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What is a Safety Management System in Aviation

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Definition of Aviation Safety Management System

A safety management system in aviation commonly refers to a set of processes and tools to formally manage a structured safety program. Safety management in aviation is not a new, 21st century topic. Even before man started flying, there were safety management programs in other industries.

Most aviation service providers have processes in place to mitigate risk to an acceptable level. In fact, every operator has a "safety management system" in place; however, when we refer to an aviation safety management system, commonly called SMS, we refer to the formal processes and methodologies to manage safety.

Aviation SMS programs today are based on ICAO standards or recommendations. Guidelines for managing safety programs at a state level and the individual operator level are found in the "SMS Bible," ICAO Document 9859. Safety professionals will simply say "9859" or "doc 9859" to refer to these guidelines. As of December 2106, there have been three version and a fourth version of 9859 is being drafted.

Doc 9859 is surprisingly easy to read. Don't be alarmed at the size. Use 9859 as your first reference to any question relating to aviation safety management systems. A recommended strategy to using 9859 is to first browse through  the pages quickly to get an understanding of the scope and breadth of these guidelines. You will be surprised at how many free resources are available in these publications, such as:

  • Gap analysis checklists that we break out and distribute; and
  • SMS implementation plans.
What is a safety management system - graphic

System Approach to Aviation Safety Management?

As defined above, an aviation SMS program is a set of processes and tools to manage aviation safety. These processes are outlined in Document 9859 and organized into four components:

  • Safety Policy;
  • Safety Risk Management;
  • Safety Assurance; and
  • Safety Promotion.

These four components are commonly called the four pillars in aviation SMS programs. In each component or pillar are between two to five elements to further organize the system. If your SMS program lacks any of these elements, yoiu do not have a compliant SMS program. Each element has general requirements and best practices. To learn more about these elements and the best practices, see below.

 

Tools to Manage Safety in Aviation Industry

As defined above, a safety management system is a set of processes and tools to manage safety and mitigate risk to an acceptable level. The most popular tool is Document 9859. Other tools to manage safety in the aviation industry include:

  • Safety training videos;
  • Risk management methodologies;
  • Document management software;
  • Learning management systems;
  • Training article libraries; and
  • Survey tools.

Every operator has certain elements of a safety management system to manage operational risks. What most lack is the structure or processes of a formal system that is based on best practices. Most operators a "system" in place to manage operational activities, such as:

  • Asset management software;
  • Maintenance management software;
  • Crew scheduling software; and
  • Accounting software.
A problem exists when an operator tries to manage individual elements in different existing systems. They soon learn that they have a data management nightmare because their SMS program is being managed in six different systems.

Safety Management System Unique To Operators

There is a tendency for operators to use existing system to initially manage SMS requirements. Based on empirical evidence, companies will use their existing tools to manage safety requirements for approximately four to six years. They soon learn that their in-house approach requires more:

  • time;
  • energy; and
  • money

to effectively manage all the SMS elements.Between years four and six of their SMS implementation, operators look for a safety management software system to address the requirements.

Not all operators need the same safety management system. Their needs vary depending on multiple factors, including:

  • Size of company;
  • Goals and objectives relating to SMS;
  • Complexity of company operations; and
  • Maturity of SMS program (which phase they are in).
 

Learn which aviation safety management system suits your company's goals and objectives