Safety Risk Management: it’s not just safety. It’s how we make better decisions

Posted in: Aviation


managing safety at airports is importantThe concept of safety seems easy enough: just make sure people don’t get hurt. Yet as any parent knows, simply telling a child to be careful does not prevent skinned knees and bruises—or worse. So how do we as aviation professionals improve safety awareness, recognize hazards, and come up with a course of action to eliminate or reduce potential risks? The process of Safety Risk Management (SRM), one of four components in Safety Management Systems (SMS), offers us a tool to make safer decisions.

For years, “operator error” was a favorite leading cause given for accidents in aviation, but accidents kept occurring. Why? Because the contributing engineering, organizational and environmental factors remained in place. The truth is, there are always external factors involved in an accident. The culture of how we anticipated and responded to accidents had to change.

How does an SRM approach help?

FAA risk matrix
FAA Order 5200.11 Airports Safety Management System Risk Matrix

An SRM approach to safety is systematic, proactive, and predictive. It’s an effort to look at the existing conditions and predict what can go wrong. Lessons from the past are not discarded; instead, they are used to show us what’s possible. If similar conditions resulted in an accident before, how can we change the conditions? Approaching safety before the accident happens does, in fact, improve safety awareness and results in fewer accidents.

An SRM approach has five steps and can be scaled depending on the complexity of the system and conditions. It may be an internal check of your own safety that takes just a few minutes, or it can be an organization-wide effort that takes months. So let’s start small. Say I want to go for a drive across state during the winter. How can I know it’s safe? What level of risk can I accept as reasonable?

1. Describe the System. I am supposed to drive across the state for a work meeting. It’s January. There is one mountain pass. My car is in good shape, but I haven’t checked it in a while. There’s been recent snow in the passes and another system is coming tomorrow.

2. Identify the Hazards. Let’s start with the two big ones – mountain pass driving and winter weather. The roads are packed with snow and ice, and a snow system is coming. Is the car mechanically ready for a drive across state in the snow? Include yourself in that equation: am I ready to drive across state in the snow? Ask yourself about a worst-case scenario. What if I do slide off the road or break down on the pass during a snowstorm? Am I prepared to be isolated from help, possibly injured, in very cold conditions?

3. Analyze the Risks. My car has all-wheel drive and handles well in the snow, but snow and ice is always unpredictable. I’m okay with my car in the snow, but are other drivers as well-equipped?

The hazard of a snowstorm also has risks—poor visibility, loss of control of vehicles, and deteriorating conditions while far from shelter come to mind. The things I can’t control present more of a hazard to me because I can’t effectively mitigate the risk potentials to acceptable levels.

4. Assess the Risks. The likelihood of having to drive on packed snow and ice, with more snow accumulating, is high. Without any mitigation, the probability of losing control at some point is also high. If I lose control of the vehicle, the outcome could be catastrophic: I’d total my car, get injured, and have to wait for any emergency services to arrive; or worse, face potential death.

The benefits of the trip are outweighed by the risks. But is there a way to mitigate the risks to an acceptable level?

5. Mitigate the Risks. I can add tire chains to my gear. I can put blankets, food, water, and a first aid kit in the car, too. That mitigates some of the vehicle control problem, along with the severity of the risk for getting stuck in the snow. But it doesn’t mitigate the weather, or road conditions, or other drivers.

I can check on road conditions on the state patrols pass conditions website. I can also check my tires for full inflation and engine oil levels. I can check that my lights are all working, and I have windshield scraper and gloves. Making an effort to have my vehicle in good working order reduces the probability of a break down. Call it a preflight check to verify my car is serviceable.

I must assess myself as well. Am I fit to drive, especially for a long distance in bad conditions? Probably okay, but fatigue could be a hazard.

Are the probability and severity of risks now acceptable? Some of the hazards can be mitigated, but still too many conditions I can’t mitigate. I’m going err on the side of caution and make the call to not go and make other arrangements for the meeting.

The ability to stop the activity presenting hazards often comes down to people making an informed and prudent decision. Do I HAVE to be at that meeting? Not really. Is that meeting worth the risks? Not in this case. By deciding not to go at this time, I have now eliminated the hazards and potential negative outcomes.

Same process, bigger picture

We can apply the same process on a larger scale—say, a runway rebuild project at a large-hub airport. Of course, there are more hazards, variables, and stakeholders involved, but when the SRM process is completed, the Airport, Consultants, and Contractors can make decisions with an increased awareness of what can go wrong.

In life there are always hazards, and they will always present risks. By carefully walking through the potential outcomes before we do something, we can work collaboratively to prevent known hazards from becoming accidents.


Colin English

About the Author

Colin English is an Aviation Planner dedicated to helping Airports enhance safety processes so they can continue to effectively serve communities. His experience spans tower air traffic control, weather services, airport operations, commercial airport management, and airport planning. When not at work, Colin gets his Zen on by painting art, building mid-power rockets, model aircraft, and Star Wars model spaceships. Colin’s office is a celebration of geek culture and aviation history.

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