Taking the Lead

If the RAF Can Do It, Why Can’t the Rest of Us?
Walter Heneghan
July 29, 2015
By Walter Heneghan
Having recently returned from the U.K., I was struck by a number of interesting observations – the Guinness tastes better, there are video cameras EVERYWHERE and there is a pervasive presence of “safety” equipment. Safety vests are worn by virtually every worker on a job site, by bicyclists and motorcyclists alike and many workplaces have visible elements of safety promotion. Now, I can’t say for certain that the U.K. is a safer place to work than Canada, but it is striking for sure.


One other thing I learned from my visit is that the Royal Air Force (RAF) has adopted International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) compliant Safety Management Systems (SMS) into its operations. The decision to follow this path stems largely from the fallout from a fatal accident of a Nimrod jet in Afghanistan in September 2006, which killed all 14 servicemen on board. The accident was followed by a number of investigations, coroners’ inquests and ultimately by a formal inquiry by Sir Charles Haddon-Cave, called “The Nimrod Review.” (I might note that both the board of inquiry and the review are worthwhile reads).

The review provided a bleak picture of organizational dysfunction within the RAF and among several of its suppliers and expressed grave concerns with the means by which risk was being assessed and managed, especially within the Nimrod fleet. The review eventually led to the U.K. government unreservedly accepting responsibility for failing to exercise an appropriate duty of care towards the dead servicemen and led to a wholesale shift in philosophy regarding risk management, duty of care and safety assurance.

The Military Aviation Authority (MAA), a parallel body to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was also created. As part of the Defense Safety Authority (DSA), the MAA, as an independent organization, is responsible for the regulation, surveillance, inspection and assurance of the defense air operating and technical domains. It ensures the safe design and use of military air systems. The MAA aims to bring a new approach to Air Safety Governance through the use of clearly defined Duty Holders (DHs), a focus on Risk to Life and a new regime for Safety Cases (SCs) and Certification. The MAA provides the structure that identifies risk, establishes a mechanism for safety assurance and clearly delegates responsibility for every operation to a defined duty holder. From my observations, all the elements of an SMS – safety policy, risk management, safety assurance and safety promotion – are well-established in the decision-making processes within the RAF.

It was interesting to listen to the language of these career air force officers and NCOs – the discussions around risk, risk management and risk assessments. In addition, they have adopted many of the processes of the oil and gas producing community (OGP) including more advanced tools such as BowTie and Just Culture language. There appears to be a significant level of “buy in,” into this new safety paradigm, understandable given the intense scrutiny the air force underwent after the Nimrod review.

The key element, as well, that is front and centre, is the concept of “duty of care” of the senior leadership towards the servicemen involved in the activity in question. There is a real consciousness around which leader is identified as the “duty holder” regarding the assessed risk and whether all has been done to reduce risk to a level as low as reasonably practical (ALARP). This being completed under the ever-present possibility that the operation which is being risk managed may not necessarily eliminate all risk of injury or death, but that the risk to life is clearly identified and owned. Some of the risk is explicitly owned and signed off by the chief of the air staff.

So this begs the question: Why such resistance elsewhere? If a major government agency like the RAF and the U.K. Ministry of Defense can successfully implement an ICAO-style SMS, why cannot other countries? While I acknowledge there is a certain over-burden associated with establishing and fostering safety management systems, there are also significant paybacks. Having clearly defined
processes lets every player in the system know their duties and responsibilities. The same goes with goal setting, assurance practices and promoting safe activities. The RAF was motivated as a result of a terrible accident and from an intense round of scrutiny in its aftermath. But there are many levels now that are motivated to understand the “new system” and to move forward, to embrace the new paradigm and to employ SMS as a best practice within one of the world’s most storied organizations.


Walter Heneghan is the vice-president for Health, Safety and Environmental Protection with the Summit Air Group of Companies, Ledcor Resources and Transportation, based in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada.


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