The Bane of Aviation SMS Implementations
Apathy kills aviation safety management systems (SMS).
Apathy in SMS is the most insidious kind of resistance because it incites behavior that is extremely hard in which to influence change.
Apathy may take many forms in your aviation SMS, such as:
- Non-participation in the SMS;
- Low safety reporting numbers;
- Lack of improvement on hazard identification activities;
- No aviation SMS implementation improvement;
- Lack of budget approval;
- Safety policies not reviewed or updated;
- No safety promotion activity, either produced or consumed;
- Risk management processes remain undocumented; and
- Resistance to change.
Employees and management become apathetic because when they ask the question, “What’s in it for me?” they don’t have an answer. If employees don’t have any personal reasons for being involved in their safety program, then the SMS will fade into the background of their daily activities like “Employee Rights” posters. Or even better yet, remember the traditional safety programs? The ones that had:
- no budget;
- no expectation of protection from management for self-reporting errors;
- no senior management participation;
- no management expectation of "measurable" results;
- no accountability; and
- no transparency.
Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles
- What Is Safety Culture in the Aviation Industry?
- Examples How to Improve Safety Culture in Aviation SMS - with Resources
- 6 Types of Safety Culture in Aviation Safety Management System
The success of aviation SMS implementations depends on giving employees a reason to feel like they have a stake in becoming involved. Here are the primary problems when it comes to giving employees stakes.
Why Employees Aren’t Involved in Aviation SMS
Safety promotion in aviation SMS is all for the aim of helping employees care about the SMS. When they don’t feel involved, they won’t care about the SMS. Passive programs cultivate indifferent employees. The 3 primary reasons that employees don’t feel involved in aviation SMS are:
1 - Don’t feel engaged:
- Lacks efficient safety reporting methods;
- Employees don’t regularly interact with safety management personnel;
- Lack of safety promotion activities and/or boring safety training;
2 - Don’t feel opinion matters:
- Corporate culture creates a strong barrier between management and employees;
- Have no input in changes that are made to the SMS; and
- No ways to give meaningful feedback about policies, procedures, and personnel.
3 - Don’t see results:
- Policies or procedures don’t address reported safety issues; and
- Employees’ feedback is not addressed by changes.
Cultivating involvement in aviation safety management systems means addressing these issues and counteracting them.
Why Employees Don’t Have Incentives
In one way or the other, Incentives drive SMS participation. Period.
Incentives can have positive or negative effects on SMS implementation. Aviation SMS with complex incentives that have the aim of engaging employees will naturally perform proactive risk management activities considerably more often and more effectively than stagnating safety cultures.
Immature SMS implementations usually have a hard time creating the right incentives, and their safety culture will struggle accordingly. Namely:
- Complicated SMS procedures;
- Inefficient safety reporting methods;
- Rudimentary risk management processes;
- Employees don’t have authority to make important safety decisions;
- Corporate culture that crushes safety culture;
- Individuals are not recognized (such as in an aviation safety newsletter); and
- Production activities are more important than safety performance.
The ultimate incentive in any SMS is that “everyone else is doing it.” In terms of the Human Factors Dirty Dozen, we call it the Norm. Norms can greatly work for or against a program, and it’s a matter of incentives.
Related Aviation SMS Human Factors Articles
- Let’s Talk Human Factors - Origin of Dirty Dozen
- 3 Most Important Human Factors in Aviation SMS – They’ll Surprise You
- What the SMS Human Factor Complacency Looks Like (with Free Newsletter Resource)
Where Employees Need to Be Engaged
Aviation SMS is historically and bureaucratically a top-down process. Creating a superior safety culture by involving employees needs to happen from the ground up. Often, what this first requires is that safety managers build their SMS backbone around the behaviors and risk management attitudes of the employees. It will assure that employees:
- Are protected from management reprisals when self-reporting errors or mistakes;
- More easily understand procedures;
- Agree with the procedures; and
- Are intuitively comfortable following procedures.
Building the SMS structure and delivering it (top-down) through the needs of the employees makes engagement considerably easier. Moreover, it opens up the potential to more easily:
- Involve employees in the process of change;
- Base changes on employee feedback and show that you value employees’ opinions;
- Communicate everything (transparency);
- Be transparent with all communications;
- Create non-punitive, incentive-based policies; and
- Have more opportunities to reward behavior that aligns with the established SMS structure.
Engaging employees in aviation SMS arises from the desire to improve safety performance. Safety performance can mean:
- maintaining safety reporting numbers;
- performing well on safety audits;
- having a Just Culture; and
- meeting company-specific safety goals.
Reaching high levels of performance will require an involved effort from all individuals in the SMS.
Final Thought: Personal Reward
Employees need to feel that there is something in it for them when it comes to their aviation SMS. And the “in it for them” cannot be simply “not getting in trouble.” When employees’ primary incentive for being involved in the aviation SMS is to avoid trouble, it is generally a good indication of a punitive safety culture.
Everyone in an SMS needs a better reward system. Such a reward system could be:
- An actual, tangible reward;
- An intangible job related benefit;
- Being publicly/personally recognized by the organization; and
- Behaving in line with other employees in the program.
Until employees are actively engaged in the SMS, your company will never fully benefit from an SMS implementation. The risk management processes in an SMS work, but they are dependent on safety assurance (SA) data acquisition processes.
Data acquisition is a dependent process in an aviation SMS safety assurance (SA) monitoring process. Data is collected primarily from:
- reported safety issues (dependent on engaged employees); and
- safety audits, inspections, and evaluations.
Without a sufficient volume of safety reports to push through the SA risk management processes, the system will not be reviewed as quickly or as effectively had a more proactive safety culture been practicing the SMS risk management processes.
Since an SMS is dependent on employee participation, it should become a higher priority for SMS implementations.
Hazard identification training and inducting employees into the aviation SMS are great places to break down the barriers of resistance and increase participation. Regular safety promotion activities should also become more regular.
Good luck with your SMS.
Last updated in October 2023.