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The 4 pillars of an Aviation Safety Management System

Updated: May 23, 2023

What should your SMS (Safety Management System) consist of? There are four pillars to a SMS that we will briefly discuss.

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Safety meetings and company training are key components of an SMS

Pillars of a Safety Management System

Safety Management Systems have four pillars:

  • Safety Policy

  • Safety Risk Management

  • Safety Assurance

  • Safety Promotion

SMS Pillar 1: Safety Policy

Safety policy establishes management’s commitment to safety. A safety policy should include the overall expectations of employees and stakeholders. It should outline the available resources to employees to help them carry out the company’s safety goals.

The SMS safety policy should answer any questions employees have about how to carry out their safety responsibilities. The safety policy should describe the overall safety goals, clear safety goals, a safety organization chart, and a key safety staff list.

The SMS safety policy should lay out each employee’s role and safety responsibilities. The safety policy is a framework that allows the company to ensure the risk is as low as practically possible. As long as everyone follows the framework, the risks should stay low.

If the safety policy is not followed, an investigation must take place. Management must ask why the policy was not followed and what extra steps could prevent a future issue.

In the past, admitting a mistake was frowned upon. Under an SMS, employees are asked to submit incident reports to continue to improve the safety system. Safety incident reports should not be seen as punishable but as opportunities to learn. If employees fear retribution, they are less likely to come forward with concerns or share mistakes.

Under an SMS safety policy, employees should report all incidences, accidents, near misses, policy infractions, safety hazards, and safety concerns.

SMS Pillar 2: Safety Risk Management

Safety risk management is a formal process and involves describing the system and recognizing the dangers, then identifying, assessing, analyzing, and controlling the risk.

For instance, if you are about to conduct a flight to an airport with a high-density altitude on a hot day, first, the dispatchers and pilots must conduct risk management. What are the risks? What could go wrong? If it does go wrong, what will be the outcome?

Some risk management discussions will find risks that are improbable or can be acceptably mitigated. Some discussions will result in determining that the risk is likely or will have catastrophic consequences. In that case, stakeholders might have to cancel the operation until the risk can be acceptably mitigated.

There are three different types of risk management: reactive, proactive, and predictive. An SMS aims to shift the risk management focus from reactive towards proactive and predictive. The goal is to move the company as close as possible towards predictive risk management.

Reactive risk management occurs when an accident or incident has already taken place. Reactive risk management aims to minimize damage after the accident. Then, management looks at the accident, determines what went wrong, and puts procedures in place to prevent a future similar accident.

Reactive risk management is not ideal because the accident has already taken place. It also only addresses a specific accident or incident and does not address the overall safety culture. Suppose a bald tire caused an aircraft to skid off a runway. A reactive risk assessment might lead to a decision to check all tires. In this case, the risk assessment will only minimize the very specific bald tire risk.

Proactive risk management involves noticing the risks and minimizing the risk before an accident occurs. Suppose a line manager noticed a bald tire but replaced the tire before the flight and requested all tires to be re-checked. In that case, the line manager has effectively and proactively managed the risk.

Predictive risk management is conducted by management and not by line employees. When predictive risk management takes place, tires are continuously monitored, and checklists are in place. Predictive risk management systematically monitors all aspects of the operation. It predicts what systems need to be updated to mitigate risk. When a company moves towards predictive risk management, there should be less proactive and reactive risk management.

SMS Pillar 3: Safety Assurance

Safety Assurance (SA) provides confidence that the Safety Management System is operating as intended.

Again, this is a step where questions are asked. If the flight dispatcher decided that the high-density altitude was acceptable, did the risk management step work as desired? Did anything go wrong on the flight? Did anything almost go wrong?

Audits should be conducted to ensure that the SMS is operating well. This audit can be done internally or with external help, depending on the size of the company. The audit should prove that the company’s SMS has safety procedures that operate as desired. The audit will confirm that the SMS has safety metrics that are specific, measurable, and relevant.

The audit should confirm that safety policies are in place. The organization continuously monitors safety data, proactively minimizes risks, and understands their roles and responsibilities.

SMS Pillar 4: Safety Promotion

Safety promotion refers to a cultural shift; all stakeholders should focus on safety and risk management. Everyone in the company should feel comfortable reporting safety issues and be proactive.

Employees are trained to recognize risks and minimize them. Workers that work in a company with a healthy safety promotion culture and an effective SMS focus on safety, even when no one is watching.

For more guidance from the FAA about how an air carrier should implement an SMS, check out FAA Advisory Circular AC 120-92B – Safety Management Systems for Aviation Service Providers

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