(November 2011) "Safety management system” — the very name sounds intimidating. I have to admit that I was not initially excited about the idea of a safety management system. I figured it was just another complicated set of rules, procedures and acronyms that would require a lot of time while not really accomplishing anything significant. My attitude changed earlier this year when I had an opportunity to attend a two-day workshop on safety management systems at the annual conference of the International Association of Missionary Aviation (iamanet.org).
Safety has always been an issue for missionary aviation, and the association is embracing safety management systems as a way to reduce accidents and enhance its members’ overall operating effectiveness.
Like aviation in general, early missionary operators didn’t have much in the way of experience or knowledge to guide them, and safety often consisted of the best intentions of the pilot, along with information shared with a few other pilots operating in the area. As missionary aviation organizations grew, they typically instituted some sort of safety procedures and regulations. However, there was little consistency, and once the “safety department” was in place, it wasn’t given much attention. Despite the common phrase “safety first,” safety was often last on the agenda. Safety procedures had to be in place, but ultimately safety was something that took important time from flight and maintenance operations. As far as management was concerned, safety was something for pilots, and management had no need to be involved or concerned about safety.
This approach leads to a number of problems:
• It is almost 100 percent reactive. After an accident, an investigation determines the causes, and then new regulations and procedures are put in place to avoid that adverse outcome in the future.
• Management’s lack of interest allows people to ignore unpopular safety rules. Management may even undermine safety in a misguided attempt to enhance profits.
• In this atmosphere of indifference toward safety, various safety procedures and regulations can gradually fall by the wayside in actual operations, something called “procedure slip.”
Safety management systems (SMS) grew out of the realization that we have made great progress addressing the technical and human factor issues that have led to accidents, but we have barely scratched the surface in dealing with the organization’s role in accident prevention. Establishing an SMS leads an organization to examine its operations and decision-making structure. The goal is to go beyond simply reacting to adverse events to actively seeking out hazardous processes and conditions to identify and rectify potential threats to safety. Because safety issues are often also quality issues, the benefits of implementing an SMS go far beyond avoiding accidents to enhancing the overall effectiveness and operating efficiency of the organization.