Aviation industry embraces SMS

 - December 21, 2006, 9:21 AM

Safety Management Systems (SMSs), popular in other industries for years, are coming to aviation because regulatory authorities, safety experts and industry leaders have proclaimed that SMS represents the future of safety management in our industry. Other countries have been working with safety management systems for years, and the SMS is now gaining traction in the U.S. SMSs provide organizations with a powerful framework of safety philosophy, tools and methodologies that improve their ability to understand, construct and manage proactive safety systems.

In the past, aviation safety improvement was characterized by a fly-fix-fly approach. We would fly airplanes, they would crash occasionally, and we would investigate the cause(s) to prevent it from happening again. Sometimes the causes would be related to weather or mechanical failure, but more often investigators would determine the cause to be human error–usually the pilot. Essentially, the philosophy at that time was that once the cause was determined to be the pilot, we simply needed to encourage other pilots not to make the same mistakes. That might be a bit of an oversimplification, but not much.

Today we realize that it is much more productive to engineer a system in which, to the extent possible, the causes of failure (incidents and accidents) have been designed out. As you might imagine, there are many elements to this engineering effort.

The modern aviation safety practitioner must have a working understanding of hazard identification, risk management, system theory, human-factors engineering, organizational culture, quality engineering and management, quantitative methods and decision theory. More could probably be added to this list.

SMSs are not just for aviation; they are employed in a wide variety of diverse industries, such as chemical, oil, construction, occupational health, food, highway, electrical and fire protection, among others. SMSs are not new concepts in these industries. In fact, references to SMSs in the literature of some of these industries can be found as far back as the early 1980s. Many of these industries have historically poor safety records and have benefited from the philosophy and structure SMSs provide.

The U.S. is not the only nation to advocate the use of an SMS. Many people mistakenly think that the U.S. always leads when it comes to aviation safety. However, while the U.S. does have an enviable safety record, other countries are considerably farther along in their efforts to develop and implement SMS programs. Transport Canada committed to the implementation of SMS in aviation organizations in 2005 and was working with the system long before then. Europe has also moved forward with SMS more quickly than the U.S.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) codifies the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth. The association has mandated that its 189 member states develop and implement SMS programs to achieve an acceptable level of safety in aviation operations.

This requirement is currently limited to Annex 6–Operation of Aircraft; Annex 11–Air Traffic Services; and Annex 14–Aerodromes, of the statutes. In response, the FAA recently issued AC 120-92, Introduction to Safety Management Systems for Air Operators.

What Is SMS?
ICAO defines SMS as an organized approach to managing safety, including the necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, policies and procedures. Let’s break down the term “safety management system” to better understand it, and we’ll then look at a definition that tries to capture the essence of SMS.

Safety means different things to different people. It is generally understood to be the quality or condition of being safe; freedom from danger, injury, or damage; security.
What does that mean to the traveling public? The easy answer is that we want to arrive at our destinations without getting hurt. Are we willing to accept some risk in traveling? The hard reality is that we are. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we know that there is some chance, albeit a minute one, that we could be hurt or killed while traveling. What is that chance? Fortunately, it’s very minor, but we believe it can even be smaller.

ICAO defines safety as the state in which the risk of harm to people or property is reduced to, and maintained at or below, an acceptable level through a continuing process of hazard identification and risk management. It is important to note that this definition does not require that the risk is reduced to zero, but rather to an acceptable level. It also suggests that safety is measured against the acceptable level.

And it explains that we maintain safety through a process that involves identifying the hazards that impede safety and managing risks.

ICAO’s definition might best be thought of as relating to safety management. Of course, we all know that management is the process of getting activities completed efficiently and effectively with and through other people. The functions normally associated with management are planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, controlling and sometimes budgeting.

Management is the act of leading and directing an organization or an activity through the deployment and manipulation of resources–human, financial, intellectual, material or otherwise.

The dictionary defines systems as a group of interacting, interrelated or interdependent elements forming a complex whole; a functionally related group of elements. A system is more than the sum of its parts. It is useful to think of a system as an amalgam of people, procedures, processes and equipment that are integrated to perform a specific function or activity within a particular environment. How those characteristics combine to create a safety management system will be the topic of next month’s article.