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6 Types of Safety Culture in Aviation Safety Management System

Posted by Tyler Britton on Jun 14, 2023 5:45:00 AM

Relationship between Aviation Safety Management Systems and Safety Culture

6 Types of Safety Culture in Aviation Safety Management System

I have recently seen a great rise in the interest and emphasis placed on safety culture in aviation safety management systems (SMS).

Until the last number of years, safety culture has been treated like an appendage or “bonus” to having a performant, successful aviation SMS implementation. Now, however, I see safety culture starting to pop up all over the place.

By definition, aviation safety culture is described as reflecting the real commitment to safety, or how people act when no one is watching. With this understanding, the aviation SMS provides the means to achieve safety and the safety culture is the commitment to achieve safety.

This understanding is not good enough. Commitment is just one type of a larger safety culture.

Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles

Risk management programs are slowly waking up to the fact that in the relationship between aviation SMS and safety culture:

  • The SMS provides the structure, map, and guideline for safety success;
  • Safety culture is the means of realizing safety success; and
  • Together they are the competency to achieve safety.

I liken this relationship to going out and spending a week in the woods. The SMS is your tent, backpack, tools, map, compass, etc. The safety culture is your attitude, behavior, ability to use your tools, etc. You need both things to survive.

The benefit of truly understanding this relationship is that you can greatly improve safety and communicate this relationship to other SMS stakeholders. The bad news is that influencing safety culture is harder and requires more work than simply “checking boxes” to be compliant. Here are 6 types of safety culture to focus on in your aviation SMS.

Take Safety Culture

1 – Commitment as Aviation Safety Culture

Commitment in safety culture is:

  • Management’s willingness to do what is necessary to improve safety;
  • Individual employees (including management) personal concern for the SMS; and
  • What kind of investment has been made to the SMS.

In short, Commitment can be summed up by: how invested every level of your company is in the SMS implementation. The investment comes in many forms:

  • Upper management's visible and continued support of the aviation SMS;
  • Dedication to following prescribed behaviors, even when nobody is watching;
  • Financial investment in supporting the SMS;
  • Attitude of management towards quality performance vs safety preparedness; and
  • All individuals' level of positive outlook towards the SMS implementation.

Safety cultures that feature strong Commitment universally have better safety Behavior and safety Awareness.

Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles

2 – Safety Behavior in SMS

I put the greatest stock in good safety Behavior as being a sign of great safety culture. This is because above anything else, how you act will have the greatest bearing on the SMS performance.

Someone might hate their SMS and resent the regulatory requirement. Yet as long as they follow simple safety behavioral rules (policies, procedures, hazard reporting, etc.), operational safety will be much more effective with them than someone who loves the SMS but can’t consistently follow through in behavior.

Behavior comes down to this:

  • What kinds of safety Behavior does management value?
  • How do employees behave in regard to their SMS' policies and procedures?
  • Are safety behavior and safety relationships more important than personal differences?
  • Are employees complying with desired safety behavior when the boss isn’t watching?

Answers to these questions require careful consideration from your safety team, but they provide valuable insight into the behavior that characterizes your safety culture.

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3 – Justness

Justness is a strong reference to Just Culture, which is an organizational policy of:

  • Non-punitive reporting policy;
  • An aviation SMS that meets the safety goals and objectives of the organization (and doesn’t just adhere to compliance requirements);
  • Dealing with safety issues and employees fairly (i.e., no favoritism, no corporate culture, etc.);
  • Top-down created incentives for participating in safety improvements; and
  • Willingness to keep everyone as involved as possible as the system changes.

Justness is an extremely important aspect of safety culture in that it is largely a result of documented management attitudes about safety performance.

Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles

4 – Information Access and Attitude

Information in a safety culture is similar to Justness, except that the concept of "Information" looks specifically at how management values and treats organizational information. Information is directly related to the Safety Policy component of the Four Pillars of SMS.

Information practices that create positive safety culture are:

  • Transparency in regard to data-access – management grants access to most or all relevant safety information;
  • Ease of access – management makes accessing safety information as easy as possible; and
  • Information reliability – management documents and can easily retrieve all relevant safety information.

This type of safety culture is a hot topic recently, as growing concerns over privacy and secrecy have plagued governments and multinational corporations. It is always recommended that aviation SMS are as transparent, accessible, and detailed as possible.

Safety information is most effective when it is shared and should never be considered "proprietary information" used to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Based on experience, we've seen a shifting trend in safety circles. What we have seen in the past dozen years is a shift from wanting to share safety information across the industry to a more conservative approach. Information is being shared across the industry, but there is less sharing of safety information across company lines in the past. Whether this observation is actually true or merely an impression I've been witnessing requires additional study.

Download Safety Culture Checklists

5 – Awareness of SMS Hazards and Risks

Awareness in aviation safety culture is simply what it sounds like. How aware of safety issues are employees, management, and executives?

Specifically, it this looks like:

  • Awareness of most dangerous hazards and risks;
  • Attitude about unknown hazards and risk (actively looking out for unknown hazards and preparing for new safety situations?); and
  • Desire to broaden understanding of SMS and risk management processes.

These seem like terribly conceptual points. A great way to apply them practically in your aviation SMS is through:

  • Hazard awareness competency quizzes;
  • Safety surveys that focus on hazard identification and increased awareness; and
  • End of training course assessments.

This gives you quantifiable data about safety awareness performance.

Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles

6 – Adaptability to Changes and Events

Adaptability in aviation SMS implementations increasingly becomes important the more mature the safety culture and the SMS implementation are.

Adaptability is:

  • The ability of employees to adequately respond/react to the needs of a safety situation;
  • Pro-activeness towards mitigating and avoiding risks before they occur; and
  • How quickly employees can incorporate new data, procedures, and information into their safety behavior.

Adaptability is as much a response to an event as it is an ability to quickly be prepared for possible safety events.

Download aviation safety culture checklist

Final Thoughts on Aviation SMS' Safety Culture Types

Without a doubt, a safety culture is an important element of every successful SMS. Safety culture is an intangible element that may be difficult to measure in traditional safety programs. However, an SMS requires the documentation of safety activities to demonstrate:

  • Continuous improvement of the SMS; and
  • Regular SMS performance monitoring.

Of the four SMS components, two are critical for developing a performing safety culture:

  • Safety policy; and
  • Safety promotion.

For operators who wish to improve their safety cultures, these are the first two major areas of the SMS to focus upon. Not every operator is interested in a performant SMS. A sizable number of aviation service providers are not interested in a bonafide SMS but are content to have a "paper SMS" that merely satisfies regulatory requirements.

If you are the organization's safety manager, and you are interested in improving your safety culture, a first step is to discuss this concept with the accountable executive. For every SMS implementation, the accountable executive is responsible for ensuring the SMS is properly implemented and performing as designed. The accountable executive is "accountable."

A good heart-to-heart talk with senior management is important for safety managers wishing to influence the existing safety culture. This becomes critically important when safety managers' goals conflict with organizational goals. Safety goals must align with organizational goals. Otherwise, your efforts will result in polishing an apple that management really doesn't care about. If management doesn't care about the aviation SMS implementation, then the next step is to determine why they are apathetic. Their logic may be very reasonable. Does this surprise you?

Is management sincerely on board with the SMS implementation? If so, and your safety culture is suffering, focus on your:

  • Safety policy (does it resonate with employees? Is it genuine?);
  • Non-punitive reporting policy (Are employees afforded sufficient protection against self-reporting?); and
  • Safety promotion activities (promote, promote, promote. Don't stop promoting!).

Download Monthly Safety Promotion Checklist

Last updated June 2023.

Topics: 3-Safety Assurance

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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