What is a Safety Management System (SMS)?

An aviation safety management system (SMS) is a business tool—just like any other. And like most business tools, its purpose is to safeguard the organisation from error and inefficiency.

The purpose of the Safety Management System (SMS) is to make an organisation work smoothly, better in all ways with fewer problems and mistakes. In aviation, mistakes lead to accidents. Therefore the SMS is designed specifically to prevent accidents. If we crash we kill people, hurt families, and we damage property: this is a bad business practice.

There is no mystery around the safety management system—it’s just good common sense written into a procedure for others to follow. The trick is to get people to follow the principles. Academic theory won’t work too well with operational people—they prefer practical tools over theoretical concepts—so a good SMS should leave the academics with the Universities after straining their knowledge into a functional thing that minimises all that damage and risk.

To be functional, the SMS needs structure, policies, and processes to follow. Researchers designed the SMS and ICAO published the framework for industry to use. Our job as safety management practitioners is to now take this framework and tailor it to suit our needs.

An airline will have differing risks and needs to an agricultural company; an SMS for an airline should be different to the SMS of a crop duster. The difficulty we see in the industry is not the lack of understanding of the merits of a safety management system but in the application of its framework.

People know the universal four components and twelve elements of an SMS—they have them published in their manual, the difficulty comes in converting these concepts into meaningful and practical tools that can be used daily by the staff and their managers.

airside up close

What skills does a safety manager need?

Component 1 – Safety Policy and Objectives

The first component of an aviation Safety Management System (SMS) is Safety Policy and Objectives. In this component, we have five elements:

1. Management commitment and responsibility

2. Safety accountabilities

3. Appointment of key safety personnel

4. Coordination of emergency response planning

5. SMS documentation

Here we see a mixture of leadership styles, management tools, and techniques, technical expertise and resources—a real mixed bag.

The focus of the component is on management—you need to have strong leadership and managerial skills to make these elements work together. If you can’t lead teams effectively and draw on your skills as a manager, the competing elements of this component will bounce about from office to office, department to department and meeting to meeting in a spectacular display of uselessness.

To be effective in implementing and managing SMS component 1, you need these skills:

  • Develop and use emotional intelligence
  • Lead and manage effective workplace relationships
  • Manage personal work priorities and personal development
  • Lead and manage team effectiveness
  • Communicate with influence
  • Manage people performance

Component 2 – Risk Management

In the second component of the Safety Management System (SMS), we start to see the specific work task requirements of the safety manager.

6. Hazard identification

7. Risk assessment and mitigation

The safety manager must be able to identify those things that will kill people, and then design processes, procedures, or equipment that will prevent them from doing so.  Specifically, those who use an SMS must be trained in hazard identification and then risk assessment and risk mitigation—great, but how do you do that?

Well, firstly you need to know how to identify hazards: not a simple task because you don’t know what you don’t know. A good safety manager has a talent for talking to those involved with performing a complex and dangerous task (flying from here to there) and extracting from them the situations, circumstances and environments that are dangerous, or could be dangerous.

So, you need to be skilled at hazard identification—but equally skilled at determining a safe path to navigate those hazards. Without forgetting your skills used in component 1, you must be effective in implementing and managing SMS component 2.

To be effective in implementing and managing Safety Management System component 2, an SMS manager will need these skills:

  • Manage risk
  • Manage operational plans
  • Undertake project work

Component 3 – Safety Assurance

Aviation Safety Management System component 3 is where most organisations fail.

Organisations fail to check that the efforts of the previous elements are working—that they are identifying hazards and keeping them at bay and assuring safety. They also fail to assure the organisation that the tools are functional and are a worthwhile use of money and people’s time.

Forget safety for a moment, and let’s talk practically. Margins in aviation are small, and accountants will do their best to protect them—it’s their job. But accountants don’t understand operational hazards and risk any more than operational personnel know tax law—so the effective safety manager needs to communicate the benefits of the SMS and show these benefits to those interested in making the organisation a success if management is to make the resources available.

If you can educate the accountants, the commercial team and administration that the time and money spent on an SMS is a sound investment, you are more likely to ensure its acceptance and survival in the organisation. Let’s pause a moment and reflect on what was just said. Accountants have a job to do. Their role is to protect the organisation from bankruptcy, fraud, non-compliance with tax laws and so much more: your job is to safeguard the organisation from accidents. The two go together; it’s just that both departments are fighting over the same resource. So, the accountants are justified in killing the SMS if it is not doing what it is supposed to do (in favour of some other system) and you are justified in demanding resources to assure safety. Yes, the SMS is required by law in some cases, but this is a poor argument to make when the organisation files for bankruptcy.

If the SMS is not working, surely, the accountants have a good argument to take funds away from it and direct them to more robust business tools that work better? What a dilemma. We need to be smart about this—just because law requires an SMS, that doesn’t make it immune from sound management practices. An effective safety manager must earn the funds and respect of the management team.

The only way to demonstrate that an SMS is worth the cost is to evaluate the effectiveness of the previous two components and using data to show how safety is assured. An effective safety manager needs to ensure that the system works as it was designed to. Not only to identify a hazard, write a mitigation, throw money and resources at the mitigation and hope it works.

A safety manager needs to continue to work and assure people that the system is effective through constant monitoring, review and reporting—and more importantly, show that the system can correct itself when things don’t go as planned.

To do this, you need these elements working for you:

8. Safety performance monitoring and measurement

9. Internal safety investigation

10. The management of change and continuous improvement of the SMS

These are highly skilled areas that need highly skilled people. So much so that some of these tasks are allocated their own occupation: accident investigator, researcher, analyst, aerospace auditor are a few.

At a large organisation, these roles are performed by divisions or even departments, whereas at a smaller company the tasks are often allocated to the safety manager. Either way, you need to understand these specialised roles—to perform them yourself or speak intelligently with those who do.

These are the skills the aviation safety manager will need to assure the SMS is working:

  • Data analysis and mathematical modelling
  • Accident investigation
  • Auditing program management
  • Flight data management
  • Change management
  • Continuous improvement
  • Report writing
  • Effective presentation and communication

Component 4 – Promotion and Education

The last component of a safety management system seems simple and obvious—promotion of the system.

There is little point in having a system that relies on staff participation if you don’t tell the staff about it and how it will help them.

When you reflect on the purpose of each element, and its component, you can see that these last two elements are as essential to the system as any other. You can have the best Safety Management System Manual in the world, but it’s useless if no one knows about it.

These elements are critical to the success of an SMS:

11. Training and education

12. Safety Communication

Skills that you can use to get the most from these elements are:

  • Training design and delivery
  • Effective use of various media

A good Safety Management Systems course will teach you about these four components: Policy, Risk, Assurance and Promotion and their elements. But to be effective, a safety manager needs leadership, management and specialist skills to make the system work. Keep developing your professional skills beyond the introductory SMS course, and your organisation will thank you.

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