Aviation Safety Audits: Here to Stay
Another aviation safety audit for your safety management system (SMS)...
The safety auditors are coming with established guidelines from:
At this point, many aviation safety managers' collars start to feel a little tight around the neck. The first thing is: relax. There will be many more audits to come, and if you don’t perform well, you will at least receive valuable feedback.
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Beyond that, in our experience, safety managers who routinely perform extremely well on safety audits spend much time preparing for audits in very specific ways.
The two general themes in preparation are:
- Making dynamic SMS elements as current as possible; and
- Having document reports ready and presentable.
Some of the below points will necessarily require some preparations well ahead of time, but many are things that safety managers can do with little-advanced notice and some hard work.
1- Review and Update Documentation
In an ideal world, you have been meticulously documenting all aspects of the SMS from the beginning. Of course, one of the great things about audits is that they give aviation SMS the impetus to do some “house cleaning” and make sure documentation is fully updated with current practices.
Safety managers who routinely perform well on audits take the time to thoroughly organize SMS documentation into one convenient location and make sure it is fully updated with current practices.
Considering that aviation SMS is a bureaucratic ensemble of risk management processes, documentation is of critical importance. It’s also no surprise one of the most common findings during aviation SMS audits is that documentation and actual risk management processes are not in sync. Before audits, successful safety managers ensure that documentation and reality reflect each other as closely as possible.
In particular, such safety managers pay careful attention:
- To review the SMS' civil aviation authority’s (CAA) current requirements for various duties and responsibilities of SMS;
- That aviation safety policies maintain up-to-date SMS compliance with CAA requirements;
- To ensure that procedures are backed up by documented evidence that they reflect actual, real-life practices; and
- To make sure that they have updated documentation of SMS training that complies with CAA requirements.
Having a well-organized system of documentation ahead of time greatly expedites the auditing process. For organizations whose documentation is disorganized, performing reviews and updating SMS activities can greatly hinder their ability to score well on SMS audits.
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2 - Prepare Documentation in a Presentable Report(s)
In addition to making sure all documentation is updated and organized, safety managers who perform well on SMS audits make sure to follow up by having their documentation in presentable forms, such as user-friendly, well-formatted reports.
Should auditors ask for unavailable documentation, safety managers should be open and frank about what they have or don’t have – they don't make excuses – as SMS audits have become regular affairs.
An audit-seasoned safety manager will be able to have many of the following at his/her fingertips for quick, easy, presentable access:
- A hazard register report;
- Documentation reported safety issues and thoroughly monitored CPAs;
- Visual representations of safety performance and related charts;
- Comprehensive data on key performance indicators (KPIs);
- Records of completed or in-progress safety assessments;
- Internal SMS audit records;
- Documentation of safety promotional efforts, such as safety surveys and safety newsletters;
- Records of SMS safety training; and
- An SMS implementation plan.
The reason successful safety managers go through such pains to prepare this information is that it is impressive to auditors, and it makes their jobs much easier. Moreover, having reports ready and organized is also an indication of how well the SMS performs, i.e., that they "have it together", and that their SMS is best-in-class.
3 - Update Hazard Register and Issue Management
Professionally designed, aviation-hazard-tracking SMS databases is robust, organized systems that can handle a vast amount of data. Hazard registers can make or break an aviation SMS – they are only as useful as the tools that safety managers design around them.
Safety managers who perform well on audits make regular use of such databases to document and visualize reports for:
- Risk analysis charts;
- Proactive hazard identification and safety risk analysis activities;
- Trending charts; and
- Data mining.
In addition to making risk management processes much more efficient, developing such sophisticated tools around a hazard register is a further demonstration and tangible evidence that gives auditors the impression that the manager’s risk management processes are robust and predictive. And let’s make no mistake, an auditors' impression of your SMS is very important.
Moreover, any late or overdue items, such as overdue corrective actions or safety issues, will not reflect well on the SMS. Safety managers who perform well on audits always make sure hazard safety items are current.
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4 - Train Employees Based on Their Duties & Responsibilities
Safety managers who perform well on audits take time to understand current SMS requirements from both ICAO and their respective CAA in regard to safety duties and responsibilities. Ideally, initial SMS training would be designed around these standards in clear, documentable ways.
Regardless, before important safety audits safety managers will make sure to re-apprise employees of their specific duties and responsibilities as covered in their role in the organization’s policies and procedures, and inform them of the upcoming audit.
Of course, sometimes the standards and SMS guidance from civil aviation authorities are abysmal or non-existent. In these cases, you might look at:
- ICAO's SMS Guidance;
- Transport Canada's SMS Guidance;
- Australia's Civil Aviation Authority Guidance; and
- FAA's SMS Guidance.
Chances are that the auditor may talk with employees, and if they don’t know how to inform the auditor of their specific role in the SMS, it will not reflect well on the program. Safety managers who perform well on audits know this and make sure employees are prepared and understand how to interface with SMS auditors.
Final Thought: Useful Things to Point Out
There are a couple of things that greatly aid all safety managers in audits:
- Following an audit checklist will be extremely helpful – see below for free audit checklist downloads;
- After auditors have made findings, don’t waste any time - put the findings through your risk management process straight away;
- Remember that different auditors will deliver different results, as SMS auditors will each have their own particular “pet peeves.”
Last updated June 2023.