Safety management systems (SMS) promise to improve aviation safety and reduce the risk of accidents, while creating a safety culture that makes safety a top priority. In the U.S., both air charter operators and airlines fly the public for hire, but when it comes to adopting an SMS there is a huge gap.
According to the FAA, less than 2 percent of the nearly 2,000 charter operators in the U.S. have an SMS in place and another 8 percent are working on it. This contrasts with 100 percent of all airlines that have developed and implemented a comprehensive SMS. The main difference is that implementing an SMS is voluntary for charter operators, but the FAA has mandated it for airlines since 2015.
This stark contrast has drawn the attention of the NTSB. In its 2021/22 list of most-wanted safety improvements, “requiring and verifying the effectiveness of SMS in all revenue passenger-carrying aviation operations” was one of two items that related to aviation (the other involves the installation of flight recorders and adoption of data monitoring programs for all commercial operators). The NTSB has made similar SMS recommendations to the FAA—seven times.
According to the NTSB, “An SMS is a formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing safety risk and assuring the effectiveness of safety risk controls. An SMS should address four components: safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance, and safety promotion. It can be scalable to the size and complexity of operations, yet too many operators either do not have one in place or have an ineffective one.”
As a review, according to the FAA, the four components are defined as:
• Safety policy establishes senior management’s commitment to continually improve safety and defines the methods, processes, and organizational structure needed to meet safety goals.
• Safety risk management (SRM) determines the need for and the adequacy of new or revised risk controls based on the assessment of acceptable risk.
• Safety assurance evaluates the continued effectiveness of implemented risk control strategies and supports the identification of new hazards.
• Safety promotion includes training, communication, and other actions to create a positive safety culture at all levels of the workforce.
The last component—safety promotion—is often a footnote in most SMS discussions but is important since it supports the other three components. Safety ownership and safety communication and awareness are underlying concepts that are critical to the SMS process.
Safety ownership relates to everyone in an organization. This helps foster “safety buy-in” from the employee groups since everyone has a role in promoting safety. The message should be “if you see something, say something” and, with a healthy reporting culture, “write something” to document the hazard.
Safety communication and awareness can range from publications to campaigns. Safety publications are most effective when content provides context on how the employee’s efforts are contributing to meeting an organization’s safety goals; this is important to create safety buy-in.
In addition, safety campaigns are much more than a clever slogan. According to Kevin Burns, a management and marketing consultant and safety speaker, generic slogans such as “safety first” and “be safe” do not create an easy affinity with the end-user. Instead, Burns suggests it may “take months to develop a focused message that resonates.”
Here are the three strategies that Burns recommends for creating a successful safety campaign. First, “create a bond of ownership” that includes messaging and words that connect personally with employees. Again, creating buy-in.
Next, “look beyond the narrow focus of safety.” The goal is to create something that all employees from ramp workers to pilots can get behind. An SMS does not just change the safety culture, but the corporate culture with safety being a core value.
Finally, “be everywhere.” The message must be integrated into every corner of the organization. According to Burns, “Everywhere an employee looks, there should be a reminder of how we do safety around here.” This strategy is impactful, since it not only hits employees, but also connects with job seekers, customers, and contractors.
Safety practitioners often struggle to find a return-on-investment in safety. Looking beyond the fences, safety can enable business. Contracts within an industry (oil and gas, for example) or with a government organization (USFS or DoD) often require companies to have a strong safety culture (SMS), proactive safety programs (flight data monitoring), and aircraft equipped with advanced safety equipment.
According to the NTSB, “SMS can improve safety and provide an effective means of ensuring a culture of safety.” Organizations with a strong safety culture should not be shy when promoting safety. An effective SMS highlights an organization’s ability to do safety well. These same attributes transcend to other parts of an organization—strong analytics, organizational structure, and attention to detail are all good business practices.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.