What is Safety Transparency in Safety Management Systems
One of the most frequent questions we receive is "how a program should set up roles, responsibilities, and access to safety data?"
Transparency is how you define access to such data based on employee-roles in your safety program.
Here are the important elements of transparency:
- High transparency is generally considered to provide a high degree of access to all employees;
- Low transparency is generally considered to provide a high degree of access only to select roles in the company;
- Transparency and aviation safety culture have a high degree of correlation; and
- Once employees can see all safety issues (transparency), it’s impossible to take that privilege away without enraging employees.
In simpler terms, transparency comes down to “who know what” and “how much they know.” Transparent safety cultures:
- Give all employees high latitudes of access to data;
- Do not restrict relevant information except in rare cases; and
- Employees have access to managerial safety issues.
Non-transparent safety cultures:
- Restrict employee access to most safety issues;
- May only provide a very general summary of reported safety issues; and
- Have very strong top-down control of safety communication/information.
While non-transparent cultures look rather undesirable, “non-transparent” does not always mean “worse.”
The Truth About Transparency in Aviation SMS Programs
The hard truth that people don’t seem to want to say out loud is that transparency doesn’t always make sense. In many organizations, employees shouldn’t see all reported safety issues in their SMS program. Why?
- Because transparency has the potential to do more harm than good to risk management programs.
Consider a company with a safety culture in which employees:
- Practice passive aggressive retaliation;
- View “reporting safety issues” as “ratting-out” or betraying; and
- Encourage each other to “deal with things under the table.”
As you may be all too aware, these scenarios are not uncommon. In such a program, keeping reported safety data public will only result in:
- Retaliation; and/or
- Lack of reporting.
In such organizations, transparency will need to be cultivated slowly. Over time, such companies can work towards having a high degree of transparency, but will first need to develop Norms and hazard reporting cultures. Unfortunately, some organizations also use these discussion points as excuses for not developing a transparent safety culture, when in fact they would rather not give up “control” of information.
In general, we see high degrees of transparency in:
- Brand new SMS programs with employees that have strong relationships; and
- Implemented and fairly compliant SMS programs that can focus on developing safety culture.
How Do Most Organizations Treat Transparency
Most organizations have low levels of transparency. They do not allow employees to see submitted safety issue reports that other employees submitted. Most organizations will periodically release desensitized data with limited information about reports.
Is this bad? As discussed, of course not. This is simply a strategy most organizations use to build their SMS program. The logic is this:
- Get employees comfortable with the SMS program first;
- Build a hazard reporting culture; and
- Gradually provide more and more access to reported safety information.
Not everyone will agree with the above approach, citing that the best time to start introducing a transparent safety culture is now – there will never be ideal conditions for transparency. It’s up to each organization to assess which approach is the most effective.
Most importantly, organizations need to be honest about whether they are practicing undue control, or whether it really is in the best interest of employees to have more data access.
Why Employees Shouldn’t See All Reported Safety Issues
Employees shouldn’t see all safety reports when an organization has other, more pressing priorities. If your are wondering, should employees see all safety reports, here are some examples when the answer would be NO in SMS programs:
- High degree of non-compliance that needs to be addressed immediately;
- High employee and/or management turnover;
- Behind on closing safety reports;
- Behind on aviation SMS implementation; and
- Poor safety culture, Norms, etc.
Such examples demonstrate situations where there are more important and immediate needs for the SMS program than developing a more transparent safety policy.
Final Thought: When Employees Should See All Issues
Long story short, organizations should develop a more transparent safety policy and allow employees to see all safety issues when:
- Management has the time and resources to maintain positive transparency;
- Such transparency can be safety maintained; and
- Usually, towards the beginning or end of implementation.
Letting all employees see most safety issues backfires when management is not able to take the Safety Promotion steps to keep such transparency positive. In such events, the safety program can grind to a halt as employees stop reporting issues and/or turn against each other.
A fantastic way to justify your transparency policy is to create a manifesto. You might have line items for things like "We are dedicated to having high degree of transparency," or, "We are dedicated to keeping your safety concerns private and safe." Here is a manifesto that will be extremely valuable to do this: