What Comes After Human Factors?

Oct. 9, 2006
Developing a safety culture and measuring the benefits

After 12 years of training, we can take what we have learned in human factors for aircraft maintenance technicians and managers workshops and put the information to use throughout the organization. To formalize and implement this information in our organization, we need to understand safety management systems (SMS). An SMS provides the organizational framework to support a sound safety culture. It is essentially a quality management appacroach to controlling risk. Development and implementation of an SMS program provides management a structured set of tools to meet their legal responsibilities while managing safety within their organization. All Canadian airlines have been operating with an SMS program since 2005. Approved maintenance organizations and other air carriers have until December 2007 to implement SMS programs.

The FAA has released AC 120-92 "Introduction to Safety Management Systems for Air Operators". This is a voluntary program, but the FAA encourages each aviation service to comply.

What Is a Safety Management System?

A safety management system (SMS) is an integrated set of management and work practices, beliefs, and procedures for monitoring, supporting, and improving the quality of safety aspects and human performance in an organization. SMS assists organizations in recognizing the potential for errors, and establishes robust defenses to prevent errors from causing injuries or accidents. Safety management systems focus on organizational safety rather than the conventional employee safety and health (ES&H) workplace concerns.

An effective SMS helps organizations become proactive in their approach to safety by actively identifying risks and hazards, and supporting the implementation of appropriate solutions. A key aspect of this new view of safety is the recognition of human limitations. History tells us that all human activity is prone to error. People have inherent capabilities and limitations for information processing, memory, and workload. Safety systems must recognize and account for these human characteristics.

A safety management system becomes part of the organizational and safety culture; the way people do their jobs and think about safety. Every employee in every department contributes to the safety awareness of the organization. A successful safety management system provides a process for managing risk and reducing human error. A strong companywide commitment is the key to successful safety management. It is only through the collective efforts of all members that an organization will successfully prevent human error and manage safety programs effectively. SMS provide the mechanisms for organizations to become more effective and efficient thereby have a positive financial impact on corporate profitability.

Benefits of Implementing SMS

Traditionally, safety has been, in many cases, all about avoiding costs. Many organizations have been bankrupted by the cost of a major accident. This makes a strong case for safety, but cost of occurrence/major accidents is only part of the story. Research shows that safety and efficiency are positively linked. Taken a step further, organizations with a strong safety culture can be profitable organizations. Recent operators who have integrated SMS into their business models report that the added emphasis on process management and continuous improvement benefits them financially as well.

A safety management system will provide an organization with the capacity to anticipate and address safety issues before they lead to an incident or accident. A safety management system also provides management with the ability to deal effectively with accidents and near misses so that valuable lessons are applied to improve safety and efficiency.

A Safety Culture

Safety is no longer the responsibility of just the dedicated safety professionals who in the past led the charge for safety improvements. By clearly placing responsibility for safety performance in the hands of all of the operating divisions, safety becomes everyone's business. Only then is it possible to create a true safety culture in an organization.

A safety culture exhibits a reporting culture. Information must be free flowing within the organization. The reporting system must encourage and accommodate both the proactive reporting of hazards and the reactive reporting of incidents and accidents. Every report must be treated systematically and transparently, and not generate disciplinary action or any other form of retribution against the reporter where no willful negligence was involved. Once members of the organization feel free to report hazards, incidents, and accidents, they will continue to do so if they see some concrete results from their reports. This means that those who report hazards, for example, must receive feedback on what is being done about the issues raised in their reports.

Senior Management Commitment

No safety management system will function effectively unless there is management buy-in and leadership. Accountable executives have the power to implement cultural change from "the top down". No amount of enthusiasm or planning by staff will have any effect if management is lukewarm toward, or is seen to be unsupportive of, SMS implementation. The staff needs to know that they can count on company management to support their safety initiatives. Company management must be seen by their behavior and actions to be actively supporting the implementation and continuation of the SMS.

Attitudes and actions of top-level management influence the attitudes and actions of staff. As hazards begin to be identified, senior management must be prepared to commit resources to find solutions promptly. If they are merely swept under the carpet because the fix is too time-consuming or costs money, the program will lose credibility and the hazards will remain. Management indifference of avoidance of solutions will doom what would otherwise be successful SMS programs.

Safety Management System Requirements

What needs to be included in an effective safety management system? Clear authorities, responsibilities and accountabilities for safety, at all levels within the organization. This includes the following:

  1. Senior management commitment to safety as a core value
  2. Safety policy
  3. Discipline policy
  4. Hazard identification and safety risk management
  5. Establishing accident, incident, hazard reporting and investigation programs
  6. Safety orientation and recurrent training
  7. Maintain open and constant communication

Implementing a safety management system in an organization requires a lot of work. It is not something that is implemented over a weekend. The culture change and necessary process improvements will outweigh any initial costs and efforts. In our competitive environment it will be only those who keep sharpening the saw that will truly succeed.

About the Author

Richard Komarniski