Safety Management Systems

The future of aviation safety

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In Safety Matters, we have spent most of the last year talking about the various safety programs that exist, their development, their purpose and their impact upon flight crews. We have also alluded to a bigger system (than just data gathering safety programs) that would allow better safety decision making to influence policy and procedural development.

While each of these programs is important, and each serves a vital purpose in the safe operation of an airline, once massive amounts of anonymous data gathering began, it became widely accepted that each program would be more effective if it were part of a central data gathering and tracking program. This would serve to not only identify problems and trends, but could direct response to prevent issues from becoming greater. This core concept forms the basis of a Safety Management System or SMS.

SMS is a term that most pilots will be familiar with, but may not fully understand because it is a system that exists behind-the-scenes from line flying. Despite its invisibility to most, it serves a vital function to improve the operation on all levels and elevates operational safety to a level that would otherwise be impossible within a safety system. Because it exists “behind the scenes” sort of lends an air of mystery to a system which is fundamentally very simple in concept, but complex in execution. Since it is not really seen directly by the line employees, there is often a lack of understanding about how such a system can improve safety, and more importantly, how employees interact with the system.

SMS is, in concept, a top-down safety system that exists at all levels of the company and seeks to effectively perform the following objectives:

Gather data at all levels of the company that are related to all relevant safety-sensitive job tasks.

Analyze the gathered data to identify trends and incidences that may pose a potential safety risk.

Perform a risk analysis on those trends and incidences to determine severity of risk, cost, frequency, and the need to impose a change of equipment, policy, procedure, or training.

Systematically and proactively implement the recommended changes, policies or training among the necessary work groups.

Continue to monitor the data to determine whether the implemented changes were effective. If they were, no change may be necessary. If they weren’t, additional analysis will be performed to attempt to address the issue more effectively.

A good analogy for flight crews for what a SMS system is constantly doing is similar to the concept of Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) that crew members perform throughout a flight. As pilots, we are constantly evaluating whether a change has occurred and whether we need to react. If we do need to react, we determine the best course of action, implementing that action. We then monitor to see if that action achieved the desired result. The FAA formally represents this as the DECIDE model of ADM, and SMS is very similar in concept, but on a much broader scale. The SMS is unique in that while working on a total operation scale, it is also more sensitive to single occurrences or issues that might not be detected using traditional safety methods. For instance, if an employee notices something that may cause risk in the operation, but hasn’t yet resulted in a problem, then SMS allows that employee to report the issue and it will receive the same handling with respect to safety processes as would a bigger problem. This allows for a formal and defined method for employees to report issues before they cause an accident, which is distinctly different than most methods we have already talked about, where something has to occur in order to receive attention.

This seems simple in concept, but why is it important, and why do we care about it?

The reason SMS is so important and effective is that it allows the integration of various programs to provide a central system to improve organizational safety, which in turn, allows synergies that make each program more effective than it would as a stand-alone. It is this synergistic approach that allows all safety risks, regardless of frequency or severity, to be actively addressed and monitored. This not only allows safety team members to address major risks, but also to focus equal attention on safety risks that may otherwise “slip through the cracks.” For the first time in formal safety systems, SMS allows for a proactive approach to safety issues that may not have yet resulted in an actual accident, incident or loss. The real key to SMS is, as is the goal for any safety system, to prevent accidents before they happen. By addressing issues as early as possible, the likelihood that an accident or incident will occur is greatly reduced. Employees have direct contact with the job being done and typically recognize a potential risk before any formal system would. How many times has “that is dangerous,” or “this could be done better” entered an employee’s mind while working? For the first time, SMS allows this to be addressed directly, in a formal safety program that exists company-wide.

Due to the size, complexity, importance, and far reaching effects of SMS, the next article will address the inner workings of an SMS system; the culture, the processes, and the systems that are in place so that an understanding of how it specifically addresses safety issues can be seen.

In yet another article, our discussion will center around how this system is seen and used by regular line employees to build understanding of how important the role of every team member is to a successful SMS system, and that the modern safety system is far different from how it is usually perceived. ACN

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