Author: Daniel Maurino, Independent Safety Advisor

Since November 2006, the implementation of a system for the management of safety, or Safety Management System (SMS), is an international standard that a broad spectrum of aviation organisations must meet. Beyond formal definitions, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) conceived ‘safety management’ as “a managerial process that must be considered at the same level, and along the same lines, as any other managerial processes”.

SMS was seen as the management system that would provide the organisational structure and the resources necessary to implement that process, which would include “lines of safety accountability throughout the organisation, as well as at the senior management level1.

SMS has now been extensively implemented throughout the international civil aviation system. But with so many years passed, can we say with confidence that the ICAO original concept is reflected in practice? Or that the marriage between safety management as a managerial process (i.e., a business function) and of SMS as a management system (i.e., the formal structure and resources that support the process) has come together?

The role of SMS

Let’s examine the role of SMS further. It’s a management system integrated with other management systems, positioned at the same organisational level, adopting the same language and activities, and following procedures common to the management of other business risks (finance, quality, insurance, legal, etc.). It allows aviation organisations to address integrate safety risk within every other risk the business needs to manage.

The management of safety through an effective SMS is connected to an overarching goal: keeping the organisation viable. It’s the goal of any risk management, regardless of risk type. In the case of SMS, businesses achieve it through allocating resources to address the safety risks the organisation faces as it operates and serves the public.

When allocating resources, businesses need to back it up with evidence. They also need to balance it with the resources they’re putting towards other business functions taking care of different risks – all of which could threaten the continued viability of the organisation.

Three essential SMS building blocks

There are three building blocks that help businesses manage safety through an effective SMS.

1. Differentiating roles

First, businesses need to differentiate accident risk reduction and safety risk management:

  • Accident risk reduction (historically known as accident prevention) involves activities that avoid low-probability, high-severity negative events; typically, accidents and serious incidents.
  • Safety risk management involves activities that generate information to support how business leaders allocate resource to mitigate safety risk.

The difference goes far beyond semantics. Safety risk management – under SMS – may help prevent accidents just as, for example, financial risk management may help avoid bankruptcy. But this only occurs if the allocated resources to address safety risk are effective.

This is a fundamental point: allocation of resources through SMS will not turn into safety success if the resulting mitigation activities (the safety programmes) aren’t appropriate. This defines the relationship between safety risk management and accident prevention – allocating resources is the job of safety risk management, whereas safety programmes are the job of accident prevention.

2. Monitoring effectiveness and efficiency

The second point is linked with the above and widens the lens of the management of safety as a business function. Failure to achieve accident prevention is one side (more likely, a downside) of the coin. If the resources allocated to the mitigation activities don’t achieve – for whatever reason – the desired results, those resources are wasted. And, moral overtones aside, there is no return on investment.

So an effective SMS needs to include monitoring. One that’s as close (and as often as possible) to real time to assess the effectiveness and the efficiency of the mitigation activities and to allow the re-allocation of resources to get the desired results (return on investment).

3. Making it a routine for executive management

Lastly, safety management as a business function belongs in the executive boardroom, but not because safety is our first priority or similar incantations. It belongs there because, while decisions on risk evaluation are fundamentally technical and therefore belong to the technical-operational level, decisions on risk mitigation have financial, administrative, and legal edges (and associated costs). So they belong legitimately at the level of executive leadership.

History shows that attempts to embed safety into the daily agenda of executive leadership from the usual angle of accident prevention are predestined to fail. It’s counterproductive to try and force safety collectively among executive leadership. To try capitalising on the moral and ethical nuances underlying accident prevention (the “safety first” claim), or to attempt to turn executive leaders into safety experts.

An accident means to safety what bankruptcy means to finance. No financial officer would think of avoiding bankruptcy as a marker of success to the financial processes. However, safety officers routinely report success of the safety processes as the absence of accidents. From an organisational standpoint, the mismatch in perspectives is evident.

So helping executive leadership to see safety risks through an enterprise risk management perspective is essential in successfully developing this building block. This is because the language of risk management is common currency for the board, whereas the language of accident prevention is not.

It’s difficult to conclude the examination of the status of industry-wide SMS implementation, and if ICAO achieved what it set out to do back in 2006 – any evidence to support whether theory had been put in practice would likely tell contrasting stories. However it’s clear ongoing education is vital, otherwise aviation organisations simply can’t make the most of the benefits SMS can bring.

How we’re promoting safety management in the region

Gallagher and Sirius Aviation, in collaboration with the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, have established the Latin American Aviation Safety Centre (LASC). It helps service provider organisations in Colombia and in the larger Latin American subcontinent to enhance, among other, their safety management process.

It involves a university-level education programme delivered at the University campus in Bogotá that culminates with an official Aviation Safety Certificate issued by the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana (more information regarding the LASC will be forthcoming in the near future). The programme includes – but isn’t limited to – a variety of safety management and SMS related courses developed observing the three building blocks of an effective system to manage safety as a business function outlined in this article.

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1. ICAO Air Navigation Commission Working Paper 8056 (AN-WP/8056, 26/09/2005).