SMS Pro Aviation Safety Software Blog 4 Airlines & Airports

4 Pillars | What Safety Assurance Really Means in Aviation SMS

Posted by Tyler Britton on May 3, 2023 5:59:00 AM

Definition of Aviation SMS Safety Assurance

4 Pillars | What Safety Assurance Really Means in Aviation SMS

In November 2006, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) mandated that all member states implement formal aviation safety management systems (SMS). To facilitate compliance, ICAO guided regulatory authorities and aviation service providers with the publication of the Safety Management Manual (SMM), now in the fourth edition as of 2019.

An aviation SMS implementation covers considerable territory, including, but not limited to:

  • Safety accountabilities;
  • Management responsibilities;
  • Hazard identification and risk analysis;
  • Risk management processes; and
  • Employee SMS training.

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To add structure to ICAO's SMS guidance, the SMM is broken down into four major components, which have since been fondly referred to as the four SMS pillars. These SMS pillars are:

  • Safety policy;
  • Safety risk management;
  • Safety assurance; and
  • Safety promotion.

Related Articles on Four Pillars in Aviation SMS

Safety Assurance Third Among Four Pillars

Safety assurance is the third component in the aviation SMS' four pillars. Long story short, safety assurance (SA) is defined by monitoring the aviation SMS' systems. Such monitoring comes in many important forms, some of which are rather obvious and some of which are often overlooked. From a layperson's perspective, safety assurance takes the form of routine auditing and employees submitting safety reports whenever an accident or incident occurs.

One outcome of safety assurance activities is to ensure the safety performance of established risk controls. Risk controls are created, analyzed, and managed in the safety risk management (SRM) component, which you can think of as the "design component." Over time, risk controls make become obsolete or inadequate through a process called “drift,” which can be deadly. Safety assurance continuously monitors operations and determines the need for new and/or modified risk controls.

Another obvious type of safety assurance monitoring is to monitor:

  • Safety data to identify substandard SMS performance;
  • Compliance;
  • Policies;
  • Procedures;
  • Efficacy of implemented risk management practices;
  • Signs of safety culture;
  • Safety performance of individual employees; and
  • That safety goals and objectives are being met.

Safety Performance Monitoring Workflow for Aviation SMS

Safety Assurance Tied Closely to Safety Risk Management

Safety assurance (SA) works closely with safety risk management (SRM) – you might even consider the two ends of the same string. A simplistic tactic used to understand SRM and SA interactions is to consider SRM as the "system design." As the system design is placed into operations, SA activities provide management the necessary assurance that the "system design" is performing as designed. The system design is reviewed whenever

  • substandard safety performance is detected; or
  • potential system improvements are identified.

Safety assurance will strongly inform management of the type of activities that result from implemented safety policy and safety promotion activities.

Related Aviation SMS Safety Assurance Articles

The Most Neglected of Aviation SMS 4 Pillars?

Unfortunately, the term “box checking in SMS” probably comes from the safety assurance component. Box checking refers to aviation SMS implementations that mostly exist on paper – i.e., SMS requirements' checks boxes (such as on paper forms) so that it looks like there is an implemented SMS, but in the real environment none exists or the documented risk management practices are merely for show.

While aviation SMS implementations that are a complete farce may be reasonably rare, box checking is a very real problem in many SMS implementations. Even in SMS implementations that feature reasonable risk management, safety policy, and safety promotion components, the safety assurance component may be very undervalued and subsequently, under-utilized.

This is because fulfilling regular safety performance monitoring and review:

  • Requires documented data that can be accessed and analyzed by affected management teams;
  • Is time consuming;
  • Requires in-depth analysis based on available data;
  • Can be challenging and abstruse (i.e., where to start?); and
  • Requires taking an honest look at the results of past efforts – results which may be poor.

The result is that safety management will check off that they “reviewed” a policy, risk control, etc. when in actuality, all they did was perform a cursory, obligatory review. The obvious symptom that such a practice is happening will manifest itself as audit findings on parts of the SMS that were documented as being “reviewed.”

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Safety Assurance Activities

Ground crew at airport

The following aviation safety activities should be regularly and thoroughly performed in aviation SMS implementations in order to satisfy the safety assurance component:

  • Safety audits and inspections;
  • Gap analysis;
  • Creation of meaningful safety data (such as Key Performance Indicators);
  • Employee safety performance monitoring;
  • Aviation safety training;
  • Documentation review (of policies and procedures);
  • Goals and objectives monitoring;
  • Implementation plan reviews;
  • Vendor review;
  • Vehicle, aircraft, and other equipment reviews;
  • Review of hazard analysis methods; and
  • Other miscellaneous monitoring activities.

All safety assurance activities should fulfill the goal of understanding:

  • Where the program has been;
  • Where the program is; and
  • What is keeping the program from being in the desired state?

Related Aviation SMS Safety Assurance Articles

Moving Safety Assurance beyond Safety

Quality management is also the bridge between SMS and quality management system activities. I have advocated for a quality-safety management system (QSMS) in the past and will do so again here.

Quality management activities can infringe upon safety management’s ability to fulfill the safety assurance requirements, such as when upper management places emphasis on [quality] performance rather than preparedness. This becomes a challenge for all aviation service providers as they seek to balance their energies between profit-driving activities and activities that may not immediately, or noticeably add to the bottom line, such as safety initiatives.

Uniting quality and safety assurance activities into one, interactive system makes a lot of business and safety sense for several reasons:

  • Fewer aviation policies and procedures to manage (and more resources to be used elsewhere);
  • Better safety culture results in increased quality efficiency and safety performance;
  • Better safety oversight capabilities;
  • Better return on investment for company; and
  • Better ability to monitor business performance.

Ways to integrate SMS and QMS include:

  • Ensure upper management support;
  • Redesign policies and procedures to incorporate SMS and QMS
  • Create goals that are both QMS and SMS;
  • Combine quality and safety resources; and
  • Implement safety monitoring that is equally quality performance and safety performance.

Related Articles on Integrating Aviation Safety and Quality

Final Thought: Ramification of Safety Assurance

Safety assurance findings will strongly influence the other three SMS components,

  • safety risk management;
  • safety policy; and
  • safety promotion.

This is based on the larger picture of the interchangeability of each of the aviation SMS components:

  • Facilitate safety in the environment by reporting and managing safety issues (safety risk management);
  • Monitor risk management activities; (safety assurance);
  • Create/update policies and procedures (safety policy) based on risk management performance;
  • Promote policy and other needed safety elements in order to improve risk management performance.

All four SMS components are required in an SMS. There is a purpose for each pillar, and if any pillar is neglected, the SMS will fail. Safety assurance activities are designed to detect these aviation SMS failures. As these failures are detected, management adjusts the "SMS recipe" to correct the identified deficiency or mitigate future risks.

SRM and SA pillars receive the most attention in an implemented SMS. When safety concerns are identified by SA activities, there is a natural tendency to review the system design in the SRM pillar. Not all substandard safety performance stems from the system design. Substandard safety performance is often the result of poor safety policy design or a lack of convincing safety promotion activities. The point is that safety management systems are "systems" and should be reviewed holistically and not in isolation.

Monitoring SMS activities become less burdensome when management chooses the appropriate SMS data management strategy. Too often, safety management teams attempt to manage and monitor SMS activities using a plethora of disconnected data management tools. An integrated SMS data management approach is better.

To learn how a modern SMS database can provide extra assurance to management, review these short demo videos. SMS auditors love it when they do not have to hunt for information that demonstrates SMS compliance. SMS auditors lose patience and become frustrated as they wait for safety managers to search their various systems for data that "may" exist. An SMS database keeps all your SMS eggs in one basket.

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Since 2007, SMS Pro has been working with aviation service providers around the world on their SMS data management needs. Are you looking for a better way to manage SMS data? Sign up for a live demo.

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Last updated May 2023.

Topics: 3-Safety Assurance, Quality-Safety 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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