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What Is Proactive Risk Management in Aviation SMS?

Posted by Tyler Britton on Apr 26, 2019 6:20:00 AM

Understand What Is Proactive Risk Management

What Is Proactive Risk Management in Aviation SMS?

Proactive safety management is often upheld as the second highest form of risk management after "predictive risk management." This is because being able to demonstrate proactive risk management activities generally doesn’t happen until an aviation safety management system (SMS) matures beyond Phase 2.

The primary goals of proactive management of safety are:

  • Identify precursors that lead to risk;
  • Identify threats before they become dangerous; and
  • Understand what behaviors and attitudes are influencing safety performance.

Related Aviation Risk Management Articles

Being able to practice proactive safety management generally requires:

  • A great deal of safety data;
  • The ability to monitor complex safety metrics; and
  • A mature safety culture.

There’s no reason that new aviation SMS implementations can’t partially adopt some proactive risk management strategies for improving safety performance. Proactive activities for managing safety performance will become easier as the SMS matures and the safety culture becomes more engaged in the SMS risk management processes.

It’s important to remember that proactive risk management is not simply a concept or a “better” version of reactive risk management. Proactive risk management is defined by specific activities and specific goals that are different from reactive risk management. Both reactive and proactive risk management complement each other and are both essential to account for in an SMS data management strategy.

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When to Use Proactive Safety Management in Your Aviation SMS

Proactive strategies for management of safety are best used in the following situations:

  • Identifying emerging threats before the risk occurs (i.e. hazard identification);
  • Understanding underlying behaviors, attitudes, and actions that directly lead to safety performance; and
  • Uncovering precursors to risk, such as the relationship between a hazard, a threat, and a risk.

Like reactive safety management, proactive safety management of risk is the responsibility of all employees and not just safety management. Each level of an organization has specific proactive behaviors that create a proactive safety culture in an aviation SMS.

Types of Proactive Safety Management Activities

Safety management activities

Some specific safety management activities that fall into the category of “proactive” are:

  • Developing and monitoring aviation leading indicators;
  • Threat and hazard identification training;
  • Using data to establish underlying causes in the safety program;
  • Creating and reviewing risk controls that are designed to avoid the likelihood of suffering risk consequences;
  • Activities with the goal of developing a mature aviation safety culture; and
  • Safety meetings.

All of these activities involve addressing safety before a safety event becomes a concern. A good rule of thumb for proactive safety management activities is: to address "concerns about safety" before they become "safety concerns."

Proactive Safety Management Relationship with KPIs

Key performance indicators (KPIs) and leading indicators are intimately connected. In general, KPIs measure the output performance of a program. In risk management lingo, we call these lagging indicators. An issue is reported, and its classification is considered a KPI.

Because of this, KPI statistics work well in conjunction with leading indicators. Consider the following:

  • Leading indicators measure safety inputs;
  • KPIs measure the performance of safety outputs;
  • Monitoring leading and key performance indicators allows you to see the outcomes of your leading indicator controls.

Basically, for every leading indicator it’s a good idea to establish a corresponding KPI. For example, you might:

  • Monitor a leading indicator for the average number of updates to policy per time period;
  • Also track a KPI for the number of policies classified along with issue root causes; and
  • Ideally you will be able to establish a relationship between high frequency of updates and low root cause classifications of procedures.

Related Aviation SMS Articles on Leading Indicators

How Service Providers Hurt Proactive Safety Management

Service providers often unwittingly hurt their proactive risk management activities. This has several symptoms that can be very frustrating for aviation safety managers, such as:

  • Plateaued safety performance despite obvious efforts (budget, training, etc.) to improve;
  • Serious roadblocks in SMS implementation;
  • Struggle to transfer highly-structured SMS to highly-performing SMS; and
  • Most importantly, struggle to create a mature safety culture.

As I discussed with another safety manager the other day, ultimately all safety performance will reflect safety culture. The following points impede upon safety managers' ability to create the right kind of safety culture:

  • Limited background in risk management processes;
  • Not understanding what proactive risk management is;
  • Not understanding what a risk is and how to control the risk;
  • Poor understanding of what is safety culture and how to change a culture;
  • Organizational attitudes of "We've always done it this way;"
  • Safety manager's lack of power;
  • Not accounting for all major types of risk; and
  • Too much focus on safety data.

Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles

Aviation Safety Performance Dependent on Proactively Searching for Risk

It’s impossible to reach high levels of safety performance unless you are extremely clear on what risk is and the different types of safety risk management. Moreover, safety managers are tasked with remaining aware of all forms of risk, both internal and external to their organization.

While many of us enjoy looking over safety data, the basic fact is that an important part of proactive risk management requires “street smarts.” What this looks like in practice is simply interacting with various members of your organization and getting a “feel” for the:

  • Interest in the safety program;
  • The level of complacency about the program;
  • Organization's ability to proactively identify hazards;
  • Management's attitude about managing "potential hazards;" and
  • Organization's ability to manage the risk from identified hazards.

When employees have minimal interest in the SMS, there is no "ownership." Employees must feel empowered in taking part to ensure the success of the organization.

Employees must also be trained in hazard identification processes. What should they do once they spot a potentially unsafe environmental concern? I'm using the term "environmental" in the business sense, which includes the aviation service provider's operating environment. As we see, both attitude and hazard identification abilities are important elements in proactive risk management.

Ability to Manage Identified Hazards

Identified Hazards

Employees in healthy safety cultures take time and energy to proactively identify and report potential hazards. Engaged employees will naturally want to follow up and learn what risk management activities have been initiated to control the risk from their reported hazard. When employees see no activity or they receive no feedback, they will quickly become disillusioned with the aviation SMS and soon become "disengaged" employees.

There are best practices that should be followed whenever an employee submits a hazard report for an issue that has not yet adversely affected operations. These best practices extend to most employee safety reporting activities, regardless of whether the reported issue is reactive or proactive. These best practices include:

  • Immediate feedback to reporter;
  • Reporter has the option to be notified after defined risk management milestones have been reached;
  • Communicating risk to affected employees;
  • Advising employees of risk control strategies;
  • Ensuring relevant employees are trained to monitor and react appropriately to detective risk controls; and
  • Visible actions, when possible, that the identified hazard is being monitored more closely.

Employees become apathetic to aviation SMS initiatives quickly when they realize management has neither the ability nor the inclination to manage risk from their identified hazards. These employees are justified. Why report safety concerns when management cannot appropriately respond in a visible manner?

From a past experience, I felt like I was wasting my time when I submitted safety concerns and they disappeared in a black hole. After a couple of black hole experiences, I quit submitting close-call reports. In these cases, there was

  • no transparency in the process; and
  • no accountability to manage the process.

Proactive safety cultures require both transparency and accountability to keep employees engaged. Your proactive risk management dreams will never materialize without these two important elements.

Related Aviation Hazard Identification Articles

Final Thoughts on Aviation SMS Proactive Risk Management

You have to learn to walk before you can run. I suggest that before you become too enamored with the idea of having all employees run out and identify potentially unsafe behaviors and conditions, you first hone your reactive risk management processes.

During the initial stages of an SMS, you are encouraging employees to report "anything that doesn't look safe." Just report the safety concern and let the safety management team determine whether the risk in this area is acceptable. In real life, the department head in charge of the affected area of operations has risk acceptance authority. It will be his call whether additional risk management efforts need to be applied to reduce risk to as low as reasonably possible (ALARP).

In this article, we approached proactive risk management from the viewpoint of:

  • Employees proactively identifying hazards;
  • Importance of safety culture in relation to proactive risk management; and
  • Management's response "ability" in the risk management process.

Proactive risk management in aviation operations can be tackled from another angle:

  • Operational managers listing all hazards in their area of operations;
  • Subject matter experts analyze and assess risk to operations should the hazard manifest itself;
  • Evaluation of existing risk controls to determine effectiveness; and
  • Constant monitoring of the hazard, risk, and control measures.

The final product from the second approach is the Hazard-Risk Register which sums up the organization's operational risk profile (ORP). This subject deserves its own treatment in another article.

An organization's ability to successfully participate in proactive risk management is limited by tools, attitude, and training. Without the proper tools to quickly and effectively respond to and document the treatment of hazards, your SMS will never fully mature into what an aviation SMS was intended to: provide the necessary information in a timely manner so management can improve their decision-making abilities.

If you are interested in setting a safety management foundation to move towards more proactive methods of safety management, we can help with tools and training. To see these tools, request a demo.

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Last updated September 2023.

Topics: 2-Safety Risk Management

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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