Aviation Risk Management Is a Cyclical Process
The phrase “aviation risk management” gives the impression of being a single, solid idea – something to attain for – but in actual practice, it is a cyclical process.
Simply put, risk management is about identifying and placing controls (i.e., strengthening) weak points in an aviation safety management system (SMS).
The understanding that risk management is cyclical is an important fact because, while the phrase "risk management" has a strong flavor of top-down management styles, it reminds us that risk management is truly an industry-wide and organizational-wide, group effort. Here, we will put a stronger focus on the organization.
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Each area of risk management depends on the area that precedes it. As other safety managers have said, “Safety is everyone’s responsibility.”
History shows us that safety management systems' systematic approach to risk management has been extremely effective, as SMS seeks to:
- Have a comprehensive awareness and understanding of risks/hazards;
- Have standard safety policies and procedures (i.e. bureaucratizing risk) regarding mitigating exposure;
- Predict future events by connecting the dots between particular conditions and certain human actions.
The cycle of risk management is generally identified by 3-5 parts. I have taken the liberty of identifying 6 areas in the process of risk management, with each part being relevant to different areas of an organization.
1 – Awareness
Most risk management process models place identification as the first step in risk management, but in reality, awareness precedes everything else. To be able to identify risks and hazards, employees need to be aware of the unique risks of their environment.
Awareness can come in several ways:
- Industry experience;
- Experience in a particular environment;
- Special training within an employee's area of work responsibility;
- Aviation safety managers’ safety promotion efforts;
- The ability of safety management to detect trends between certain conditions and certain actions; and
- Industry-specific hazard identification training.
All of the above points give employees different means of being aware of hazards and risks. Experience in an industry or environment gives employees the time to identify reoccurring safety “themes.” Safety promotion and the sophistication of safety managers' risk analysis can reveal the underlying risks and hazards that employees should also watch out for.
The aim of safety awareness is more than simply being able to identify hazards and risks as they arise but to be able to identify the early signs and precursors of risks and hazards.
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- 4 Pillars | What Is Hazard Identification in Aviation SMS
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2 – Identify and Report
Identifying and reporting safety hazards is perhaps the most important part of the risk management process. All trends, data analysis, and impetus for aviation SMS growth hinge on the quality of reported safety concerns. Hazards affect operations and occasionally manifest themselves through:
- And other irregularities.
Generally, these manifestations arise from improperly controlled conditions and actions in:
- the work environment;
- technology and equipment; and
- work activity.
First employees have to identify safety hazards, and once they are reported, they are formally entered into an aviation SMS data management platform where data can be:
- Stored and retrieved;
- Risk assessed;
- Treated whenever the risk is not as low as reasonably practical (ALARP);
- Monitored for recurrence or potential side effects from the risk treatment strategies;
- Aggregated into charts and reports for in-house decision-making processes;
- Sent to civil aviation authority for CAA monitoring and possible "system treatment;" and
- Occasionally made public for the benefit of the aviation industry as a whole.
In the process of risk management, data analysis to facilitate management's decision-making is the primary reason for storing safety issues. In most modern SMS, data is managed in either spreadsheets or databases designed specifically to address CAA SMS regulatory requirements. SMS databases are the preferred technology for managing SMS data, but many very small companies rely on spreadsheets due to:
- Ignorance as to volume and breadth of SMS documentation requirements;
- Lack of adequate SMS budget;
- No upper management support for SMS (bottom-up implementations); or
- Shortsightedness (either purposely or not).
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3 – Evaluate, Assess, and Analyze Risk Exposure
After safety issues have been reported, the next step in the process of aviation risk management is to conduct a hazard risk assessment. A hazard risk assessment looks at a safety concern in terms of its risk by determining:
- How severe the risk is (i.e., how much damage it could cause);
- The likelihood of the occurrence; and
- How quickly corrective actions or preventive actions (CPAs) need to be implemented.
Predictive Risk Matrices are usually used in the risk assessment process. As you can see in the example to the right, the risk increases as Likelihood (i.e., Exposure) and severity increase.
The displayed risk matrix here is an example. Your risk matrix may look different, such as having a different number of cells to select from, such as:
- 3x3 (9 cells);
- 5x5 (as in the example).
In addition, you will notice that there are usually three or four levels of risk evaluated. They may include:
- Low risk (tolerable without further treatment);
- Acceptable with mitigations (usually seen as medium or mitigable risk); and
- Unacceptable or intolerable risk.
In the example risk matrix, intolerable or high risk is highest in the upper right. Based on my experience, I've also seen the red cells (high risk) at the lower right and also at the upper left. The format of the risk matrix is not critical. What is important is that safety managers have tools that can assist in the risk assessment of the reported safety issue. These risk assessments must be performed:
- in a timely manner (quickly); and
- provide consistent results (accurately).
A risk matrix is a fast decision-making tool for safety teams. When performing risk assessments, a best practice is to have the same person or safety team perform the assessment, such as the assigned safety manager or safety committee. When too many managers attempt to risk assess reported safety issues, there may be slightly more accuracy, but less consistency. For future trend analyses, consistency is favored.
Consistent risk assessments have been a topic of concern for many years. Many factors impact risk assessments made by each safety professional, including their:
- Educational background;
- Experience; and
These factors vary drastically from person to person, which is why limiting the performance of risk assessment to selected safety personnel is a best practice for consistent data management. The risk is poor data integrity that will be used during the trending analytics.
Related SMS Trend Analysis Articles
- Aviation Safety Managers' Best Friend - Trending Charts
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- Six Steps How to Perform Trend Analysis in Aviation SMS
4 – Determine If Further Controls Are Needed
The findings of the risk assessment – and especially of the Risk Matrix – will be very telling about whether existing risk controls are good enough at mitigating risk. Some questions to help safety managers determine if their controls are satisfactorily controlling risk are:
- Can the hazard be contained or controlled if it manifests itself?
- Can one failure lead to another (water damage leading to electrical systems malfunctioning)
- What type of harm will reasonably occur? (bodily harm, reputation, equipment, or plant damage)
- Has this ever happened before? At your company, another company, or in the industry?
If safety managers determine that a safety concern has gone beyond an acceptable level of safety (ALoS), they will need to also determine which specific risk controls are needed to address the safety issue.
Such controls can be:
- An updated policy or procedure;
- Personal protective equipment;
- Updated tools, such as installing guards or redesigning equipment;
- Early warning detection systems; and/or
- Updated employee training.
5 – Implement Risk Management Actions
If there is one universal problem in aviation safety management systems, it is resistance to change. It is for this reason that most safety programs take 3-5 years to reach full SMS implementation. An aviation SMS has no immediate guarantee of success. This is a process and people resist change. They have been performing the same behaviors for so long that new processes unsettle their emotional state. When management asks employees to do something different from what they are accustomed to doing and doing it well (in their eyes), the employee is apt to question the reasoning.
Safety management teams cannot expect behavior change even with sound reasoning. We don't like to change. If you have been brushing your teeth the same way for 30 years, how quickly do you think it will take to switch your "teeth cleaning process" using the new tactic? Initially, you may find yourself reverting back to the old, tried, and "proven" method. Change takes time when we consider modifying "human behavior."
Similarly, ongoing implementation of mitigating risk controls is usually a delicate matter. Implementation means "change."
Change is always delicate for two primary reasons:
- As said, it can have adverse effects on employees; and
- It can have unexpected consequences.
The implementation of new controls needs to consider both from a standpoint of what it will affect and how it will be implemented. Will the new controls affect other systems? You will be evaluating the proposed change effects on:
- Operating environment;
- Equipment; and
Depending on the impact of your change, you may be required to perform the hazard analysis through a formal change management process.
Related Articles on Hazard Risk Analysis in Aviation SMS
- Difference between Hazard Risk Assessment and Hazard Risk Analysis
- Everything You Need to Know about Risk Analysis in Aviation SMS
- FAA Part 5 Compliance | Safety Risk Management Risk Analysis Requirement
6 – Monitor and Review
The final step in the aviation risk management process is to monitor the treated safety issue and/or new controls. Monitoring new controls means:
- Assessing how employees respond to the change;
- Evaluating how well the new controls address the issue; and
- Documenting observations as evidence (i.e., for audits).
Based on the findings during the review, the safety team may either continue monitoring or be forced to redesign the affected "system." Regardless of review findings, employees can gain valuable insight into what to be aware of in the future in terms of the potential of a specific occurrence happening, as well as the precursors to its happening. This information can be communicated to employees via safety promotion activities.
Final Thought – Risk Management Is Also Self Evaluation
The other important, underlying facet of risk management is the ongoing assessment of an organization’s risk management process as a whole. Asking questions like:
- Can hazard reporting methods be more efficient?
- Could hazard identification be improved through better employee diversity?
- Are risk analysis tools sophisticated enough for predictive and adaptable SMS?
- How successful have determining the right controls been?
Because of this, risk management is both a process of processing risk as well as a self-reflexive assessment of how well an aviation SMS is performing.
Last updated May 2023.