How to improve your safety management system by maintaining a good reporting culture

How to improve your SMS by maintaining a good reporting culture

A safety management system (SMS) is supported by the establishment of a good reporting culture, and this can only be achieved if an airline has an enterprise-wide approach to safety and a positive, supportive human resource management structure.  The purpose of this article is to provide a high-level overview of the main issues that can influence the reporting culture in an organisation.

The Safety Management Team cannot be in all places at once and it would be impossible to determine the full hazard and risk picture in any organisation by using just a small team of individuals. Therefore, it is vital that the entire workforce, and especially those on the front line (pilots, ground staff etc.) is engaged in the management of safety. These are the people who have the greatest exposure to hazards and their associated risks.

If all personnel are encouraged (even rewarded) to submit voluntary reports, it is likely that management will be able to build a reliable and robust risk picture that can be monitored and controlled by establishing suitable mitigations. However, unless management are informed of hazards to the operation, they will be unable to assess the risk and instigate necessary controls. Therefore, the establishment and maintenance of a good reporting culture in any organisation is a key requirement for continuous hazard identification.

Unless employees are fully engaged in the management of safety and feel comfortable with the submission of voluntary reports, it is highly unlikely that the SMS will be effective.

There are three main areas that can have a material affect upon a good reporting culture:

  • Safety Policy
  • Safety Promotion
  • Reporting Systems

Safety Policy

It is very important that the organisation’s safety policy is communicated to the entire workforce and is easily obtained. In this policy statement there should be reference to the senior management commitment to maintenance and continuous improvement of the SMS. By publishing the high-level safety objectives, the senior management team can help to engage the workforce who will, naturally, feel more involved if they understand what the organisation is attempting to accomplish. Of course, such statements are meaningless if the senior management fail to demonstrate that they are fully committed to the SMS. For instance, ask yourselves when the Commercial or Financial teams last attended a risk assessment meeting.

The quotation below was coined by William Voss (past CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation) and it encapsulates very neatly how a commitment to safety is an enterprise undertaking and it is not confined to only the flight operation:

“Go back to last year’s budget and see if you can find one single instance where information from your SMS caused you to spend money differently to how you had planned. If you cannot find an example of that in your operation you either have an extraordinarily brilliant budgeting process or your SMS is not delivering. I would bet on the latter.”

An important element in the relationship between employees and management is the establishment of the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. Whilst it is desirable that employees can feel assured that they will not be subject to punitive action when submitting reports of their own errors, there needs to be a “line in the sand” that marks where acts of gross misconduct or negligence will result in administrative measures being taken against the reporter. This is often referred to as a “Just Culture” and is widely adopted in the airline industry. This will encourage voluntary reporting which, in turn, will improve the continuous hazard identification requirements for the SMS.

Of course, the management team themselves are also under pressure from shareholders to deliver strong financial returns and they must play a constant balancing act between productivity and protection. It is the clever manipulation of these two conflicting requirements that distinguishes between a good and bad reporting culture. Too much productivity can result in overstretching of resource (for example, punishing and fatiguing crew rosters) which, in turn, might result in a serious incident or accident. Equally, a focus only on cost savings will alienate the workforce as this will be perceived as “penny pinching” and it will result in mistrust between management and the employees. Conversely, too much protection can result in financial strain on the business. Interestingly, this too can result in poor industrial relations because the lack of available funds might result the the award of limited annual pay rises which again will be perceived as cost saving by management.

The key to this fine balancing act is the art of communication. A positive, two way dialogue between the workforce and the management can work wonders when it comes to fostering good industrial relations and, hence, a good reporting culture.

 

Safety Promotion

Safety promotion is crucial. The workforce will never feel fully engaged in safety management unless the senior team promote their policies and objectives widely. Furthermore, sustained safety campaigns must be conducted to ensure that all employees are aware of their individual responsibilities when it comes to hazard reporting.

A simple but effective way to promote your SMS is to publish regular safety bulletins either organisation wide or by fleet. These newsletters should be informative, and it is usual to base them on known events that have taken place in the preceding months. This will help to alert all employees to potential issues that others have experienced first-hand. Furthermore, it also acts as very positive feedback to those employees who submitted the report in the first instance.

Additionally, regular updates of company performance with respect to safety will engage all personnel. This is very effective when the organisation can benchmark itself against national or worldwide performance. Once employees can see that their contributions are having a positive effect, they will want to continue to make a contribution to safety and will accept that this is a part of their everyday responsibilities.

Finally, any employee will want to know what has happened to their report. It is vital that feedback is made on initial submission and then when the investigation is completed. A good reporting culture relies on a feedback mechanism that further engages the individual and lets them feel that their report is appreciated and has resulted in actions to improve safety in the operation.

 

Reporting Systems

Having established that a good reporting culture is a vital element in a SMS, it is then necessary to give the workforce the means to submit reports and also provide the safety management team with the ability to store, retrieve and analyse the submitted reports. This is known collectively as the Safety Data Collection and Processing System (SDCPS) and it forms an integral part of the SMS.

Without suitable safety data gathering systems, the SMS as a whole cannot function and, certainly, there will be no reporting culture. Put very simplistically, if employees cannot report easily, they will not report at all. Therefore, a modern reporting system must have certain intuitive features (e.g. accessibility, intuitive, common taxonomy, system integration) that will encourage the workforce to submit reports. Furthermore, it must be available remotely on tablet based apps as well as on crew room computers. Ideally, such systems will function both on and off-line with an automatic synchronisation facility one connectivity is re-established.

 

Conclusion

It is hoped that this blog has provided some food for thought with respect to not only improving your reporting culture but how such an improvement will impact positively on your SMS as a whole. Without a sound reporting culture, the SMS cannot function because there is no robust mechanism in place to ensure that hazards are reported continuously. Without this constant reporting, management simply cannot exercise adequate oversight and control of the risks faced by the organisation.

Well-designed systems and software can only achieve a small part of the job; the leadership and example set by management is of paramount importance. Good industrial relations lead inevitably towards a robust reporting culture, but management must be seen to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk”.

Reporting system accessibility and ease of use will make or break a reporting culture. Poorly implemented and overly complex software solutions will have a long-term damaging effect on the reporting culture and once this happens it is hard to rebuild.

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