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Active Risk Management

The phrase “risk management” conjures up thoughts of detailed process, thick manuals, operational directives; in other words, bloat.


March 26, 2012
By Walter Heneghan

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The phrase “risk management” conjures up thoughts of detailed process, thick manuals, operational directives; in other words, bloat. In aviation, the core of people involved in the movement and maintenance of aircraft are task oriented, operationally focused, “get-’e-done” folks who don’t want bloat; they just want a serviceable aircraft to fly or parts on hand to fix that broken bird.

But “active risk management” is actually, in my view, the cornerstone to safe aviation operation and can be achieved through a very simple process. It just means that we need to pre-identify the hazards facing us on a daily basis, determine how to mitigate the risks associated with those hazards, and stay actively engaged in repeating this process until our flying day is complete.

First of all, consider this scenario. It is a common fact that most people drive from home to work each day using one primary route, (I know that I do). Often, we do this without much consciousness. Sometimes, (and I know this from personal experience), we may get halfway to work and not even remember much about the first part of our commute. We are so familiar with the routine of driving to work, having been able to complete the task hundreds of times without incident, that we are literally on a type of “subconscious cruise control.” It is not a difficult task, we are experienced drivers, the routing is well known and the tricky spots along the way are very clear in our minds. We are in a level of unconscious competence and it just happens. But there are still hazards along the way and we are still exposed to risk, even if our level of comfort is high and our degree of conscious awareness is low. I actively manage the risk associated with my commute without really being aware of a risk-management process or structure.

Now, change this routine. What if I change my standard drive route after listening to the local radio station’s “drive” program that alerts me to blockages, or in Edmonton, for all the detours created by the “other season – road construction.” What is my response to this new information? I change my routing. But my new routing may be unfamiliar to me, forcing me out of my state of unconscious competence into one, temporarily I hope, of conscious incompetence. This new state adds risk to my commute and should force me into a higher degree of awareness and prudent decision making. Again, faced with a change to my routine, I engage in an active risk evaluation mode and modify my driving accordingly, hopefully arriving safely at work. But if I am jolted into a state of unconscious incompetence, I may not realize that new hazards are presenting themselves or that I am in a state of increased risk. This is the real danger zone.

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So, what does my commute have to do with aviation safety? Well, while it means that just because I have moved a drill 100 times or flown 500 IFR approaches or completed hundreds of off-site landings to unprepared landing sites, does not mean I am not at risk. And, although the state of unconscious competence is a desirable one, being in a state of conscious unease is a safer one.

So, how do we battle this? Simple: Acknowledge that your state of unconscious competence needs to be tempered by a state of unease. Ask yourself: What are the threats facing you today? What risks do they pose to you and your passengers? What can you do to mitigate these risks so that you all come home at the end of the day?

Let me challenge you to begin each day with these questions: Where am I?, What am I doing?, What hazards are in my way today? How am I going to manage the risk associated with these hazards, today? And before every takeoff and landing, repeat the thought: Where are the threats to me right now? How will I manage these threats safely?

We make similar decisions every day we drive to and from work and, when faced with roadblocks, most of us default into a type of risk assessment in order to continue our commute. So, try it next time you are faced with a busy day of moving drills, or flying water survey scientists or bucketing a fire. What are the hazards to me today? How will I manage them?

Raise your level of consciousness around your core competencies and you will be engaged in active risk management.


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