Safety is a familiar topic. (Some people would say safety has been covered to the point of ad nauseam!) We hear about it everyday in a hundred different ways. In aviation, we live within its most obvious attributes, rules, and their effects. Books are written on about every possible aspect of safety in nearly every profession or walk of life. In fact as a culture, we share our experiences with each other in various ways as we improve our quality of life thus driving down the probability of daily or future harm. Safety describes a condition resulting from individual and collective strategies to reduce our exposure to risk. Safety is integral to life.
In our modern age, we are not confronted with hazardous scenarios as a daily occurrence because we are a culture based on rulemaking and process. We all drive on the right side of the road, for example. Our lives provide a baseline of safety made up of learned behaviors as a result of experiences passed from others. As a result, we don’t, as a rule, have to dodge bandits on the way to work.
(Most days) Laws and their enforcement prevent what would otherwise be a risky existence. For example, we know it is bad to text and drive — experience has shown it to be so and we are reacting to reduce the occurrence of “texting” behind the wheel. Laws addressing this along with enforcement drive creation of a “non-texting” norm that improves our daily habits behind the wheel. Flourishing societies or cultures include processes that protect most of us from risky or hazardous behavior.
In the aviation world, risks we accept define our corporate culture and affect our day-to-day expectations. As leaders, management defines what risks are acceptable to the organization. The example we set defines the culture. This applies irrespective of a company’s policies. People respond to a visual experience. They mimic what they see to repeat positive experiences or avoid the negative. These are forces that affect risk. It’s a natural learning function that is part of our cognitive learning processes and is a powerful personal tool for socialization.
Accidents are rare events in comparison to the number of departures undertaken each day. They exist in a realm of low frequency with large consequences. They often result from a combination of common deviations or system failures in uncommon order at a time when barriers and defenses can be defeated. It’s all a matter of probability. The accident is the outcome of many “near misses.”
For every accident there have been at least 10 incidents and as many as 100 near misses. It’s for this reason that safety and quality organizations are often aggressively focused on small violations or incidents. The chain of events that leads to calamity is often the result of “norms” or deviations from policy and procedure accelerated by environmental factors that misdirect actions and influence judgment. These precursor events are “Get out of jail free cards.” Improving and correcting latent hazards and internal deficiencies drive accident probabilities to very low occurring events.
Marketing drives safety
Risks are set by the desire to sell a service or product. An airplane sitting on the ramp carries little risk to the operators until a trip is assigned and the crew places the craft in motion. How we manage that trip defines the probability of success.
An organization’s risk appetite coupled with conditions and circumstances contained in the service environment define its risk margins. In any organization, the drive for profitability tests fundamental processes and reveals their strengths and weaknesses. This is a good thing. It creates organizational growth and maturity by assuring those processes that work are maintained in favor of those that don’t.
Safety-based organizations identify weakness and mitigate risk to support the mission while conserving resources. In fact the best companies are harshly realistic when it comes to evaluating their own performance and do so continuously. Safety doesn’t just drive hazard avoidance but also plays a part in conservation of resources. In doing so it contributes to the bottom line by minimizing loss and multiplying effort.
Leadership determines the maximum risk exposure acceptable to the organization. It defines the risk appetite. This may be planned using risk analysis or more intuitive means. For example, a dispatch organization may accomplish operational risk analysis to check the immediate environment and condition of a flight prior to departure to assure that operations risks are minimized. In maintenance, required inspections verify that work performed is accomplished correctly. Experience shows lesser performance may have immediate consequences to the safe operation of the aircraft. In aviation much of the margin is mandated by regulations which are a large reservoir of historical experience applied to normal aviation events.
We inhabit a margin of safety. The margin is a jungle of defenses and processes that mixed with human error and uncontrolled circumstances determine our place between absolute safety and unacceptable risk. A line drawn between both outcomes defines the breadth of probabilities that are possible. A systematic evaluation of routine policies and procedures provides a description of our exposure and the means to move away from unacceptable event probabilities. Organizations have begun regular use of continuous improvement of processes to drive good performance because of their continuous emphasis on development of internal experience. Whatever the choice is: safety management systems (SMS), root cause analysis (RCA), system safety, etc., should include the means to institutionalize positive norms that drive self-evaluation. Measure what you manage.
Self-image and consumer perceptions
Corporate images become a reflection of their safety experience. Customers’ perceptions of performance are based on the look and feel of the organization’s actions. Strong positive images include a positive reflection of safety attributes. In this context safety sells very well. While it may be difficult to explain how safety programs translate to good value to the customer, often the culture itself will communicate the message.
Aristotle said: “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Safety is an integral part of life. We use it everyday. It’s the outcome of our life’s experiences and those who came before us. Successful companies become world class when they build on their own experience to reinforce safety attributes within their organization as part of a corporate vision and strategy. This is often at the price of rigorous self-examination and feedback into the organization. In doing so they prepare for continued success by realizing economic or material conservation benefits and a continuously improving margin of risk. AMT
Vern Berry began his aviation career as an A&P mechanic in 1979. His experience within the aviation industry includes key management roles in quality and safety for both MRO and air carrier operations. He and his wife currently reside in upper state New York where he writes and manages a consultant firm at www.blowntireaviation.com.