Culture and Safety Outcomes

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Your operation’s safety performance is a direct result of an organization’s ability to effectively manage the risks that may exist.  Whether in the air or on the ground, you need to know what the potential hazards are so that they can be mitigated before a negative outcome results.  The definition of failure includes ‘a lack of success’ or ‘nonperformance of something due, required, or expected’.  So, we inherently have an obligation to do what is right to avoid failure.  A key component to this is your organization’s culture as well as the behavior of its employees. 

Previous accidents in the rotorcraft industry have clearly demonstrated how culture can contribute to safety outcomes.  Without an open and transparent risk recognizing ideology organizations will never grasp the hazards may impact the work being completed.  Ignoring or hindering the ability to voice concerns about potential injuries or damage will only exacerbate the likelihood that they will occur – the conditions for failure still exist unless proactively addressed.  Owners, managers, and supervisors MUST be willing to accept input related to safety performance from their employees and then implement the appropriate controls to minimize the probability and severity of the occurrence.  Keep in mind that this is a collaborative effort for those affected by the hazard.  All levels of the organization have a role in communicating and participating in the process. 

There are several factors that influences culture and directs safety outcomes.  How we cope with them will determine whether the outcome is positive or negative.  The three main elements include:  Awareness, Judgement and Decisions. 

Awareness.  Are we fully mindful or cognizant of the issues that can affect our performance?  Do we have the necessary information to assess the situation?  Are we knowledgeable enough to understand there might be an impact on performance?  Our ability to gather information and comprehend what’s happening is critical to the task we are accomplishing.  Awareness is a dynamic combination of incoming data, processing of that data and seeking new data1.  When we don’t have the pertinent information, we tend to make assumptions that may not always be accurate.  As Edwards Deming once said, “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, then do your best.”  The fluid nature of aviation also requires our awareness to shift as changes occur.  The fact that you identify a change is a result of your awareness.  Through preparation and planning we can develop the ability to improve awareness because we enhance our understanding, have expectations for what should transpire and create capacity to recognize problems.  Remaining vigilant with the task at hand will help to avoid distraction and complacency.

Judgement.  Are we evaluating the potential impact accurately?  Is our tolerance of risk being influenced in some way?  Are we applying practical reasoning to the situation?  The aviation industry is based on the premise that its professionals will exercise good judgement in the performance of their duties.  The repercussions for a lack of prudence can be catastrophic – the margin for error is extremely narrow.  Our ability to accurately analyze and assess situations will determine what is relevant and how we must respond.  The degree of effectiveness will depend on our expertise, cognition, and competence.  Individuals must not allow the level of risk to become more acceptable because they view the benefit to be high.  This often leads to poor choices that can increase risk exposure.  We must maintain an extraordinary level of integrity and accountability in our roles.

Decisions.  Do we choose the best course of action that will most likely generate a positive safety outcome?  Many of us struggle at this point or are reluctant/slow to follow through.  Confidence can be factor with this.  We should ensure that the right people are involved to help find alternatives and select the ideal solution.  Having the most qualified and proficient individuals collaborating on an issue will yield the highest quality result.  In cases where only an individual is engaged, he or she must rely on their preparation and expertise to guide them.  Thus, the increased importance of due diligence and proactiveness on the part of all employees.  Taking action is a critical byproduct in the decision-making process.  Without resolution we still face the same challenge(s) that we became aware of initially.

Producing positive safety outcomes is an arduous endeavor.  The organization’s culture and its employees’ behaviors will have a notable effect on this process.  Consistency of good habits and meaningful teamwork contributes towards a robust ethical attitude.  Combined with helping individuals focus on awareness, judgement and decisions will provide the greatest opportunity for managing risks successfully.

Christopher Young
USHST Outreach Co-Chair

1 Martin Anderson and