The story goes that Paul O'Neill, chair of Alcoa, joined the GM board of directors in 1993. His commitment to worker safety caused a dramatic turnaround at Alcoa, where he not only improved safety, but also generated quantifiable bottom-line benefits. So perhaps GM's directors were not taken by surprise when, as they prepared to adjourn the first board meeting Mr. O'Neill attended, he asked, "Where's the safety report?" There was none.
O'Neill's question, and its exposure of the status of safety at the company, would become a watershed moment in GM's history. GM's top brass could likely have glossed over O'Neill's innocent question, or prepared a fancy report emphasizing the company's efforts in safety and health and putting the best spin on their results. Instead, the President's Council's top seven executives at GM including CEO Jack Smith, Rick Wagoner and Harry Pearce, decided to meet the challenge and take a close look at GM's safety performance and do whatever was necessary to improve it.
One could argue that safety became intrinsic to aviation about the time the Wright Brothers Flyer took a nose dive due to a faulty prop and crashed just after 5 p.m. on September 17, 1908. Fortunately Orville Wright survived the ordeal. Unfortunately, his only passenger did not. That ensuing crisis convinced the Wright Brothers to better examine the expected outcome of every flight before takeoff.
Fast forward to present day and Safety Management Systems, aka SMS. In February, 2007, the FAA issued Advisory Circular 150/5200-37, Introduction to Safety Management Systems (SMS) for Airport Operators, which describes the process by which SMS should be implemented at federally obligated public airports nationwide. This follows similar initiatives by ICAO to improve the safety culture of aviation by reducing the risk of accidents and incidents, creating a safer environment for aviation stakeholders, and ultimately increasing the public's confidence and reliability of the world's aviation system.
It's important to know that the term 'safety culture' first made its appearance in the international Atomic Energy Agency's initial report following the Chernobyl disaster. Since then inquiries into major accidents have found faults in the organizational structures and safety management systems, throwing the importance of safety culture into the spotlight.
The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) Advisory Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations produced a definition of safety culture that has been re-used throughout the safety culture literature, including other HSE publications (e.g. HSE Railways Safety Case Assessment Criteria). This definition outlines safety culture in the following way: "The safety culture of an organization is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organization's health and safety management. Organizations with a positive safety culture are characterized by communications founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficacy of preventive measures."
So where does this lead us in our quest to improve the safety culture of aviation through implementation of SMS? The main focus over the past 100 years has been on improving the technical aspects of engineering systems to improve safety. For the most part, these efforts have been very successful. This success can be seen by the low accident rates in the majority of safety critical industries. Beginning in 2001, the aviation industry witnessed a marked decrease in surface incidents and accidents, due mostly to a concentrated effort by the FAA to bring prevention of runway incursions to the forefront.
It does appear that a plateau of safety has been reached. While the FAA has made measurable improvements with the most serious of the runway incursions, total runway incursions, regardless of severity, increased in FY 2007 to 370, from 330 incursions in FY 2006. This can be attributable to the fact that as the frequency of technological failures in industry has diminished, the role of human behavior has become more apparent. Safety experts now estimate that 80–90% of all industrial accidents are attributable to 'human factors'. It is now widely accepted that the most effective way to further reduce accident rates is to address the social and organizational factors that influence safety performance.
John F. Kennedy was once quoted as saying that the word crisis in Chinese is composed of two characters. One represents the danger and the other represents opportunity. The implementation of an effective Safety Management System will enable an organization to measure both the dangers and the opportunities to reduce the risk of experiencing a bad event, therefore enhancing the safety culture of the organization.
In order for SMS to mature within an organization, leadership must commit to the time, people and energy to routinely analyze risks, establish safety metrics, communicate positive and forward-thinking changes throughout their organization and with business partners, and develop a non-punitive environment from which to learn from ones mistakes.
Every organization needs someone like Paul O'Neill at the helm of the business to ask for the safety report. That's the moment when safety becomes the top priority for boards or commissions, and becomes an infectious desire throughout the organization.