The Petri Dish of Safety Culture

Erika Armstrong

By Erika Armstrong
Vice President of Business Development, Advanced Aircrew Academy

Posted on June 3, 2024
Aircraft mechanics in the hangar

If we look through a microscope at the elements of “safety,” we see things that are often hidden. We secretly know that the rules don’t matter as much as the attitude of the company and the person using them.

Some pilots could logically defend the safety of departing from an airport that is nearly exceeding a tailwind limitation, or with a system not functioning properly, or flying over duty time. The reality is that the rules are simply a benchmark to form a circle of safety parameters around an organization and establish the minimum level of safety.

Because there are infinite, unimaginable variables in aviation operations, we need a large circle of safety to make choices within, and we create layers of safety because humans and machines are fallible. We blanket operations with rules so that one unanticipated hazard keeps you in the circle. Problems arise when multiple bad decisions build up and push you outside the circle and into NTSB reports.

How an SMS Can Expand the Safety Circle

Some companies ride the edge of the safety circle as a standard operating procedure. Even though they are following the rules, they’re just one bad decision away from crossing the line.

That said, there are a variety of flight operations that must ride the edge of the circle more often. However, they’re ultimately safer than others because they acknowledge the higher risks, address them specifically, mitigate peripheral risks to streamline safety decisions and have unwavering discipline for procedural compliance.

Air ambulance companies, for example, frequently must operate with less-than-ideal conditions and options. Yet there are methods that keep them safe when a similar company with similar rules would be operating on the edge given the same circumstances. Why? If the air ambulance company uses a Safety Management System and has a better understanding and mitigation of the risks, its people reflexively choose a different, safer option when under pressure.

The Danger of Settling for Compliance

The irony of safety culture is that it’s easier to identify bad behavior than to describe a positive safety culture. Professor Nancy Leveson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) called out one of the negative safety culture behaviors often seen in the aviation industry: a culture of compliance.

Compliance with government regulations, especially in aviation, is often seen as safe enough. So, what’s the incentive to spend the time and money creating internal safety standards within a flight department that go beyond compliance? The answer is that the rewards of safety far outweigh the investment.

Insurance companies recognize the need to train and operate above the compliance level and often provide incentives for training by giving discounts and credits. But more than anything, working at a company with a positive safety culture creates an atmosphere of respect, which leads to deeper loyalty and job satisfaction.

Sometimes, safety decisions will not please a customer. Yet, if leadership respects the tough decisions their employees make and stands by them, that professionalism will be seen by the customers you want to keep.

The Safety Feedback Loop

The core elements of an SMS program address policy, culture, risk management, safety assurance/promotion/documentation and an Emergency Response Plan (ERP). One additional element that is visible when looking closer at a successful SMS is using the safety feedback to create a loop that goes back to the beginning and adjusts a company’s training program.

Too often, safety reports are reactive and flow in a linear, one-way direction. The report is made and goes to the safety manager, but no one else at the company hears about the issue, and it’s quietly taken care of (or ignored). Even if the problem is properly addressed and the person filing the report is satisfied, it’s still important that all the departments are aware of the matter because, without proper training for others, the behavior/error could reoccur.

Mistakes are made from a lack of knowledge. A feedback loop is an opportunity to add something proactive to your training program that can break the error chain of behavior in the future.

The anonymity element is critical in information sharing, but the rest of the company should be aware of the concerns to provide a more comprehensive solution.

Instead of a quick fix from one person, ask employees affected by the safety concern what they think the solution could be. If a theme emerges, it will be more effective to correct a root cause rather than the superficial error of one action. With this information, you can reshape your training program to include a deeper understanding of the issue to create a positive behavior change for everyone.

Delegating Ownership to Encourage Engagement

The psychology of a Safety Management System is complex. However, simple actions, like letting each department take ownership of safety and having it backed up by management’s safety promotion, are foundational for a successful, positive safety culture.

Advanced Aircrew Academy offers an SMS eLearning module designed as an introduction to and overview of the SMS concept and how an SMS can enhance safety in a flight operation. It can be used for one hour of credit towards IA Renewal.


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Advanced Aircrew Academy enables flight operations to fulfill their flight department training needs in the most efficient and affordable way – in any location at any time. We do this by providing high quality professional pilot, flight attendant, flight coordinator, maintenance, and line service modules delivered via the web using a world-class online aviation training system.

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