The acronym SMS - which stands for safety management systems - has become a standard term in the Canadian aviation vocabulary. Depending upon who you speak with or what aspect of SMS you are covering, it is either a wonderful and great addition to the aviation operational structure or could be laying the groundwork for potential disaster.
What is SMS?
According to the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace (CCAA), SMS is “an integrated set of work practices, beliefs and procedures for monitoring, supporting, and improving the quality of safety and human performance in an organization.
SMS assists organizations in recognizing the potential for errors, and establishes robust defenses to prevent them from causing injury or accident.” What the CCAA correctly identify is that SMS is about people and a companywide commitment is key they say to the successful SMS implementation. It's only through the collective efforts of all members of an organization that SMS will successfully manage human error and safety programs effectively. What SMS is supposed to do is shift the focus from managing safety to as the CCAA best put it, “managing safely”.
In Transport Canada's (TC) vision, SMS will be implemented in all regulated civil aviation organizations in this country by the year 2015. The TC website states “today the majority of Canada's aviation industry operates with SMS policies, processes, procedures and systems in place, including Canada's largest passenger air carriers.
In fact, SMS covers more than 90% of passenger kilometers.” As of October 2011 TC stated that for the remainder the industry (that is those who do not have an SMS in place yet), SMS will be implemented over a three-year phased in period. This will begin after the SMS regulations for the sectors not currently under the system come into force.
For small operators, TC has adjusted its SMS implementation schedule to provide additional time to refine procedures training and guidance material based on inspector and industry feedback.
SMS is supposed to help companies identify safety risks before they become bigger problems. As we move forward SMS is becoming the global standard. Canada has led the world and ICAO have taken this country's lead and helped define it as a process and system to be implemented around the world.
In November of last year the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA) - the world's largest nongovernment aviation safety organization - stated “SMS programs ensure continuing safety bike and binding the appropriate levels of incentive for front-line employee reporting, internal auditing and regulatory oversight.” According to the association's president, Capt. Dan Adamus, “Canada is a world leader in adopting SMS programs in its Marine rail and aviation industries and ALPA is proud to be part of that effort.”
Critics are cautious about being identified – in fear for their jobs or recrimination. But that said they do make some good points. One transport Canada manager stated to me privately that while SMS is a great tool, it should not be the only tool in the box. It should be one of the series designed to promote and assist in safe aircraft operations. And SMS should not be implemented in a manner to replaces the human oversight that many operators require.
As another person from TC said, for those who operate properly and in a conscientious manner SMS will be the right tool to help them manage and operate their businesses properly. However for those who with a mindset or predisposition to operate outside of the rules, SMS could allow such folks to get away with things that they otherwise would not.
According to the online site fairwhistleblower.ca (FAIR), when implemented properly such systems (SMS) can ensure greater consistency and reliability of operations. However according to FAIR, the experience of many is that these systems have often not lived up to their promise. They cite sloppily implemented and/or aggressively profit driven organizational cultures that come into conflict with the fundamental aim or intention of the system.
As a case in point they quote the 2008 incident when the US air carrier Southwest Airlines was found to have skimped on vital airframe inspections that were designed to detect metal fatigue. Dozens of uninspected and affected airplanes flew in some cases over a period of months. It was only when the FAA inspectors went “public” with the information that they had found cracks in these aircraft that the problems then got fixed.
FAIR point out that SMS is often characterized as letting the fox guard the hen house. “Industry insiders such as pilots mechanics inspectors air-traffic controllers have all been especially vocal about what they see as a progressive degradation of air safety in Canada” the group says.
In reality SMS is here and not going away anytime soon. You can choose to work with the process, learn how to operate properly within it, and make it part of your corporate culture in a positive way, or you can fight an uphill battle. As the SMS system itself shows, the process is one built upon refinement and change over time. Experience allows input and refinement based on both positive and negative experiences.
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