What Is Safety Culture Really?
"Safety culture" in aviation safety management systems (SMS) is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot and in many types of SMS conversations.
Yet “safety culture” is also a phrase that rarely receives a concise definition, and is often used to convey “a general sense of safety.”
This definition is not good enough. What does safety culture mean to you? Has your perception of safety culture changed within the past five years? Has your definition remained constant? Is there a "best-in-class" safety culture type?
We can’t assume that there is merely one type of safety culture in aviation safety programs. This should be self-evident based on the fact that different areas of the aviation industry – i.e., airport SMS and airline SMS, SMS in flight schools, etc. – have different needs and requirements for creating safe operations.
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Even within each aviation industry segment, safety needs will differ from organization to organization.
Therefore, safety culture will be treated differently to meet organizational needs.
Safety culture basically comes down to this: what does your organization rely on to improve safety? For example, organizations can stress safety culture as being:
- Rigorous adoption of and strong adherence to detailed SMS policies and procedures;
- High levels of preparedness (i.e. strong emphasis on SMS training) to recognize many; or
- Strong interpersonal relationships and focus on the Teamwork Human Factor.
Ideally an aviation SMS would focus on ALL of these things. The fact is that different SMS with different needs will stress different types of safety behavior (safety culture). Many variables influence safety culture, such as:
- Regional culture (how do employees view the employer-employee relationship?);
- Size of the organization (does it span multiple geographic regions with distinct subcultures?);
- Complexity of organization (simple, single industry segment types vs. multiple operation types, such as fixed-wing, rotor-wing, and maintenance within the same company);
- Historical exposure to major accidents (companies without major accidents may be more lackadaisical); and
- Operation type (military, VIP flight operations, charter, sightseeing, commercial).
That being said, one universal facet of safety culture that will not differ between organizations is safety culture in terms of a reporting culture. A reporting culture will always be an integral part of any program.
Why It’s Important to Define Aviation Safety Culture
If you are wondering why I spent so long discussing how there is no universal safety culture and that safety culture in every organization is different, only then to seemingly contradict myself by saying that reporting culture is universally a part of any safety culture, here’s why:
- Safety culture as hazard reporting culture is the universal exception, not the rule; and
- More importantly, it’s important to understand that for every organization, safety performance will rely on hazard reporting culture + unique organizational safety culture.
When you are looking at your hazard reporting culture, you should know what kind of safety culture (i.e. teamwork, preparedness, etc.) gives rise to your safety reporting culture. They are intimately entwined.
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Why This Performance Monitoring Chart Is Valuable
So when we look at the Top Hazard Reporters of All Time chart, its decision-making value is twofold:
- See whom the leaders and hazard reporting “stars” of your company; and
- Understand what type of safety behavior top reporters exhibit (i.e. preparedness) that contributes to a positive safety culture in your organization.
Both values give incentives in your SMS. For safety management teams, gaining insight into why your SMS performs the way it does – to put it bluntly – feels good. It also gives safety managers reason to reward specific employees for their top-level contributions to their aviation risk management program. Simply put, seeing top-level contributors is an all-around bright spot in the SMS program.
For employees engaged in the bulk of safety reporting activity, this chart can give the incentive to participate for several reasons:
- Having a ranking system encourages safety reporting “competition” (to be high on the list); and
- Having this chart in regular view subtly communicates the fact that their involvement (or lack of) does not go without notice.
These incentives especially prove true if management takes care to draw attention to the chart, such as in a newsletter or by rewarding top reporters. Incentives are particularly important to discuss when we attempt to shift the needle on safety culture.
How do you reward employees for desirable behavior? Do you provide gifts or prizes to reward exceptional activity in the SMS? Are the incentives effective?
Not all employees are motivated by the same incentives. For example, my wife is not motivated so much by a higher salary, but by other incentives, such as:
- Paid time off;
- Maternity leave policy;
- Flexible work schedule; and
- Freedom to exercise initiative.
Other employees value other types of rewards, such as:
- Financial bonuses;
- Title of job description;
- Extra day off;
- Desirable parking space; or
Yet there is another incentive that should not go unnoticed or under-utilized: Recognition.
We all crave recognition in one form or another. Personally, I'm not thrilled to see my name posted at the top of a performance monitoring chart, such as the one illustrated, but I know that a sizable number of your employees crave recognition. Employees need to feel as if their contributions are meaningful. Not all employees, mind you. There will be employees that want you to "show them the money."
Other employees establish their identity around their jobs. Pilots are a prime example. 100% of pilots will proudly say "I'm a pilot." What percentage of ramp workers will do the same with similar levels of enthusiasm and pride? Therefore, recognition is a powerful tool to help you build your safety reporting culture. Part of the above chart's value relies on employees valuing recognition as an incentive to increase safety reporting activity.
Related Aviation Safety Chart Articles
- Safety Chart: Learning Who Is (or Isn't) Involved in Your Aviation SMS
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- Safety Chart: Monitoring Hazard Reporting Culture Per Division
Where This SMS Reporting Data Comes From
As the chart is extremely straightforward, the data is very easy to tabulate, regardless of whether you have SMS data managed by spreadsheets or commercial SMS databases.
In a professional aviation SMS database, each employee’s number of submitted safety reports will be tracked automatically whenever a company user logs in and submits a safety issue. The chart above simply filters the top ten employees who have submitted the most safety reports.
Manual SMS programs can acquire the same information with a bit of work. They will simply need the ability to group reported safety issues by the reporter, and then count the number of times each employee reported a safety issue.
Final Thought: Other Similar Aviation SMS Charts
It’s important to note that this chart is indicative of a long-term hazard reporting culture. You might view it as a sort of “Hall of Fame” for reporters in your company. For example, the top reporter may even be an employee who no longer works in your organization.
Another chart that pairs extremely well with this one is the Top Reporters Last 30 Days chart, which only looks at data from the previous month. With both charts, you can see the long-term and current performance in terms of hazard reporting activities.
A sad case appears when you only see one or two names on this list. Is this because you only have three employees in the company? Or your safety reporting culture needs work?
We see repeatedly every year one or two companies that purchase a commercial SMS database and expect their safety reporting metrics to magically improve. It doesn't work that way. The safety team needs to put in more work. That is the purpose of the Safety Promotion component in every SMS.
Many companies discount the value that the Safety Promotion pillar offers to the SMS; however, Safety Promotion is critically important to EVERY aviation SMS. An SMS has four pillars:
- Safety Policy;
- Safety Risk Management;
- Safety Assurance; and
- Safety Promotion.
Just because Safety Promotion is the final pillar (component) in the SMS does not mean it is any less important. EVERY SMS component is important! So if your safety reporting metrics are substandard:
- Review the safety policy to ensure it resonates with employees;
- Review the non-punitive reporting policy to ensure employees are adequately protected against self-reporting errors and mistakes; and
- Promote, promote, promote the SMS!
Are your employees hiding from your safety program? Seize the ability to hold them accountable.