The Obvious Reasons
We are generally aware of the more straightforward indicators of unhealthy aviation safety management systems (SMS).
- Low safety reporting numbers
- Poor safety audit results
- High accident rates
There are several other data-supported indicators of course, but you get the idea. These are statistics that an aviation safety manager can look at and make a fairly quick assessment of how healthy an aviation safety culture is.
Related Articles on Aviation Safety Culture
- What Is Safety Culture in the Aviation Industry?
- How to Build Safety Culture in Aviation SMS
- How to Monitor Aviation SMS' Safety Culture Performance
I have found however that there are other, less tangible indicators of unhealthy safety cultures. In many ways, they are perhaps more valuable than more obvious indicators. This is because when present, they can precipitate shifts in the health of aviation SMS - in other words, they tend to be "proactive" indicators.
Aviation SMS are never static. Their health is always fluctuating and changing. Managers and employees come and go, and with them, the safety culture can change.
So while, on paper,
the reporting numbers may look good,
the last audit may have been successful, and
accident rates may be very low,
-- the unlikely indicators can point to the fact that the actual health of the SMS is much lower.
Here are 4 less tangible things that safety managers should look out for.
1 – Management Roadblocks Safety Budgets
We generally think of this as endemic to new SMS implementations. Management is not exactly on board yet and is unwilling to dish out the funds required for SMS resources, like
- SMS consultants;
- SMS database tools; or
- SMS training.
But as some of you know, this problem is experienced in well-established and very healthy SMS as well. The reasons are various, but here are a few that seem to come up:
- Change in management
One or several new managers replace old ones, and the new managers are reluctant or have little faith/experience in spending the more money on safety. Or a new safety manager replaces the old one, and management is not confident he/she will utilize the budget to full potential.
- SMS is performing very well
For those of you who haven’t experienced this problem, it doesn’t make sense at first glance.
But when an SMS is running well, some managers don’t see the continuing need to invest in additional SMS resources. The real culprit here is the failure for management to understand that safety cultures are not static, and require constant maintenance and improvements.
Related Articles on Aviation Safety Culture
- 5 Indicators of Reactive or Proactive Safety Culture in Your Aviation SMS
- How Top Management Kills Aviation Safety Culture - with Examples
- Aviation Safety Cultures Improved with Integrated Safety and Quality Management Systems
2 – Employees Don’t Know the Safety Manager Personally
Being acquainted with a safety manager is more than simply knowing his/her name and face. When employees are personally acquainted with their aviation safety officer, it means they actually speak to him/her, have an idea of their demeanor, and know what their concerns are.
An aviation safety officer is the face of the SMS as a whole. When employees aren’t personally acquainted with their safety officer, it’s an indication of several things:
- The safety officer isn’t getting personal feedback
- The barrier between management and employees
- The sense of disconnection from the motivations behind the SMS' policies
- Lack of direct involvement of employees in SMS maintenance and improvement
The takeaway here is that if employees are not or do not feel directly involved in the improvement of the SMS, the safety culture will never mature. Effective aviation SMS requires constant engagement from employees. Their main task is to monitor the systems and to report identified safety hazards or potential (or real) safety deficiencies. From an SMS perspective, employees are instrumental in monitoring the SMS performance of the systems' design.
System monitoring occurs in the SMS' Safety Assurance (SA) component. When employees are engaged in the SMS, they are monitoring the system and reporting safety concerns. When employees are not reporting, there are fewer opportunities for management to improve the "system design" that we see in the following image.
Reported safety issues prompt management to review the system design to determine the effectiveness of implemented risk controls. When necessary, as a result of the safety risk analysis, management may determine that additional risk controls are needed. Or they may also determine that an existing risk control requires modification. Before these risk controls can be modified or included in the system design, safety risk management (SRM) processes must:
- review affected systems;
- review previously identified hazards;
- determine whether any additional hazards will affect operations;
- review hazard related consequences;
- conduct safety risk analysis;
- assess risk; and
- evaluate risk controls.
Without engaged employees reporting safety concerns, management is left mostly with audit findings as their main "Data Acquisition" activity in the SA process.
Related Aviation Safety Risk Management (SRM) Articles
- 4 Elements of Safety Risk Management (SRM)
- Most Important Activities in Safety Risk Management (SRM)
- How to Implement SRM Process in Aviation SMS [With Free Checklist]
Symptoms of disengaged employees can be that
- SMS implementation initiatives will start to fall behind schedule;
- safety reporting numbers will not improve or continue to deteriorate;
- safety messages go unread; and
- stalwart resistance to change will creep up from employees.
A good way to quantify this would be through a safety survey. Among the survey's question bank ask employees a few questions regarding their level of relationship with the safety officer. While you are at it, sprinkle in a few questions about trust in management's commitment to the SMS. You can learn a lot about safety culture from safety surveys.
3 – Safety Managers Are Operational Department Head
Safety managers should not be an operation's department head (outside of a safety department of course). Pure and simple, it’s a conflict of interest.
There is a subtle pun here in “conflict of interest,” as it works in two ways.
- A safety officer may be more unwilling to report hazards from his/her department
This is the more salient of the two. It would look very bad for the SMS if the (non-safety) department that the safety manager was overseeing continually experienced issues with hazards/accidents. As a result, the safety officer would be much more likely to deal with issues “under the table.”
- Attention will be taken away from the aviation SMS
Aviation SMS requires more than full-time work. If a safety officer is inundated by work from another department, his interests will naturally be drawn away from the SMS.
That is, of course, a recipe for disaster.
4 – High Employee Turnover Rate
A high employee turnover rate has far-reaching, but subtle safety implications. When a workforce is constantly turning over new employees or has just recently gone through many employee changes, a safety officer should be wary.
The first concern is: why are employees leaving?
High turnover usually happens because of employee dissatisfaction. This discontentedness can arise due to many reasons, including:
- lack of opportunity,
- working conditions (too much work or too little),
- working culture, etc.
But one this is clear: safety cultures with unhappy workers are much less safe than happy workers.
Related Articles on Aviation Safety Culture
- How Your Corporate Culture Kills Your Aviation Safety Culture
- 20 Indicators What Good Aviation Safety Culture Looks Like [With Free Checklist]
- How to Change Toxic Safety Cultures in Aviation SMS
Another concern is the fact that with a constant stream of many new employees, their newness is a hazard in and of itself. They are:
- In a new environment
- Working in a different social dynamic
- With unfamiliar terrain and safety policies
- Dealing with the stress of work transitions
- And perhaps lack of veteran leadership
Stress, unfamiliarity, and ignorance are the primary hazards of new employees. The wrong combination of these three things among a group of employees is a recipe for accidents. High employee turnover is a delicate problem that rides a “thin line” in terms of safety.
Having very strong methods of safety promotion are very helpful in this regard.
I wanted to write this post to illuminate the fact that there is a creative way of assessing the health of an aviation SMS. Surely there are several more, less tangible ways of assessing the safety culture health than are listed here.
Finding more unique ways of assessing one’s safety culture is a nice tool to combat complacency in safety managers – and keep them “on their toes” so to speak.
Do you need a safety survey to test your safety culture? Here is a good one to get you started improving your safety culture.
Published June 2019. Last updated December 2021.