Apathy: The SMS Killer
Apathy is the bane of any aviation safety management system (SMS).
Apathy is the most insidious kind of resistance any aviation safety manager will face. It can take many forms, such as:
- Lack of budget approval
- Lack of participation
- Poor safety reporting numbers
- Lack of accident improvement
- Lack of SMS maturation
- Resistance to change via doggedly following old procedures
The list goes on.
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When employees and/or management don’t care about the aviation SMS, employees will regard it similarly to the way most people regard the “Employee Rights” posters – they hardly ever look at and rarely think about it except when they have to.
While that comparison may be a tad extreme, it’s certainly in the same vein. Aviation SMS cannot grow when employees don’t care about them. An employee may not really care about the company's welfare, but rarely, an employee doesn't care about his personal safety and the safety of:
- coworkers; and
- family members.
Of course, there will be misfits who are momentarily mentally challenged or those with criminal intent who will not highly regard safety. These are adequate reasons that the rest of us must be doubly alert.
Here are three reasons why employees are generally apathetic about your aviation SMS.
1 – Don’t Feel Engaged
Engagement plays a critical role in helping employees care about the aviation SMS. When employees aren’t engaged in protecting and promoting the SMS, it’s usually because the SMS is passive.
Engagement means employees have consistent and easy access to
- reported safety issues,
- safety information,
- tools to manage SMS documentation requirements,
- training resources, and
- safety philosophy.
This can take many forms:
- Convenient and multiple safety reporting methods
- Consistent and useful safety surveys
- Regular interaction with the safety manager
- Visible participation of management
- Training that is interactive or interesting/fun
I have observed that when employees aren’t engaged, it’s a direct result of the SMS not being pushed into their field of vision enough. Safety promotion activities need to be:
- regularly offered (at least monthly);
- varied in delivery style and content, to not be regarded as the "Employee Rights" poster; and
- aimed at all audiences, but not necessarily all at the same time.
Related Aviation SMS Safety Promotion Articles
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2 – Don’t Feel Opinion Matters
Few people like it when areas of their life change without their opinion. We have words for it:
That’s not what necessarily happens in aviation SMS. Yet when employees feel that-
- They have no input;
- Management's decision doesn't make sense (because employees don't have all the information);
- Changes happen because management decided on it without understanding the entire picture;
-they tend to feel oppressed and powerless, which are common ingredients for apathy.
What’s especially unfortunate about this is that the same employees who don’t care about the aviation SMS (because they don’t feel involved) would otherwise be invested in the SMS if they were involved.
Finding creative ways to involve employees in the process of change and safety policy creation is a fantastic aviation SMS promotional tool.
3 – Don’t See Results in Timely Manner
While resistance to change is a fairly common issue, the opposite can also be true.
Whenever hazards and reported safety issues are consistently being reported and are not addressed by visible change, employees will lose faith in the SMS.
It makes sense. The logic is this: if there is a consistent problem, and the SMS cannot mitigate this problem – then what’s the point of the SMS?
It’s also personally gratifying to see what happens to "your" reported safety issue after it has been submitted. Part of this harks back to "feeling involved in the process."
Remember the days of the suggestion/safety box that sat near the water cooler?
Maybe you still have one.
The box sits empty most of the time.
Maybe we have become frustrated with this failed process. You know the process if you have ever filled in a safety report or submitted a sincere, 'good-idea' suggestion. The employee is no longer content filling out a safety reporting form and then simply putting the safety form into a black hole and then waiting... and waiting... waiting for some final resolution to fall into their lap
Being able to track step by step what happens with reported safety issues lets employees see that management is actively working to improve their safety and dealing with the reported safety issues.
Visibility into the risk management processes reduces resistance to change from the SMS activities. Appearances are incredibly important to healthy safety cultures. When employees see change being affected due to their suggestions and inputs, employees will become engaged and begin to take ownership of the SMS.
Managing issues in a timely manner is also important. I don't think that it is so much as "fixing or mitigating the risk as soon as possible" that causes the concern. Historically, management has never been good at communicating changes to the organization. Employees are more satisfied with receiving updates than having a problem fixed posthaste.
Followup activities require taking valuable time from the safety team.
>> First, you have to determine whether an update is expected or in good taste.
>> Then you may have to decide upon the message you wish to deliver. How much information should be divulged?
>> How will you deliver this message regarding the reporter's submitted safety issue? In-person, by email, by phone, in a newsletter, or by public safety message?
>> Already, we have spent too much work on considering this common SMS challenge.
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SMS Databases Positively Affect Safety Cultures and Promote Involvement
An effective SMS with sustainable risk management processes will have an easy, repeatable process that addresses this problem 90% of the time. Employees need timely feedback on their reported safety concerns. Safety teams should not be spending their valuable time manually processing mundane safety management tasks when there are better solutions.
And what is the best solution?
Allow employees unfettered access to information regarding their reported safety concerns. This is easily done using an SMS database and saves the safety department considerable time when following up and closing the feedback loop.
Obviously, an SMS spreadsheet will not work. Modern, low-cost, commercially available SMS databases have features allowing employees to securely access their reported safety issues. They can simply:
- Navigate to a page listing all their reported safety concerns; and
- See the status of their safety reports, including who is responsible for managing each issue and planned corrective actions; and
- Leave comments when needing more information.
Automated processes save safety managers time. This saved time can be spent promoting the SMS. And this is where I routinely see the biggest problem around the world and in every aviation industry segment. Safety managers should be educating employees on the importance of hazard identification and how to identify hazards.
More organizational value will be realized from educating employees and promoting the SMS than trying to figure out how you can close the feedback loop with employees to keep them engaged.
Yes, engaged employees will report more issues. However, educated employees will report "better quality" safety concerns, as they know what hazards are and how to identify failing risk controls.
Automate your feedback loop. Timely feedback is the most important tactic for combating apathy. When you are relying on the safety manager to provide this timely feedback, you are introducing unnecessary risk into the system. 80% of aviation service providers have substandard safety reporting numbers. Apathy is the symptom that most of this 80% share.
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Overcoming Apathy Takes Work
Overcoming apathy is not an easy task. It requires a tremendous amount of work by a safety manager – especially if the source of apathy is from management.
The safety manager will not only have to constantly find new ways of engaging employees and incorporating them into the implementation of the SMS. He/she will have to do that in addition to all of the other responsibilities, such as managing reported safety issues, attending training, etc.
While I mention from time to time my support of safety surveys, using them is a fantastic way to assess employee involvement and learn how employees feel about the aviation SMS. Safety newsletters and safety articles are also used to promote your safety program.
Aviation SMS software amplifies the effects of safety teams. Not all companies need commercially available SMS database software, but if you are spending too much time on mundane documentation tasks in the SMS, you should consider automating many of these routine processes.
An SMS database not only automates risk management processes, but the database also gives you a chance to use industry-tested and accepted risk management processes. This is the fastest way to access modern SMS workflows to make your company more efficient in managing SMS documentation requirements.
Below are some short demo videos of various systems in an aviation SMS.
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Last updated December 2023.