SMS Pro Aviation Safety Software Blog 4 Airlines & Airports

How to Develop Healthy Safety Reporting Cultures in Aviation SMS

Posted by Tyler Britton on Dec 9, 2020 6:00:00 AM

Making It Personal

How to Develop Healthy Safety Reporting Cultures in Aviation SMS

Every continuously-improving safety program will fail when employees are not involved in identifying and reporting safety hazards. Getting workers to participate in their aviation safety management system (SMS) is all about making the SMS personal. People care more about things that directly involve and matter to them.

An aviation safety manager functions as the primary bridge between an SMS implementation and the employees – he/she IS the force of “personal.”

The safety manager is responsible for influencing safety reporting cultures. When safety managers complain about not being able to get employees involved in their SMS implementations, they should stop complaining and start seeking out opportunities to enhance their safety reporting culture.

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How do safety managers promote the SMS without alienating employees and stakeholders?

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Safety Reporting Cultures Are Affected by Management Relationships

Aviation service providers with rigid barriers between management (including safety manager) and employees will feel bureaucratic and impersonal. Consequently, organizations hosting such a culture will obviously see a poorly performing safety reporting culture. In extreme cases, we have seen aviation service providers devoid of ANY reporting culture. This is usually the result of a "blame" culture.

Here are several practices a safety manager can take to make him/herself that “personal bridge” between the aviation SMS and employees.

Know Employees

First and foremost, any aviation SMS needs a face for the SMS: that face is the safety manager. A safety manager is a personality and leader behind which employees and management can fall in line for their support of the SMS.

Like any leader, an aviation safety manager personifies the SMS.

This is why it is so important that a safety manager is personally acquainted with employees. Being personally acquainted with employees involves:

  • Knowing names and some information about each employee (when possible)
  • Listening to them and their concerns
  • Making sure that they are comfortable with you

Knowing employees on a first-name basis naturally breaks down barriers and gives employees a personal reason to participate in their aviation SMS. When aviation safety managers and employees have a relationship, and when employees do/don’t participate in their SMS, they aren’t just improving or letting down a system – but a person (safety manager) as well.

Knowing employees gives them the personal impetus to participate in the aviation SMS.

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Regular Safety Promotion

Informal safety promotion can be an extremely effective method of keeping safety ideas, reminders, training, practices, and procedure fresh in employees' minds without feeling like safety promotion.

Some examples of informal aviation safety promotion activities are:

  • Humorous safety cartoons
  • Interesting safety data
  • Interesting/humorous safety stories
  • Reward systems for participation

I stress informal safety promotion here because it is easier to regularly sneak into a workday than, say, a safety newsletter. Regular safety newsletters – such as 2 or 3 1-2 page newsletters per month – are a fantastic formal method of safety promotion.

Beyond training and news, the sole purpose of safety promotion should be to keep safety fresh in employees' minds. A fresh safety culture will always be a reporting culture.

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Take Safety Culture

Safety Transparency Affects Aviation SMS Reporting

Safety transparency is naturally a core issue in any aviation SMS. Organizations are constantly assessing the following question as new issues come up – how transparent should we be?

When management maintains a high degree of openness about safety issues – even if they are only managerial issues, it sets the tone that the organization is committed at the highest levels to the SMS.

Organizations that aren’t transparent will make employees question whether they should report sensitive safety issues or simply “cover it up,” as in line with an organization’s standard.

As we will know, aviation SMS are rigidly top-down in structure. If management is not on board with supporting and actively participating in an SMS, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for that SMS to succeed. As you probably know from experience, employees’ involvement with the aviation SMS will usually mirror that of management.

Where things also get sticky in an SMS is the division between management and employees. It’s a natural barrier, and if management is not careful to try and close the relationship gap between themselves and employees, then there is room for discontent.

Discontented workplaces cannot have effective safety reporting cultures. Safety is not simply a function of actions, but a mindset that is intimately tied to satisfaction. Management that sets a tone of safety transparency will break down barriers and set a healthy – and consequently happier – environment.

Employee Involvement

I and others reading previous articles have taken the effort to point out that this is perhaps the most important aspect of creating a robust safety reporting culture. When employees feel involved with an aviation SMS, they:

  • Feel like the SMS is in part their own
  • Are empowered in their opinions
  • Feel responsible for the SMS
  • Have a sense of community (built around safety) that focuses on the safety of the community rather than the individual indiscretions

Ownership. Responsibility. Community. Empowerment.

There are countless ways of engaging employees so that they feel involved – beyond the scope of this article – but I think we might safely agree that most actions of a proactive safety manager and healthy SMS are built to involve employees in the SMS and reduce resistance from the "haters" and discontented employees.

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Constant Feedback

This is tied in with employee involvement but is so important for employee involvement that we can view it as its own category. Feedback through the use of the following are common but extremely effective ways of getting feedback:

  • Regular aviation safety surveys
  • Safety meetings
  • Safety manager and employee interaction

What’s important here, of course, is that a safety manager acts upon the feedback he/she receives. This bridges the gap between feedback and involvement. Moreover, when employees see changes enacted that they personally gave feedback on, it sets the tone that:

  • What they think matters
  • Their opinions directly enact change

The nice benefit of this is that when employees see their feedback put to good use, they are likely to be even more open with their feedback, which leads to a greater sense of involvement and improved safety reporting cultures.

Final Thought

Safety managers face a tough job being a “personal bridge.” Because of employee turnover, shyness, changing relationships, etc., maintaining that bridge will be a constant work in progress for a safety manager.

When safety managers set a standard attitude of engagement, proactivity, energy, and willingness to be involved in the everyday actions and experiences of workers, they will naturally reciprocate.

Providing employees with user-friendly tools to easily report safety issues sets the tone for healthy safety reporting cultures. Do you need the hazard reporting tools?

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Last updated in January 2023.

Topics: 4-Safety Promotion

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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