What Is Risk Analysis in Aviation SMS?
Unless you are new to aviation safety management systems (SMS), safety professionals recognize that the objective of aviation SMS is to:
- Proactively manage safety using documented risk management processes;
- Identify potential operational safety hazards;
- Evaluate risk;
- Implement control measures that mitigate identified risk; and
- Continuously improve operational processes.
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Risk Analysis Central to Effective Aviation SMS Implementations
Risk Analysis is the core of an aviation SMS' risk management and safety assurance processes. In short, it is the core element.
Risk analysis is an activity whereby safety management qualifies a safety concern. In other words, risk analysis determines whether a safety concern warrants the implementation of additional risk controls, including up to the cessation of operations until risk becomes tolerable.
In the safety risk management process, risk analysis:
- Arises from the hazard identification element; and
- Informs the system's risk assessment activity (make sure you understand the difference between analysis and assessment!).
In the safety assurance process, risk analysis:
- Arises from the data acquisition process (i.e. hazard reports, audit findings); and
- Informs safety performance monitoring and assessment activities.
Correct Way to Perform Risk Analysis in Aviation SMS
There is no “right way” to perform risk analysis in aviation safety management systems. There are many different methods and tools used to evaluate and understand safety concerns. It’s not so important to understand how to perform a risk analysis, as to develop your specific process for risk analysis. Your adopted risk analysis process will provide a consistent and repeatable process to address not only safety concerns that affect safe aviation operations but other types of concerns, including:
- Environmental; and
Managers around the world have quickly realized that the risk management processes implemented in the aviation SMS are equally effective for dealing with many day-to-day issues. These managers believe that there is no sense in re-creating the wheel, so to speak. Along the same line of reasoning, aviation service providers are extending their SMS' data management capabilities to include issues that one would not normally associate strictly with "safety."
That being said, all risk analysis activities should be performed with certain, loose guidelines to maximize the safety qualification process. Here are the 5 rules for risk analysis in aviation SMS programs that you can use as a guidepost when performing risk analysis.
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1 – Know Goals of Risk Analysis Based on Activity
This is by far the most important of the rules for risk analysis in aviation SMS. Risk analysis is a two-sided coin and will be repeatedly used for two different activities in the overall risk management process:
- Safety risk management (system design); and
- Safety assurance (system monitoring to ensure the design remains effective).
The purpose, as well as subsequent outcomes, of risk analysis activities depends on which process you are performing in the risk management life-cycle.
In the safety risk management process, the purpose of the risk analysis is primarily an activity of discovery, such as to:
- Establish connections between operational activities, hazard occurrence, and risk;
- Understand risk-related exposure;
- Determine the scope of the risk and how it affects organizational stakeholders; and
- Document all hazard-risk-related information.
In the safety assurance process, the purpose of risk analysis is to qualify a safety incident, in terms of understanding:
- What the primary concerns are with the safety incident;
- Does the organization have existing risk controls to mitigate such events;
- The flow of the safety incident’s events (sequence of events);
- How the safety incident unfolded during each sequence– i.e., by what mechanisms it happened;
- Why the safety incident unfolded as it did;
- Who has responsibility for managing the underlying hazard;
- Are other organizations or stakeholders affected by this event; and
- Were any of the implemented risk controls defective?
Understanding the general goals of risk analysis is required to establish specific objectives and desired outcomes for risk analysis activities.
2 – Know Objectives of Risk Analysis
Objectives of risk analysis are very specific, and they arise from its goals.
During the safety risk management process, the objectives of risk analysis are to:
- Identify risks that are likely to arise from hazardous conditions (i.e., a hazard occurrence);
- Determine responsibility and accountability for managing associated risk;
- Determine the scope of the risk and how it affects operations;
- Identify both internal and external interfaces that either contribute to the risk or are instrumental in managing the identified risk;
- Identify the presence of existing risk controls;
- Identify the effectiveness of existing risk controls;
- Identify the need for new risk controls; and
- Establish basis and justification for hazard risk assessment – i.e., is a hazard adequately controlled?
Fulfilling these objectives will ensure that the risks that are being analyzed are adequately accounted for and documented.
During the safety assurance process, the goals are to:
- Maintain operational safety or return to safe operations;
- Identify root causes;
- Identify hazard mechanisms;
- Identify primary hazard;
- Determine whether external organizations are affected and if so, contact them;
- Conduct logical classifications for future trend analysis activities;
- Understand Human Factor’s influence on events; and
- Assert the context of current safety concerns within the larger framework of organizational safety trends.
Organizing these elements will paint a vivid picture of why/what/how a safety event occurred.
We should not overlook the importance of documenting these risk management activities. Risk management activities tend to generate considerable amounts of data that are not meant to be stored solely in spreadsheets. The most successful SMS implementations adopt aviation SMS databases early in the SMS implementation process to save time and also store safety data for future predictive risk management activities. An SMS database amplifies the efforts of the safety team.
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3 – Ensure That All Needed Data Has Been Acquired
Ensuring that all needed data has been acquired is a hard rule that, if not adhered to, will result in repeated cases of faulty analysis. The incorrect analysis leads to:
- Poor understanding of why/what/how a safety event occurred;
- Wrong basis for making safety decisions;
- Exposure to repeat safety incidents;
- Exposing employees and customers to unnecessary risk; and
- Poor performance on aviation safety audits.
Ensuring that all needed data has been acquired is a three-step process:
- Document all data, such as in list format;
- Ask many pointed questions about the safety concern;
- Ensure that there is relevant data to answer all relevant questions.
If a question has no corresponding data that can answer it, then more data may need to be collected.
4 – Establish Context: Don’t Analyze in Isolation
One of the more overlooked components of risk analysis is putting the data in context. What this means is that, in every part of your risk analysis process, you are aware of how analysis findings fit in with the larger safety trends.
Remember, risk analysis is about establishing the qualitative elements of safety concerns. Understanding safety concerns out of context is like feeling the fabric without seeing the overall design.
Take an example created by the FAA:
- An airline analyzes a recent unstable approach and finds that the unstable approach was due to exceeding flap and landing gear speeds on approach;
- IN ISOLATION: it would be logical to conclude that pilot error was the cause; but
- IN CONTEXT: the analysis would find that unstable approach type of issues was extremely common in the organization and at the particular local airport and was caused by flights being vectored close and high.
In situation two, the logical decision would be retraining and counseling pilots. This would be an erroneous decision that may upset pilots and hurt safety culture, all because the incident analysis was isolated out of context. In situation three, the situation could easily be resolved by managing flight vectors with air traffic control (less time, less money, less change needed).
Analyzing in context involves consistently consulting relevant data during the analysis process as the safety team evaluates all credible hazards and threats.
Related Aviation Risk Management Articles
- What Is the Process of Risk Management in Aviation SMS
- What Is Difference between Hazard and Risk in Aviation SMS
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5 – Have Established Methods for Risk Analysis
Using the same methods is a process of:
- Choosing one or several risk analysis methodologies;
- Using them during every risk analysis activity; and
- Fine-tuning them to meet your specific process.
Inconsistent use of risk analysis methods is
- begging for mistakes,
- misuse of the method, and
- lack of customization to adapt the methodologies to your organization's culture.
There are several good risk analysis methods to choose from, and most are easily customized. If you have considerable time, you may conduct a Bowtie analysis or even create fishbone diagrams. By far, the most popular risk analysis method seen by SMS Pro clients is the 5 Whys. Here is a list of the more common (and some uncommon) risk analysis methodologies:
- Historical analysis: good for putting current safety concern in context;
- Exposure analysis: good for identifying the relationship between resources, mitigation, and exposure;
- SMS Shortfall Analysis: good for understanding where specifically an SMS program failed during safety incident;
- Event Trees: good for establishing flow of decision making during events;
- Fishbone diagrams: great root cause analysis tool;
- 5 Whys analysis: good for establishing a relationship between each event in the entire incident; and
- Bowtie analysis: good for understanding the “big picture,” from the flow of safety events to root causes to consequences.
Final Thoughts on Risk Analysis in Aviation SMS
Each service provider must develop safety risk analysis and assessment procedures that provide a consistent and systematic approach for dealing with incoming safety issues, regardless of whether the reported issue is reactive or proactive in nature. These defined procedures will include what your organization deems as "acceptable" or "unacceptable" safety risks and who has the authority to accept the identified risk.
The world is always changing. We cannot stop change. If you developed your risk management processes ten years ago, you cannot remain confident that these processes continue to be the best suited for your organization. Risk analysis processes must be reviewed and customized occasionally to ensure they remain relevant and suitable for your organization's operating environment.
It is not uncommon for aviation service providers to adopt more sophisticated risk management techniques as their SMS matures and their SMS data management capabilities improve.
If you believe that your SMS risk management processes are unwieldy, it is best to address these shortcomings earlier, rather than wait.
If you wait two or three years to modify your risk management processes or acquire an SMS database that aligns with your organization's safety goals, you will not get those two or three years back. Two or three years' worth of safety data is not inconsequential when you are engaged in analyzing safety data for trends that could shed insight into potential safety risks that could contribute to the next major event.
A final word of caution. Before you make changes to your SMS risk management processes, you may need to get your civil aviation authority involved. Depending on your operation type and location, you and your CAA may be required to agree on proposed changes to your risk management methodologies.
If you are interested in a change, consider using SMS Pro. SMS Pro comes with user-friendly interfaces and tested risk management processes that are accepted around the world, regardless of whether you are operating under the FAA, EASA, or any other CAA jurisdiction.
To learn how your SMS can benefit from a best-in-class SMS database, please watch these short demo videos.
For more information and resources about great risk analysis techniques in aviation SMS programs:
Last updated in November 2023.