based on how it works in safety management.
- Has 5 distinct components (discussed in next section);
- Is usually established and distributed in top-down manner;
- Is expressed in safety behavior of employees; and
- Is reflected in safety performance.
The role of safety performance in aviation safety is as follows:
- SMS documents all safety elements;
- Safety management uses SMS to improve safety culture;
- Safety culture results in certain positive/negative safety outcomes; and
- Based on these outcomes, management will make changes to SMS (closes the feedback loop).
To look at what safety culture is more specifically, let's look at the components of safety culture.
Components of Safety Culture in Risk Management
One of the primary reasons general definitions to answer what is safety culture don't work well is because they lump together distinct safety culture elements. This can easily lead to simplification and confusion over how to influence safety culture.
Safety culture can be broken down into the following 5 components:
- Hazard reporting;
- Safety awareness;
- Safety communication;
- Willingness; and
- Management-employee relationships.
Hazard reporting culture is how well employees are reporting safety concerns and incidents. Mature safety cultures will demonstrate consistent and high numbers of hazard reports.
Safety awareness is how current employees are of past and recent safety concerns, and how mindful they are of the connection between their actions, the environment, and safety.
Safety communication is simply how quickly your organization can acquire data and apprise employees of changes, as well as the quality of interaction between employees and management.
Willingness involves how readily all employees involve themselves in the safety program, and how open they are to receiving change.
Finally, management-employee relationships concern silos, corporate culture, and corporate cronyism, which kill safety culture.
Signs of Mature Safety Culture
Here are 10 signs of a high-functioning safety culture:
- Evidence for upper management support, including accountable executive "ownership" of the program;
- SMS program has required financial investment;
- SMS program has defined and communicated types of valued safety behavior;
- Strong hazard reporting culture;
- Lack of repeat safety incidents;
- Low number of high-risk issues;
- Employees comply with procedure with boss isn't watching;
- Safety issues and corrective actions are completed on time;
- High number of safety checklists that are regularly used; and
- Low employee turnover rate in organization.
An effective safety culture will result in good safety performance.
Signs of Poor Safety Culture
You can easily identify signs of bad safety culture by identifying the opposite of each item in the list of signs of mature safety culture. Beyond this, some other sings of poor safety culture are:
- Appointed safety executive does not take responsibility for the safety program;
- Active resistance to the safety program;
- Silos in departments or among management;
- Retaliation from managers or other employees against person who reported safety issue;
- Tendency for "blame" in safety events;
- Lack of front-line employee involvement in safety changes;
- Low number of hazard reports (commiserate with size of organization); and
- High employee turnover rate due to conflict with other employees;
- Employees don't know safety manager's name; and
- Safety managers are a department head (strong potential conflict of interest).
It's very important that safety management actively tries to seek out and ameliorate such problems in the SMS program, as they can be incredibly destructive.
Steps for Improving Safety Culture in Aviation SMS
Improving aviation safety culture is probably the most commonly failed undertaking of safety mangers. Why do so many safety manager fail to successfully improve safety culture? Some reasons are:
- Don't correctly identify what needs to be improved;
- Inaccurate understanding of what safety culture is;
- Lack of knowledge for techniques to use to improve safety culture; and
- Poor understanding of what specifically safety culture is.
Here is an effective set of steps (in order) for improving safety culture;
- Ensure you understand what safety culture is, including its components, multiple definitions, etc.;
- Correctly identify areas of poor safety culture in your organization;
- Understand what positive safety culture looks like so you know what to work towards;
- Target improving hazard reporting culture;
- Target improve safety awareness;
- Audit safety communication techniques, tools, and quality; and
- Work on breaking down silos and/or corporate culture.
Of course, these steps may take years to fully address. To some extent, safety culture is always a work in progress.
Here are some resources to help you improve safety performance in your SMS program:
Published December 2017. Last updated April 2019.