What Is Proactive Safety Culture in Aviation SMS
The purpose of an aviation safety management system (SMS) is to formally manage operational safety risk to as low as reasonably practical (ALARP). This objective will never be fully achieved unless aviation service providers maintain healthy safety reporting numbers.
In order to optimize safety reporting metrics, an operator must have a safety culture that continually promotes safety and encourages employees to report every potential safety issue, whether the issue is real or imagined. The rule of thumb should be "report everything and let the safety team determine the level of safety risk."
"Proactive safety culture" in aviation SMS simply denotes an operational environment whose employees and resources actively act upon likely safety concerns that have been identified and reported for risk management review.
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Proactive Safety Culture from Employee and Managerial Perspectives
Employees exist at every level of an organization but are generally divided into front-line employees and management personnel. Safety culture is facilitated by the availability of SMS training, risk management tools, and equipment that aid in proactive behavior.
For front-line employees, activities that indicate healthy proactive safety culture include:
- Being aware of existing workplace hazards;
- Actively monitoring risk controls to confirm their effectiveness;
- Identifying hazard mechanisms; and
- Reporting any potential safety concern before the hazard (dangerous condition) occurs.
For safety management personnel, activities that demonstrate proactive safety culture include but are not limited to:
- Providing employees with required aviation SMS training;
- Abiding by non-punitive employee protections when employees self-report mistakes and errors;
- Providing tools and training for stakeholders to easily report safety concerns;
- Identifying safety exposure and inadequate risk controls; and
- Creating control measures to prevent the hazard from occurring.
Safety culture obviously does not look the same from an employee's perspective compared to managerial positions. From our quick analysis above, we learn that management has considerable influence in shaping and continually developing proactive safety behaviors.
Similarly, management also possesses the power to hamper the effectiveness of aviation SMS by not considering the impact of their decisions on safety culture. A common detriment to an SMS is where management implements policies without seeking the input of affected employees. Employees are less inclined to resist change whenever they feel that they also have an active decision-making role in the change management process. Employee participation is a common attribute of healthy, proactive safety cultures.
Importance of Understanding Elements of a Proactive Safety Culture
As we have seen above, managerial actions can unwittingly affect safety performance. There are many attributes of a healthy safety culture. Unless management understands these elements, there will be an increased likelihood that management rashly alters their business environment without fully considering the impact of their decisions on their safety culture.
Understanding how proactive the safety culture is within your organization will help you establish:
- How mature your safety management system is;
- Which elements and activities promote or detract from the safety culture;
- Where you need to improve/maintain your safety performance; and
- What kind of resistance you might expect in future change management processes?
Here are 15 checklist items that are primary markers affecting proactive safety culture in aviation SMS implementations.
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1 – New SMS Manager Could Quickly Understand SMS Implementation
This is probably not something you expected. But if a new safety manager can quickly become acquainted with all of the moving parts in your aviation SMS implementation within a week or two, it indicates that:
- People are willing to help the safety manager get up to speed before there are problems; and
- The SMS bureaucracy is organized well enough to a point where it needs little work, meaning energy can be spent on prevention and monitoring activities rather than correcting.
A good way to test this element is to see how easy it is for a new manager to understand the purpose, functions, and workflows of the SMS implementation's risk management processes.
2 – Upper Management Supports SMS Implementation
The single biggest difference between aviation SMS implementations that succeed, survive, or fail during safety manager turnover is how well upper management supports the SMS initiative. When upper management wholeheartedly supports the SMS, it indicates:
- More risk management resources are available to promote safety culture and to encourage increased safety reporting activity;
- Managers will be trained to support the safety manager's risk management activities whenever the safety manager is away on extended absences;
- SMS documentation activities are equitably distributed among many managers and not solely reliant upon safety team efforts;
- Reliance on the "system" rather than the safety champion; and
- Effort has been made to mitigate the risk of SMS failures ahead of time for changes in safety management personnel.
Most safety managers will have a very clear picture of how supportive upper management is.
Related Aviation SMS Implementation Articles
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3 – End of Training Assessment Tests
End-of-training course assessments indicate proactive safety culture because they entail testing the effectiveness of training before training deficiencies manifest themselves into safety issues.
End-of-training assessments are a powerful way to proactively assess training effectiveness and training participation. If you are using them, then you are contributing to a proactive safety culture.
4 – Use Safety Surveys
Safety surveys are probably the most straightforward method of proactively assessing safety culture. Poor safety culture results in:
- High employee turnover;
- Distrust of upper management;
- Lack of substantial safety reporting numbers;
- Very few minor safety concerns were submitted through the safety reporting system; and
- Records of higher-severity reported safety issues, as management discourages "overwhelming the SMS risk management workflow with minor, seemingly inconsequential issues."
Noticing trends during safety culture surveys is a superb way to proactively curb negative trends.
5 – Have Drills Scheduled
Using drills to test risk controls is essential for “stress testing” your aviation SMS risk management processes. Drills offer a venue and space to test safety performance without risk of actual danger. Such tests may expose deficiencies in risk controls and the SMS' risk management workflows.
Moreover, participation in drills offers an excellent training opportunity for employees to practice situation-specific behavior before they need to, such as if that situation actually occurred.
Having a history of drills, or having drills currently scheduled, indicates proactive safety culture for both management and employees.
6 – Have Reviews Scheduled for Safety Policies and Procedures
Safety policies and procedures need to be reviewed to assess:
- If a policy/procedure has an excessive number of reported safety issues associated with it;
- Whether or not each policy/procedure is up to date; and
- Whether or not each policy/procedure remains relevant and adequate to the underlying purpose.
This activity is proactive so long as it’s not done in response to some kind of safety issue. If this process is scheduled ahead of time, such as on a yearly recurring basis, it indicates a proactive willingness to prevent mishaps.
Related Articles on Aviation SMS Policies
- Writing & Reviewing Aviation SMS Safety Policies - 4 Free Templates
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7 – Managers Assigned to Control Measures to Mitigate Hazards' Risks
Managers and subject matter experts should be assigned to report safety issues as they enter the aviation SMS risk management workflow. Oftentimes, SMS workflows unintentionally overlook this benefit. Let's consider this common scenario:
An employee submits a routine safety report. The safety manager may simply review the safety issue and determine that this is a minor, low-risk item and simply closes the safety report without referring the safety report to the "Department Head" with risk acceptance authority over this domain. In this case, the safety manager inadvertently:
- subverts the Department Head's authority; and
- eliminates the ability of the Department Head to review the associated risk controls to evaluate their effectiveness.
Whenever reported safety issues enter the aviation SMS' risk management processes, associated risk controls must be evaluated during the risk analysis. A best practice is to document these "real-time risk control reviews" to assist in your quarterly or semi-annual review process.
Putting managers in charge of hazards' risk controls mean that Department Heads are:
- Actively monitoring the risk controls as hazards affect operations;
- Understanding all relevant safety aspects and goals of the control measures; and
- Periodically reviewing the control measures to determine trends or identify failing risk controls.
The third point above, like scheduling reviews for safety policies and procedures, indicates a proactive willingness to maintain the efficacy of risk controls before they fail. Therefore, an active safety performance monitoring mindset is paramount to every proactive safety culture.
8 – Using Aviation Leading Indicators
Aviation leading indicators are quite literally the most powerful proactive data tool in SMS programs. The goal of using leading indicators is to:
- Identify underlying mechanisms of safety performance;
- Understanding precursors to risk; and
- Understanding how root causes result in hazard occurrence.
Leading indicators demonstrate a total commitment by safety management to understand and prevent safety issues before they occur.
Related Aviation SMS Leading Indicator Articles
- What Are Leading Indicators in Aviation SMS?
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9 – Increase in Minor Safety Issues Reported over Time
Surprisingly, after talking with many safety managers, the importance of having many low-risk safety issues entering the aviation SMS' risk management workflow is not something many safety managers consciously focus on, or even worse yet, many safety managers don't see the benefits of employees reporting every safety issue, regardless of the safety significance. Why is this so important?
- Means employees are often identifying potential safety concerns before hazards manifest themselves;
- Affords management the opportunity to treat these insignificant safety concerns which are typically precursors to "the accident" that we all know is coming, but are trying to avoid;
- Indicates positive safety reporting culture; and
- Indicates that safety training and Human Factor Norms are positive.
All of these points can only exist in an environment with proactive safety culture.
10 – Have Checklists for High Percentage of Tasks
Checklists are an incredibly effective and straightforward proactive risk management tool. Using them in your SMS activities demonstrates proactive safety culture because of:
- Management’s willingness to develop checklists to promote consistency and prevent hazard occurrence; and
- Employees willingness to use and follow checklists in order to prevent safety issues.
On all fronts, using checklists indicates a safety culture that is willing to be proactive. Auditing is a common task in your organization. As we all know, checklists drive the auditing process and ensure inspectors don't overlook important elements.
Related Articles on Auditing in Aviation SMS
- Real Difference between an Aviation Safety Audit vs. Inspection
- How to Create an Aviation SMS Audit Plan
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Final Thoughts on Proactive Safety Cultures in Aviation
Without the wholehearted participation of employees, an aviation SMS will never realize its full potential to minimize risk to as low as reasonably practical (ALARP). Proactive safety cultures are not created overnight. They take time to mature, and for management and employees to develop the trust that is necessary for a proactive safety culture.
Safety reporting and risk management tools also play a very important role in developing and maintaining a healthy safety culture. When employees and/or managers struggle with spreadsheets to manage SMS activities, they understandably lose interest and receive the message that "Management really doesn't care about the aviation SMS."
Employees become disillusioned in the aviation SMS whenever they see that management is unwilling to invest in user-friendly risk management tools. If management is not overly concerned about the SMS, then why should the employees take additional measures to report or participate in SMS activities?
If your SMS safety reporting system or risk management tools are inadequate, we can help.
These short demo videos will show how your organization's safety culture can benefit from user-friendly, modern aviation SMS tools.
Last updated April 2023.