Questions Come First in Safety Management
The unfortunate fact is that many managers in aviation safety management systems (SMS) don’t start asking serious questions until their SMS is either “stuck” or in trouble.
Questions and answers need to come at the beginning of SMS implementation. Your answers to fundamental questions about safety management will be a guideline through the entire process of your SMS' implementation.
I can’t help but observe that aviation oversight agencies are constantly reinforcing the idea that there is one right answer to every situation. But consider: thousands of organizations adopt safety programs, and each of them has unique safety needs. Each organization should therefore also have unique answers to questions about SMS. An SMS must support the organization's safety goals and objectives; otherwise, you will end up with a paper SMS that may pass a few SMS audits but will provide no long-lasting risk mitigation value.
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The better approach is to switch our understanding and focus on “right questions” rather than “right answers.” What is the right question? The right question helps you:
- Clarify why your SMS implementation currently operates the way it does;
- Realize where it is going; and
- Understand your SMS more intimately.
Can you answer these 5 questions about your safety management system?
1 – What 5 Behaviors Does Your Safety Management System Value Most?
Behavior-based safety management systems are universally and extremely successful at practicing risk management. Knowing which behaviors your safety program values is critical for the following:
- Employees can understand what behavior is expected of them (i.e. performance reviews);
- Employees can understand what behavior will/won’t be rewarded;
- Employees and management both agree as to employee protections against self-reporting errors and mistakes;
- Management can influence employees’ behaviors to meet specific safety needs; and
- Management can more easily develop the kind of mature safety culture that is most relevant to program risks.
Safety behavior basically comes down to developing a safety culture.
Creating a safety behavior manifesto, and distributing it to employees, will force you to answer which behavior your SMS values most.
2 – What Risk Attitude Characterizes Your Risk Management Operations?
Risk attitude is a concept that is only just beginning to be discussed. But it’s extremely important.
Risk attitude is basically the approach your safety management/employees take to dealing with risk. The two primary benefits of it are:
- Reduce resistance to change by implementing strategies (training, procedures, etc.) that “make sense” to the prevailing risk attitude in your company; and
- Understand why all employees behave the way they do.
Four primary risk attitudes in aviation SMS range from adaptable (behavior-focused) to predictive (data focused). While ideally, safety programs would have a balance of all 4 attitudes, the practical fact is that all organizations will lean more towards one than the others.
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3 – How Will You Improve Risk Awareness in Your SMS?
I’m surprised at how often this question is met with tightly closed mouths and averted eyes. It is one of the most basic questions, and yet most of the time it either receives no answer or a very generic answer. Answers to this question should be specific and include some steps in a large plan.
Bad answers for how to improve safety awareness are things like:
- With safety training;
- With safety newsletters; or
- By improving safety culture.
These answers don’t communicate or signify anything concrete. The point is to be specific. A good answer looks like this:
- First, we will require that all employees receive safety management induction training;
- Then we will conduct safety surveys to see get a baseline assessment of our safety culture. We will follow up with the same survey 3 times per year to track progress;
- We will have yearly training on hazard identification strategies and risk mitigation strategies that include end-of-course practical assessments; and
- We will hold monthly training meetings to serve as an honest and open forum about safety issues.
The main takeaway here is the answer should be specific and include a plan.
4 – What’s the Difference between Hazards, Risks, and Consequences?
If there is a single question or concept that is the most misunderstood in aviation safety management, it’s definitely what these three seemingly straightforward definitions mean. Quick, how do you define:
- risk; and
Knowing the correct definition and being able to communicate the difference between these elements becomes especially important because, basically, it’s the safety management team's job to know the difference. Common misunderstandings that safety managers and operational department heads hold about these definitions arise in three primary areas:
- Thinks hazards and risks are the same, or the definition is reversed;
- Confuses a risk with a consequence; and
- Has little idea how risks, hazards, and consequences are related to the flow of a safety event.
If you don’t know the difference, I highly suggest familiarizing yourself thoroughly regarding the difference between hazards, risks, and consequences.
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5 – What Will You Do to Maintain a Non-Punitive SMS?
This is definitely a question that is usually met with blank faces.
Basically, it’s easier to revert to a passive-aggressive punitive-based SMS. It often looks like:
- Pressure from department heads to deal with problems “under the table” or outside of the prescribed and documented risk management process;
- An employee is ostracized by fellow coworkers for reporting a sensitive issue;
- Negative feedback or defensive behavior against employees for their safety suggestions; and
- Any kind of subtle behavior from management that hints at “blaming” or "shaming."
Your aviation SMS should have very clear processes to ward against punitive behaviors from management or employees.
Final Thoughts on Aviation SMS
Each of the above five questions is designed to
- inspire thought, and
- prepare safety managers for the inevitable.
Most of these questions revolve around safety culture and the effectiveness of your risk management processes. If you are a new safety manager, or your SMS implementation is still maturing, you should prepare yourself.
These questions are responses to common scenarios that we see across the aviation industry. There are regions around the world where SMS is not seen as a benefit, but as an extra regulatory hurdle that operators must leap. Resistance to SMS implementations is more pronounced at the top of the org chart than inline-level operations.
How does one spot these companies that fail to take SMS seriously? This becomes very easy when you are an SMS inspector. As you make your rounds, ask employees questions about:
- What is an SMS?
- What is your role in the SMS?
- Who benefits from the SMS?
- Have you participated in SMS training within the past year or 18 months?
For SMS implementations with substandard performance, the inspector will be met largely with blank stares. How does an outsider point out observations of toxic safety cultures without upsetting those operators who are earnestly implementing an SMS?
Without a doubt, some operators need some "tough love" to get them on board with implementing an SMS that aligns with ICAO's intentions. Too often, we witness inconsistencies between regulatory audit findings and the results from standards bodies, such as IATA and IS-BAO. These inconsistencies must be dealt with as an industry in order to maintain faith in the process and to ensure that ALL operators are expected to conform to the same standards.
Last updated August 2023.