Aviation Safety Culture Is Not a Concept
As I’ve discussed before, “safety culture” gets thrown around rather loosely in the aviation industry.
"Safety culture" is the kind of thing that is vitally important, but so undernourished in terms of actually discussing what it means and what it looks like, that you sort of roll your eyes and with a wink and a nod say, “Oh yea... safety culture.”
Commonly, effective aviation safety culture is usually accepted as simply meaning that employees act safely in their day-to-day activities. In this vein of thinking, you get mind-numbingly vague phrases like “risk-based thinking” and “safety mindset” and other conceptual phrases that communicate next to nothing about what they actually look like. Using concepts, such as “safety mindset” and “risk-based thinking”, to see whether or not you have a mature aviation safety culture is as effective as trying to carry water in a strainer.
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Safety culture in aviation is not a concept. What you call safety culture should simply be:
- Which specific behavior indicators you value in your SMS; and
- Which specific behaviors you try to observe and understand.
It is only by looking at actual behaviors in your safety program that you can assess how mature the safety culture is in an aviation SMS. Though it will be different in every organization, here are 6 signs of a mature aviation safety culture.
1 – Defined Valued Behavior for Mature Safety Culture
I put this one first because it is easily one of the most overlooked parts of most aviation safety programs. This problem arises from safety managers:
- Thinking that they know what safety culture means conceptually; and
- Having a predefined idea of what safety culture should look like, but without ever actually observing what it looks like in their own SMS.
In short, it doesn’t cross their mind to actually take the time and write a safety culture manifesto. The problem here is that if management doesn’t take the time to figure out which specific safety behaviors it values, how can employees possibly know? Of course, some aviation service providers have an excellent inherent safety culture. But an overwhelming majority don’t, and a large part of that is because of exactly what I described above.
So ask yourself, does your SMS program have a specific list of valued behaviors that is available and known to your company’s employees?
How do you communicate this list of valued behaviors? And how often? Here are some suggestions:
- Safety newsletters (every six months);
- Safety survey (annually);
- Safety promotion posters (as needed); and
- Safety message boards (quarterly).
These safety promotion media and frequency are examples. Just like effective television commercials, you have to repeat safety messages over and again, over and again. Safety culture takes time to develop and safety promotion activities break the communication barriers between management and employees.
Related Articles on Aviation Safety Promotion
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2 – Employees Comply with Policy When the Boss Isn’t Watching
For me, this is a baseline question I ask of all aviation SMS when offering guidance to establish a mature safety culture. What are employees doing when the boss isn’t watching? If your company is like most organizations, your employees probably only loosely follow policies when the boss isn’t around.
The reason this is such a great litmus test is because:
- It is easily observable;
- If employees DON’T follow policies when the boss isn’t watching, it indicates that they only comply because of – usually – some kind of punitive measure; but
- If employees DO follow policies when the boss isn’t watching, it indicates that they agree with and have the incentive to follow policies, and is a good example of a mature aviation safety culture.
Now, if you are the boss then you’re probably wondering how to know what employees are doing when you’re not around. Enlisting “watchers” – aka spies – is a terrible idea.
There’s no one answer here, but one great way to see if things are actually getting done is to have employees use and submit a checklist after they perform a task, and then simply inspect the work later. If the inspection and checklist comply with each other, then great. If things that are checked off clearly weren’t done, then corners are being cut.
You may have to become creative when monitoring employee safety performance. You are simply limited by your imagination and available tools to document employee behaviors.
Related Articles on Safety Performance Monitoring
- My Safety Score - What's Yours? Safety Performance Monitoring for Aviation SMS
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3 – Management Practices a Behavior-Based Safety Program
While the term “behavior-based” sounds threateningly conceptual, it actually involves a very simple activity: looking where inspiration comes from for your company’s:
- Safety policies;
- Safety procedures; and
- The language of Safety Assurance/Promotional documentation (such as Commitment to Safety, Newsletters, etc.)
The way to know this is by combing each of your safety policies and safety procedures and answering the question: Whom is this policy/procedure/documentation addressing?
If it addresses regulatory compliance, then it is not behavior-based. If it addresses some need within your company, then it necessarily is addressing a (lack of) behavior. Hence, behavior-based SMS.
Of course, every program needs compliance-based documentation, but mature aviation safety programs will also have a nice balance of behavior-based documentation.
4 – Corrective Preventative Action Timelines
Assigned Corrective Actions and Preventative Action (CPAs) deadlines should have a quick turnaround. You can easily find this metric by monitoring risk management data for these types of data points:
- on time task completion;
- average number of days tasks have slipped;
- average completed tasks vs average deadline time; and/or
- seasonal effect for SMS task performance.
The reasons that these metrics are so valuable are simple:
- Explicitly, it helps ensure that needed changes don’t gather dust;
- Implicitly, it tests how engaged employees are;
- How seriously employees take the SMS; and also by extension;
- How engaged are managers in tracking and following up on safety-related tasks?
A good sign of a mature safety program is that employees meet these strict deadlines on time. It’s the kind of behavior that shows employees value safety as a part of their regular performance, and that they are willing to participate in safety improvements.
Even when the numbers are not stellar, you can tell a lot about the safety culture. When SMS performance appears substandard, are there any explicit indications from the accountable executive that SMS performance is not acceptable? Or is there the sound of crickets (silence)? A great tell-tale about an efficient safety culture is that when SMS performance is low, the action starts at the top to start the process of continuous improvement of the SMS.
Related Articles on Monitoring SMS Performance
- 10 Most Important Reports to Monitor Safety Performance in SMS
- How to Monitor Aviation SMS Performance - Safety Chart
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5 – Hazard Reporting
How often are employees reporting safety issues?
How often are vendors/suppliers/contractors reporting safety issues?
Are employees ONLY reporting SAFETY issues?
Are employees reporting ALL close calls?
Does management continue to request employees to report all close calls?
How often should your hazard reporting system receive a new safety report?
- Every day?
- Once per week?
- 20 per day/week/month?
This behavior requires little explanation. An employee who reports an issue is engaged.
One way to know the quality of hazard reporting is through:
- Risk Assessment distribution across Acceptable (green), Mitigatable (yellow), and Unacceptable (red);
- Proactive vs. Reactive issue distribution;
- Number of monthly hazard reports over time; and
- The percentage of employees who are reaching the prescribed goal for submitting hazard reports.
While such aggregated data points aren’t measuring a specific behavior per se, they clearly exemplify the average engagement behavior of employees.
How many safety reports should your SMS be receiving when you have a mature safety culture? When you receive one report for every ten employees on a monthly average, you can say you have a healthy safety reporting culture.
Another excellent measure of safety reporting culture is by analyzing samples of submitted safety reports. This will require a bit of subjectivity in your evaluation. Do you see evidence from the reported safety issues that reporters include the reporter’s own errors that a reporter would not normally report in another safety culture? These will be events where nobody was watching. Trust in the organization's safety culture allows employees to admit their mistakes and share their mistakes in the hopes that controls can be implemented to avoid recurrence.
Related Articles on Aviation Safety Reporting
- Indicators of Good Hazard Reporting Culture
- What Good Hazard Reporting Process Look Like in Mature Aviation SMS
- Best Practices for Hazard Reporting in Aviation SMS
6 – Leading Indicator Statistics
One of the primary reasons your leading and lagging indicators are so important is they demonstrate both management’s and employees' motivation for developing a more successful aviation SMS.
- How much budget is being spent on leading indicator risk controls?
- What percentage of leading indicators (early detection) vs lagging indicators (mitigate) are being associated with safety issues?
- On average, how many new leading indicator controls are generated within a chosen time frame?
Answers to questions like these clearly demonstrate the attitude for continuous improvement through the detection of new “leading” hazards and recognition of existing early signs. In mature safety programs, expect early detection to happen often, and the creation of new leading indicator controls to happen regularly.
Final Thoughts on Mature Aviation Safety Cultures
Mature safety cultures don't happen overnight. A lot of sincere work, coaching, mentoring, and sometimes hand-holding is involved. There has to be trust in the system.
It is a lot harder to rebuild a safety culture after employees have experienced retribution from managers. There are upper-level managers out there who are telling employees not to report safety concerns. "You are just creating busywork," would be their justification. These managers would rather treat safety concerns informally.
When safety concerns are handled informally, or when close calls are not reported, the SMS does not have a fair chance to improve safety and reduce losses. The SMS is implemented to stop the accident. When managers discount the value of close calls being submitted as safety reports, the risk management processes fail. These close calls are "practice" issues to beef up your risk controls. Take advantage of close calls and encourage employees to report.
Employees readily notice when management does not actually improve the processes that are affecting employee safety. When there is no feedback and no noticeable change in the system based on their safety reports, employees will naturally quit reporting.
What is in it for the employees? Show them the value. That is one step closer to a mature safety culture.
Here is a valuable safety promotion checklist for your aviation SMS.
Last updated December 2023.