AINsight: Don’t Swim with Sharks

 - March 25, 2022, 10:20 AM

Smaller Part 91 business aircraft operators have shown a reluctance to embrace safety management systems (SMS). A key component of SMS is safety risk management, which aviation safety professionals define as “a decision-making process designed to methodically identify hazards, assess the degree of risk, and determine the best course of action.” Or, as the FAA says: “a formalized way of dealing with hazards.”

It is easy to understand some resistance by smaller operators to adopt a voluntary safety system when it sounds so complicated. Perhaps a better option to explain risk management is to break it down into "bite-size" chunks and demonstrate that SMS is scalable for smaller operators.

A more simplistic way to look at risk management in action is to sit back, relax, pop some popcorn, and watch an old blockbuster movie, "Jaws." In fact, there may be no better way to explain the fundamentals of safety risk management than to unleash a man-eating shark on a coastal vacation destination only days before the summer tourist season opens.

In this movie, the concepts of hazards versus risk, production versus protection, and risk assessments and risk mitigation all play out—albeit a bit bloody—right in front of you on the big screen.

Before we get started, let’s level-set the conversation by explaining the differences between a hazard and a risk. A hazard is something that can potentially cause harm, such as a shark near a beach. Risk is a situation that involves exposure to a hazard, such as swimming with a shark.

Often these two terms are incorrectly interchanged with each other. Here’s the easiest way to remember the difference: to be considered a risk, an action word or verb is required. In aviation, a thunderstorm is a hazard, whereas flying in a thunderstorm is a risk. To eliminate the risk, you simply get rid of the verb.

Back to “Jaws,” the story begins with Chrissie Watkins, a young college-aged female, skinny-dipping off a Long Island beach and promptly getting devoured by a monstrous great white shark. As a local, she understood that there was a slight risk of a shark attack while swimming in the water; unfortunately, Watkins had no awareness that a crazed great white was lurking near the shoreline.

After her death, a battle then erupted between Amity’s (a fictitious Long Island town) mayor Vaughn and police chief Brody on what to do next. In risk management terms, this became the classic example of striking a balance between production and protection. In Amity, too much production (people swimming with a giant shark) could be catastrophic, while too much protection (no tourists) could lead many local businesses into bankruptcy.

Next came an informal risk assessment. Brody, sworn to serve and protect, was convinced that Watkins’s death was a shark attack. Considering the likelihood and severity of another shark attack, Brody deemed the situation as an intolerable risk.

His solution was to close the beach to the public and eliminate the hazard by hunting down the giant shark. Eliminating a hazard is the most effective control in the risk-mitigation process while isolating or separating the hazard from the people ranks third on a list of six control methods.

Risk assessments can be subjective. Vaughn had a bias towards the citizens—and voters—of Amity making money. He found an opportunity to softball the situation by convincing himself and others that Watkins’s death was an accident, caused by a fishing boat striking her. Thus, in his assessment, there was no hazard or risk to mitigate.

As it turned out, Vaughn did have doubts and implemented one of the weakest methods of controlling risk by installing warning signs along the beach. When mitigating risk, operators (or in this case the mayor) are cautioned not to choose a control method because it is easy and fast to implement. Installing signs is an administrative control that ranks fifth out of six control methods for effectiveness.

Risk mitigation involves implementing controls based on a hierarchy of effectiveness. Ranked from the most effective control to the least: eliminate or remove the danger completely, substitute the activity with an alternative, isolate by separating the hazard from the people, engineered controls, administrative controls such as signs, and personal protective equipment.

In the end, Brody was right. Shortly after the signs were posted an eight-year-old boy, Alex was attacked and killed by the shark in view of hundreds of beachgoers. Vaughn’s hazard identification, risk assessment, and risk mitigation strategy all failed. Brody then went on to finish his epic hunt to eliminate the great white shark (a hazard) and the rest of the story is history.

For the small operator of business aircraft, implementing an effective SMS does not have to be overly complicated. A great start is to begin using a flight risk assessment tool (FRAT) to identify hazards and assess and mitigate risks. The central theme for “Jaws” was “man versus nature;” for the pilot that same theme is common when identifying hazards and managing risk associated with weather and the environment. In addition, this aviation safety nerd found an underlying theme of risk management in “Jaws” and a stronger message of “don’t swim with sharks.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.