Safety, Incorporated

Airports encouraged to take action while FAA tests SMS; many keep a wary eye.

Total Quality Management was bound to be overtaken by a new trend in business sooner or later. With Safety Management Systems (SMS) gaining in popularity and talk of regulation by FAA, that time is now — but not without its fair share of skepticism within the industry.

The good news is that SMS is not entirely new. The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) started its own SMS program three years ago. Some companies in the chemical, mining, and nuclear industries have already embraced SMS, as well as certain aviation industries abroad.
“It’s basically combining programs from the past like behavioral-based safety, system safety, and safety theory, all of these things combined are going into what FAA is looking at with SMS,” says Scott Simpson, director of project management with Safety and Security Instruction, an aviation industry-focused e-learning company based in Tempe, AZ.

“Everybody does SMS in some way, shape, or form now,” says Russ Lawton, director of safety and security at NATA. “You have to, because otherwise you couldn’t stay in business.”

SMS is more of an organizational change in the culture and approach toward safety, rather than just another manual or rulebook to follow, say those close to it. “SMS is an evolution, not revolution,” says Amy Koranda, director of safety management at NATA.

Adds Lawton, “It’s organization-wide. Typically we’ve taken a reactive approach to safety, where something happens and we go out to investigate.
“Whereas under SMS, the emphasis is proactive, where we go out and look at potential hazards within the company and evaluate the risk associated with those hazards. That way, we can get out in front of them.”

SMS includes reviewing safety plans and hazards periodically to ensure everything is working. Expect the culture change to affect every person within the organization, says Lawton.

“You’re instituting a way of doing business with everyone in the company,” says Lawton. “With SMS, everyone knows what they’re responsible and accountable for within the company.”

It sounds ambiguous because it is. SMS is highly dependent on the individual company and its particular situation. The good thing is that it’s highly adaptable to individual situations. The downside is the investment of time, money, and training necessary for an organization to develop an SMS.

“For most organizations, you’re looking at a year or more, easily, to get all the components of the SMS in place and get all your employees and vendors trained,” explains Lawton. “Everybody has to be in sync with the way the SMS is working, so it could take several years before it’s all in place.”

Adds Simpson, “Once you start an SMS, once you’ve got a good safety program, it never ends. It’s a continual process that you repeat over and over because your hazards will change, your environment will change, your employees will change, and all the mitigation factors might not work as they used to work.”

SMS also includes a non-punitive reporting system. “A big part of that is ensuring that any employee that comes forward with a safety report does so without fear of retribution,” Lawton says. “Let’s face it, we’re all human. We hate to admit when we screw up. This is a way of making people feel secure about the fact that we can’t be proactive unless we know what’s going on out there.

“We’re trying to get the frontline people, who are out there everyday, to tell us what’s going on.”

Talk of SMS and regulation started when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) began issuing SMS standards and requirements under the Chicago Convention.

“Under the treaty that all countries signed, we’ve agreed to comply with that regulation unless we file to do it differently,” says David Bennett, director of airport safety and standards at FAA.

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