Three Ways to Encourage Participation in Your Aviation SMS
Many aviation service providers struggle with overcoming the difficulty of increasing participation and buy-in for their aviation safety management system (SMS). However, increasing participation in SMS doesn’t have to be difficult. After all, it is not rocket science.
Employees in your organization will be much more likely to participate if you design your SMS to be:
- Inclusive – make sure all employees understand their role in the SMS;
- Interactive – make sure there is consistent feedback from safety management teams; and
- Effective – make sure that the SMS demonstrates continuous safety improvement.
Making sure that your SMS hits these bullet points does not need to involve sweeping changes or a huge effort on your part to promote the aviation SMS. The truth is that with patience you can cultivate these values in your SMS in many subtle ways, and all the while, improve your organization's safety culture.
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Make Your Aviation SMS Inclusive
The main stumbling block of much modern aviation SMS is a lack of inclusion of those at the operational level whose participation is most critical. This phenomenon is reminiscent of the legacy safety programs that many operators had before the November 2006 ICAO mandate that required most operators to implement formal aviation SMS.
In the legacy safety programs, there was no requirement for management to establish and maintain safety communications. Employees would submit safety reports, but there was typically no follow-up with the reporter and no way for employees to easily discover which remedial actions management implemented to treat the safety issue. This behavior or lack of behavior resulted in safety programs that benefited management, with little regard for employee benefits. Naturally, employees became skeptical of the legacy safety programs and participation remained dismally low.
Today, we see the same attitudes carried forward to modern aviation SMS implementations. Even though the SMS may be embraced by management, it often fails to be embraced by:
- Front line employees;
- Line-level supervisory staff; or
- Other roles in your organization who do not see their tasks having any bearing on safety.
There are many reasons that such employees fail to participate:
- lack of time,
- fear of management retaliation,
- skepticism about the SMS' effectiveness, and
- pressure to get work done.
Encouraging employees to report all concerns, even minor or trivial issues, is a valuable way to include all roles in your organization. Furthermore, it allows you to collect potentially meaningful data, as you may identify trends that may help prevent the next "major accident."
Per the ICAO Safety Management Manual, “A workplace in which personnel have been trained and are constantly encouraged to report their errors and experiences is a prerequisite for effective safety reporting”. Notice the emphasis on constantly in that statement.
Only by being encouraged constantly, both passively (department safety metrics, no-fault reporting methods) and actively (training, awards, feedback, compensation) will those on the operational level be willing to participate in the aviation SMS.
Encouragement doesn’t have to only flow from the top down; it can also happen laterally or from the bottom up in the form of team-based recognition, continuous improvement (CI) boards, and open-door policies.
- How Employees Should be Participating in your SMS
- Aviation SMS Implementation: What’s in It for the Employee?
- 5 Simple Ways to Motivate Employees in Aviation SMS
How to Make Your SMS Interactive
Another barrier to obtaining full participation in an aviation SMS is the lack of interactive participation in training programs. From my personal experience, safety programs have meant spending several mind-numbing hours in front of a computer viewing slides or videos about safety, usually in the form of safety training.
The interaction with the content is often one-way and does not have the participant actively practice the skills that they were supposed to have learned.
Updating your safety training regimen to:
- Offer some choice in training content, such as:
- Safety Training Article Library where employees can choose training material from a limited set of approved options
- Having multiple formats for training, like articles, videos, slides, etc.
- Be ACTIVE, such as
- Emergency drills
- Mock safety scenarios
- On the job training
- Be specific to the employees' role in the safety program, such as
- Role based quizzes
- On the job training
- Be delivered by charismatic instructions
Take any subject in school, most notoriously math and a poor educator will make the material deadly boring. A charismatic teacher can make any subject interesting.
By delivering SMS training content in a way that reinforces learning pathways in the brain by having the student take the lead in learning, permanent safety habits will be created.
- 6 Tips to Improve Aviation SMS Training Courses
- Most Important Safety Training in Aviation Risk Management
- What Is Aviation Safety Training in Aviation SMS - Includes Videos to Use
How to Demonstrate an Effective SMS
Lastly, making sure that your aviation SMS is effective will be important to make sure that it will succeed. Effective safety programs build confidence within the company that the SMS is actually making individuals safer.
If an aviation SMS is ineffective it will create more damage and mistrust than whatever existed prior. According to the ICAO Safety Management Manual, five characteristics are universally associated with effective safety reporting systems:
- Information – make sure safety data is as transparent as best fits your organization and is easily available;
- Flexibility – make sure that interactions between safety personnel and employees are friendly, encouraging, and positively reinforcing rather than policelike and hard-nosed;
- Willingness – make sure your commitments to safety are regularly reviewed and distributed/promoted;
- Accountability – make sure each role in your organization is well aware of their duties and responsibilities in the SMS; and
- Learning – see the previous section on creating better training materials.
Making sure that your safety program incorporates all of these elements and that it is designed appropriately for the context (i.e. an airline vs. a small flight school) in which it is operating is critical to ensuring effectiveness.
Special thanks to Imran Zaveri, a safety student who participate in our Aviation Safety Scholarship and wrote this article.
Last updated in April 2023.