Poor Safety Reporting Cultures Invite Opportunities for Loss
Safety reports from aviation service providers' employees are important resources for the detection and prevention of potential safety hazards. One of the biggest challenges for aviation safety managers is to obtain safety reports from employees.
Obstacles that contribute to this challenge are common:
- Difficult reporting processes;
- No hazard identification training;
- Lack of recurring encouragement;
- Inconsistent educational messages;
- Supervisors discouraging hazard reporting;
- Fear of reprisal;
- Fear of drawing attention to their area of operations;
- Apathy or distrust of management; and
- Management neglecting the feedback loop.
Related Aviation Safety Reporting Culture Articles
- Indicators of Good Hazard Reporting Culture
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- How Aviation Safety Managers Can Improve Safety Reporting Cultures
Healthy hazard identification and safety reporting rates should range from eight to twelve reports per 100 employees per month. Many operators may get one or two submitted safety reports per 100 employees each month.
If your reporting culture continues to suffer for extended periods of time, your chances for a major accident or incident will naturally increase exponentially. After all, safety managers and operational department heads can only mitigate the risk of known hazards.
Hazard reporting is incredibly important for preventing "The Accident" we all know is coming, but we don't know when or to whom. But we do know "Why."
Hazard reporting is critical to provide management with the data and opportunity to fix "the process" before the major accident. Heinrich's law says that for every major accident, there will be 600 opportunities to fix the root cause of that major accident.
Heinrich is not saying that there will be 600 minor incidents or close calls before "The Accident." He's saying that for every accident, there will be 600 minor incidents. This is the very reason that management must be encouraging hazard identification and safety reporting!
Maybe you have 350 minor incidents or close calls before "The Accident." If employees, vendors, contractors, and customers could easily report safety or quality concerns, then if only ten percent of those employees reported, you would have had 35 opportunities to address the root cause that would have led to "The Accident." This is why it becomes so important to continually pound the safety message. Safety promotion is an underused tool in the safety manager's toolkit.
Safety promotion becomes so very important after a certain company size. In smaller companies, such as fewer than 20, safety promotion can come off as:
Does that mean you shouldn't do it? Of course not. The strategy will be different for everybody. The smaller the company, the less it will be required or expected.
The larger the company in terms of the number of employees and diversity of operations, the more hazards are usually involved in operations. The more eyes that are watching, the better. But those eyes have to be:
- trained in what to look for;
- trained in how to respond; and
- willing to respond;
This last point is the point of this article.
Next, we will explore the main deterrent to aviation SMS safety reporting systems.
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Difficult Safety Reporting Processes Increase Chances for Loss
Aviation safety managers have incredible pressure to perform. This holds especially true for newly hired and newly appointed safety managers. First, they have to learn the principles of aviation safety management systems (SMS). If the safety manager is a part-time safety manager, reading the documentation or going to SMS training adds to the existing workload.
New safety managers may initially believe SMS is something like the traditional safety program, but SMS is much more than that. Aviation SMS requires the involvement of management. SMS has accountabilities. SMS is not something that can be hidden, or lie dormant like the traditional safety programs.
In the traditional safety programs, management didn't expect active involvement. Now the accountable executive, with the assistance of the safety manager or team, must monitor the performance of the SMS and demonstrate continuous improvement of the SMS. SMS has accountabilities.
So yes, new safety managers are under tremendous pressure to perform. If they make the wrong SMS data management decisions, it will mean more work for the existing safety team as well as the future safety managers. We all should know what happens when a new safety manager comes in and doesn't understand the previous SMS' data management strategies. I'll tell you what I think happens. The new safety manager will either:
- not follow the established SMS risk management procedures, thereby increasing operational risk;
- complains to management that the previous safety manager didn't know what he was doing and now we need new tools; or
- walks away or tells the accountable executive that he's not a good fit for the job.
SMS Data Management Directly Affects Safety Reporting Metrics
SMS data management strategies must be a prime consideration when we discuss improving safety reporting numbers. There are considerations the accountable executive and safety manager must take:
- How will employees report safety concerns?
- Is the safety reporting system user-friendly?
- Can employees report without fear of retribution? How do they know?
- Will management do anything about the report? Or is it like the paper reports disappearing in the box by the water cooler?
- How will reported safety concerns be managed once they enter the system? What is the workflow?
- Do we have adequate capacity to handle many safety reports per day? Per month?
- What can we do with the data once we have it? How do we make the most use of it for future trend analysis?
Safety managers are busy. Effective safety promotion campaigns take considerable time to create, implement and monitor. A lot of eyes are on the safety manager expecting him to perform. If the SMS' data management strategies are not effective, there may not be a sustainable process to manage the volume of expected safety reports.
Before attempting to increase safety reporting metrics, the safety manager will need to ensure the SMS' risk management processes and their ability to execute those processes will be adequate to meet the increased reporting.
Related Aviation Risk Management Articles
- Difference between Reactive, Predictive and Proactive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
- What Is Reactive Risk Management (Why It’s Essential for Aviation SMS)
- Going from Reactive to Predictive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
Keeping Safety Reporting System Simple
Inexperienced safety managers frequently over-architect their SMS safety reporting systems. They mean well, but they don't consider the effect the safety reporting system has on safety culture.
Safety managers are over-achievers. Many don't realize that "less" often equates to "more." Due to this driving force to succeed, safety managers seldom streamline their hazard identification and safety reporting process.
→ Overly complicated reporting processes increase the chances of system failure.
→ Overly complicated systems are seldom long-lasting. They are not sustainable.
→ Overly complicated systems are shunned by regular employees.
→ Unused reporting systems cause resentment from management.
I hear a common concern for safety managers when they consider their reporting forms. What is the proper number of data points to collect?
A prudent safety manager may believe, "I don't want to keep going back to the reporter, so I have to ask for everything upfront. I may not get another chance to ask for more information. Or it costs me too much time to go back and forth with the reporter, so I need it all now."
This "get it all at once" attitude is the reason most employees hate reporting via the Web. Too much information is being asked that may not be relevant to the issue being reported. Communication is much easier today with the Internet. You no longer have to deal with those long, double-sided paper reports. Back then, there was the expectation of the inability to get more information the second time.
User-Friendly Safety Reporting Forms
Email works. Communication is fast today, and it's easy to ask for more information if the reporter is willing. Again, safety culture influences safety reporting systems.
The point is that safety reporting forms should be specific to the type of concern, whether it is:
- Flight related;
- Cabin crew related;
- General safety;
- Air Traffic Control;
- Engineering, etc.
There was a day when paper reports were the main technology to capture safety reports. There was no option for a user to select a particular reporting form from the table to fill out. There was usually one safety reporting form, and it held enough fields for the most common types of concerns across the major operating departments.
Consequently, these paper-based reporting forms were not designed with the end user in mind. We see the same abusive forms on; several CAA reporting websites.
These busy, overly-complicated reporting forms frustrate users and reduce reporting frequency. These busy forms hurt the safety reporting culture. Don't make your reporting forms too busy. One approach we occasionally use is to lead a user down a predefined Web path, like a wizard. Based on user input, users can be asked to provide additional information.
There are pros and cons to those interactive reporting form wizards. The most obvious is the cost. Such an advanced safety reporting form could easily cost between $5,000 and $20,000 to develop. These interactive reporting forms and the data model behind them, require careful planning by subject matter experts.
You may not have an adequate budget to develop a custom safety reporting system. An alternative is a low-cost, commercially available SMS database solution that may cost as little as a few hundred dollars per month.
The commercial SMS database is a good approach for operators with fewer than 1,000 employees. Smaller operators with fewer than 40 employees may not need an SMS database unless they have high employee turnover. In these cases, an SMS database reduces risk to the continuity of the SMS.
Most SMS databases provide many predefined reporting forms that users can access using a Web browser or mobile application (app). For example, SMS Pro offers approximately 15 predefined reporting forms that administrators can choose to use or hide from users reporting safety concerns.
Related Aviation SMS Database Articles
- What Is an Aviation Safety Database
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Where Most Safety Managers Fail
Poor hazard identification and safety reporting cultures are typically attributed to management and "mission-focused" attitudes. Safety managers work very hard to change employees' and managers' attitudes. This is a slow process that can take several years.
To change attitudes toward safety reporting, it is recommended that safety managers take baby steps. Keep it simple. You can always monitor and make incremental adjustments toward complexity, but safety cultures are not as forgiving, such as when you dump a pile of horse manure on your neighbor's lawn. It's really difficult to earn back goodwill and safety cultures are not always forgiving.
Too often, safety managers design hazard reporting forms that are too complex. I have frequently seen reporting forms that cover two to four pages. Scores of checkboxes and radio buttons clutter the layout. My eyes hurt just looking at these forms.
How many times have you been to a government agency to fill out a form that covered multiple pages? If the form hurts your eyes and looks like too much work, employees will not continue to use the reporting form.
I am a typical user.
→ I am a poor performer when filling out long forms.
→ I get tired of complex forms and start checking boxes with little regard, or
→ I won't checkboxes because my mind is screaming and reeling with agony: "I have three more pages to go!"
Do you really need four pages to obtain an initial safety report?
Is your reporting form designed to help management? Yes, but management must make it easy for employees to report. Otherwise, it is too much work.
Unless somebody knows that I saw a safety-reportable "issue", I may not report the safety concern if I know I can get away with it. If management can't make it easy for me to report, then why should I help management? It boils down to safety culture and safety reporting systems strongly affect safety cultures.
Make it easy to report.
Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles
- What Is Safety Culture in Your Aviation SMS?
- How Your Corporate Culture Kills Your Aviation Safety Culture
- 5 Ways to Constantly Improve Safety Culture
Designing Forms for Safety Reporting Systems
Poorly designed hazard identification and safety reporting forms irritate employees and customers. Your chances of having users submit more than one safety report are next to none when the user has a poor, first experience. Poorly designed reporting forms are:
- Chaotic; and
- Too much work.
Safety managers are far thinking and very detail oriented. This seems to be a universal trait, otherwise, they would not have been hired. They fear that they will waste time by having to hunt down the reporter and request more information. They fear that regulatory auditors will turn up their noses at "simplified" hazard reporting forms. Back in the Victorian age, complexity was valued. The more complex a process, the better it must be. But that thinking has proven to be false.
When you design (or redesign) your safety reporting system, keep your reporting forms simple.
- Use lots of white space (don't bunch form elements together);
- Only ask for required information;
- Keep the form to one page; and
- Have an automated thank you response to provide feedback.
SMS databases can provide reporters with a way to securely follow up and learn what mitigating actions are being taken on their reported safety issue. This email link is sent to the reporter when thanking the reporter for his actions. This strategy closes the feedback loop and is designed for reporters with different interest levels, including:
- I reported the safety issue as is my responsibility, now leave me alone; or
- I reported and want to be involved in fixing it; or
- I reported and am mildly curious about what management will do about it.
Follow-up emails to reporters are a safety promotion activity. Don't discount the value of these "thank you" emails. They are important to employees as they are now expecting:
- Accountability from management to fix the safety issue; and
- Management to abide by the non-punitive reporting policy.
The safety policy is supported by and evangelized by safety promotion. Thank you emails reinforce positive behavior, and we need healthy safety reporting to prevent "The Accident." The best way to reinforce and strengthen operational processes to prevent "The Accident" is to practice and continually improve the SMS' risk management processes.
Safety promotion must remind and reinforce the safety policy. You can have the best safety reporting system in the industry; however, the reporting system will not achieve its purpose when:
- employees don't know about it; or
- employees don't believe management will do anything about their safety reports; or
- management and employees do not have a trusting relationship.
It is the safety manager's responsibility to promote the safety policy. When employees do not respond, then the safety manager will need to determine the root cause. Once you have determined the root cause of low safety reporting numbers, this is a discussion for the accountable executive.
What will be the action plan? In most cases, it will be more safety promotion activities. First, review the safety policy and ask an objective person whether the safety policy provides explicit employee protections and assurances. Safety surveys are commonly the first safety promotion tool to determine employee attitudes to particular safety topics. You may consider a safety survey even when safety reporting numbers are great!
Related Aviation Safety Promotion Articles
- How to Promote Your Aviation SMS Safety Policy
- 10 Best Ways to Promote Safety in Your Aviation SMS [With Free Checklist]
- Aviation SMS Surveys - an Often Neglected Safety Promotion Tool
Final Thoughts on Improving SMS' Safety Reporting Processes
Poorly designed reporting forms are certain to harm your safety reporting culture more than other factors.
When safety reporting forms cause me pain to fill out, I won't do it again. I don't like pain. I won't repeat the painful experience. Employees are no different.
Safety managers spend considerable energy trying to improve safety reporting cultures, such as:
- Safety surveys;
- Safety promotion posters;
- Safety speeches by managers; and
- Safety memos.
Before you start considering your safety reporting metrics, review your hazard reporting forms.
Do they look reasonable?
Will employees fill them out? Or will they opt for email reporting instead?
Do employees in a hurry have the option to fill out a "quick report" that has fewer required fields?
Who do you think is the client when the safety reporting system is concerned? Employees are the clients the safety team is serving in this instance. The reporting system must be easy enough for most employees expected to report safety concerns.
SMS Pro has safety reporting forms of varying complexity. Safety managers can modify the drop-down lists or hide fields on the forms to streamline the reporting process.
If you need a Web-based safety reporting system that integrates with the SMS risk management system, please watch these short demo videos.
SMS Pro comes with many predefined reporting forms. Furthermore, the SMS database's risk management processes have been designed by aviation safety professionals from around the world. Workflows can be customized by your administrator. Want a super-streamlined risk management process? Not a problem. Want a highly detailed process? We can help.
Since 2007, aviation safety professionals continue to drive SMS Pro's development.
Please watch these short videos to determine whether we are a good fit for you.
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Last updated August 2023.