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Accept the SMS Challenge

July 28, 2009  By Ken Armstrong

Mark Grégoire, Transport Canada’s Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, says that Canada’s aviation accident rates are almost flat and that a closer look at human and organizational factors are required to improve safety.

Mark Grégoire, Transport Canada’s Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, says that Canada’s aviation accident rates are almost flat and that a closer look at human and organizational factors are required to improve safety. He observes that “changing the culture continues to be the greatest challenge,” and that the goal is to create an environment that avoids the human errors that contribute to most accidents. Both Grégoire and Transport Canada’s outgoing Director General Civil Aviation, Merlin Preuss, give their fledgling Safety Management System (SMS) program passing marks for increasing safety in Canadian aviation.

 Unfortunately, our helicopter accident rate seems to have missed their purview since total aviation accidents increased in 2008 compared to 2007 – although both years were down from the mid-term average for Canada. Still, the message is that we should “sign on” to the SMS program to give it a chance. Why? Well, according to William R. Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, we are hopelessly over-regulated with: 13,000 ICAO standards, 30,000+ ICAO specs and recommended practices, increasing federal regulations and mandatory company procedures and SOPs. This over-regulation coupled with a significant shortage of inspectors means that aviation maintenance and operational standards tend to slip with fewer inspections. SMS can actually solve these issues with dedicated self-management. Isn’t this what we wanted – fewer intrusions by the regulator and accident/incident reduction? The truth is, this program will only succeed if we do our part and earnestly apply ourselves with improvements to our company’s safety culture.

Douglas A. Wiegmann, PhD, of the School of Medicine and Public Health defines safety culture as: “the shared values, beliefs, assumptions, and norms which may govern organizational decision making, as well as individual and group attitudes about safety.” He adds, “A safety culture exists within an organization where each and every employee, regardless of their position or authority, assumes an active role in error prevention and that role is supported by the organization.”

Houston, we have a problem here! Generally speaking, helicopter companies are run by geriatric aviators of my vintage who have seen it all, done it all and sold the t-shirts. It’s not that we can’t learn, but, we have an aversion to new-fangled ideas and buzzwords and are resistant to signing on to emerging concepts. Meanwhile, the relatively inexperienced airframe drivers under our guidance listen to our ancient stories of daring and incredible flying skills, and then, needing to prove their worth, find themselves rushing into flights for which they are ill prepared. Under peer and customer pressure, they carry overly heavy loads blindly forging ahead in deteriorating weather. If they make it back, they are often lauded for their valiant efforts and if they crash, chastised for their high-risk behaviour and poor decision-making. Worse still, in our current environment they may be facing criminal negligence charges with associated jail terms and/or heavy fines or awards to injured or deceased passengers! Senior management needs to change its modus operandi and project attitudes that stress the safe completion of operations. A positive attitude towards safety – even in these financially challenging times – must run rampant at all levels of the organization according to Wiegmann. For upper levels of management, this requires they implement and attend safety seminars and training programs, to actively oversee critical operations and stay in touch with risks associated with everyday operations and ensure excellent communications between all personnel essential.


Policies that should be incorporated in the culture include: 1) consistently following all safety procedures and SOPs; 2) discussing safety during all training exercises; 3) checklists and procedures are easy to understand and followed; 4) management takes corrective action on crew violations – even if no accident/incident occurred; 5) manuals are readable and up-to-date; 6) training exercises are centred around safety promotion.

To help accomplish these policies, company safety personnel should be well-respected team members and management should be prepared to invest money to increase safety (it’s a lot cheaper than accident costs and loss of deductibles). If we accept the SMS challenge, we can help reduce up to 80 per cent of these accidents, saving a bundle and keeping our fellow workers looking at the grass from the right side…

Ken Armstrong is an ATP rated pilot who has likely flown more
helicopter types than anyone in the world and has taught advanced
flying skills in dozens of countries.


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