Integrated safety risk; time for an oil change!

Written by: Huw Ross
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In my first blog I talked about the building blocks of an effective Safety Management System. My final point and maybe the most critical in terms of the day-to-day implementation is the way the SMS is built around a total aviation system approach to controlling safety risk. If the processes within the SMS are your 'cogs' in your safety engine, then the approach to safety risk management is akin to the 'oil' that ensures smooth running! (apologies for my bad analogies)

The industry is full of safety risk assessment methods and techniques; industry experts have long championed the benefit of a total system approach to manage the complex socio-technical nature of aviation. The dream versus the reality are quite different. Discussing what safety risk means for the industry is the focus of this blog.

The movement of aircraft requires the connectivity of many organisations; it's a not a simple set of connections! A successful flight requires those organisations to work together across all phases of flight to ensure the safe transit of the aircraft. Therefore, to understand and control safety risks associated with the aircraft, each of those organisations needs to contribute to the safety risk assessment; this is my view of a Total System Approach. This is not a new idea, but one that has made slow progress in terms of making it happen.

The norm is for each organisation to develop its own safety risk assessments in isolation; often defining worst-case consequences a step before the aircraft accident to fit individual areas of responsibility (the surrogates I mentioned in my first blog). This works for the organisation, but it doesn't work for the industry. Why? Let's turn it around: if organisations routinely looked outwards towards the wider industry they could potentially identify controls that support the issues of other organisations. This has great benefit for the industry as a whole.

What is going to trigger a revolution to our approach – the 'oil change' in the title of this blog? Step changes in safety management practices primarily occur (unfortunately) as a result of serious incidents or accidents; minor changes to standards or regulation rarely work. Even the significant transformation promised by automation, digitalisation, and commoditisation doesn't appear to be triggering real change. However, could the disruption caused by the inclusion of drones and remotely piloted traffic into the aviation system be the trigger the industry needs to shift the way we view safety risk and how we work together? It leads to two things that make me think it could happen. Firstly, it requires the traffic management and flight operation functions to be designed as a seamless operation, providing a platform for a connected approach to safety risk management. Secondly, to help us classify risk, it will lead to new definitions of severity and likelihood – it's realistic to expect an increase in collisions between large aircraft and drones (the number of near-misses is already significant, so it's only a matter of time). This will naturally draw a wider group of stakeholders into the service providers' safety risk management activities.

ATM is one of those segments that needs to revisit how it views risk. Is it too crazy an idea to suggest that maybe air traffic control services can be neither safe or un-safe? And instead we recognise ATM for its significant contribution as a safety control to the reduction of aircraft accidents (a slice of cheese in the barrier model). If this could ever be accepted, we could talk instead about ATM's effectiveness and resilience, reserving safety risk for those organisations that are accountable for the movement of aircraft.

Looking forward, the aviation industry will rely on international and regional agencies to set the priority and promote a new vision. In the meantime, service providers will need to find the best approach to 'oiling the cogs' of the SMS to keep the safety engine running, and to play the fullest possible part in reducing the risk of an aircraft accident. What is your organisation doing?


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