What's in Your Toolbox?

According to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a safety management system (SMS) is: “… a toolbox that contains the tools that an aviation organization needs in order to be able to control the safety risks of the consequences of the...

• providing a data-driven, systemic approach to managing safety (as there are hazard/incident reports reported by front line employees and these are assessed for their potential impact)

The timing for the ICAO ruling on the need for a SMS and the upcoming FAA mandate may not suit the U.S. aviation industry at this point in time. Although upon reflection — when would it? Does change ever occur at a time when we are quite comfortable and ready for it? Not usually.

Other ICAO signatory states such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, have fully operational SMS in place and have had for some years. They now have some evidence that they are producing results (CASA, 2009). With this in mind, how long can we resist the necessity of change in safety management in our industry’s own business practices?

As this change is inevitable — and it is normal human nature to find change threatening and therefore resist it — we need to understand why we should not only adopt a SMS, but why we should embrace it and move to adopt it sooner rather than later. It is a different way of doing business than what we are currently used to — and we have heard this before too! However, even with all these possible benefits, why do some people still not want to adopt a SMS? First, let’s look at why we feel uncomfortable with the looming SMS mandate.

Another change going … where?

There is much talk about the SMS mandate being a way for the National Aviation Authority — in our case the FAA — to avoid its safety inspection responsibilities and place the responsibility of regulation onto the aviation entities themselves. It is often seen as a form of self-regulation that frees the regulator from the role of oversight. This is not the intent of a SMS. Does it produce this as a spin off? Bluntly put — to a point — yes it does. However, it does not cease the required regulatory oversight or absolve the regulator of its legal responsibility to maintain its ongoing role as the safety oversight body within our industry. Conversely it does not allow the organization to set its own safety levels.

More work for me!

With an integrated and appropriately functioning SMS there are several types of safety and quality assurance mechanisms and measures that will still be in place to ensure the organization is checking its own backyard for the identification of inadequacies, gaps, and its own oversights. These internal risk assessment tools and audits for both safety and quality within the organization have to be systematically managed and applied and conducted by all employees throughout the organization — not just the “auditors” or “safety people.”

Every person in the organization is a tool in the SMS toolbox. So what other “tools” do we need for a successful SMS? Now that we know why we should adopt a SMS, we need to know what the “tools” in this toolbox are, and how do we go about implementing them. The second segment of this article will address these aspects. 

Part 2: What should be in the toolbox?


Majella McDonald is a human factors expert with more than 20 years of professional experience in the aviation and health industries, in areas of SMS, human factors, accident investigation, and change management planning/ implementation. She currently works as a consultant for Baines Simmons Americas and teaches for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU).

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