Communicating a positive safety culture

posted on 27th June 2018

All organisations are recognised to have what can be considered as a specific “organisational culture” which defines the values, behaviour, perceptions and attitudes management and staff adopt towards the daily business. 

The aviation industry and airports in particular, are currently working on the development of a slightly different kind of culture that is most often referred to as a “safety culture”. What exactly does this mean and how is it developed? Those are the key questions that many safety managers in the aeronautical business are currently faced with.

Safety culture, a concept that has been studied by experts from fields such as nuclear power plants, aviation or oil and gas industries, has multiple definitions. The fundamental principle of a safety culture is that, similarly to an organisational culture, it represents the values, attitudes, perceptions, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment of the management and staff towards safety within the organisation.

The concept of a safety culture, as with safety management in general, evolved out of the nuclear or oil and gas industries that were faced with major accidents involving multiple fatalities and major financial losses.

These industries, when faced with the safety issues that caused these accidents realised that the underlying issues were related to the human perception and awareness of safety within their organizations. This realisation, coupled with a strengthening in regulatory obligations towards safety, pushed the senior management of the organisations to strive for a change in organisational culture thereby developing a more safety aware and oriented workforce.

This change in attitude, coming from the top of the organisations, was fundamentally the birth of safety cultures in those industry segments. The development of safety management systems within these industries meant that not only safety was now starting to be managed in a proactive manner but that the overall organisational culture was changing and evolving to become safety oriented.

There is in fact a direct link that can be made between the implementation and development of a safety management system, or similar safety oriented processes, within an organisation and the evolution of the corporate safety culture.

Driving a positive safety culture

One of the foundational principles of a safety management system is a safety policy that explains how the organisation will manage safety. This policy, signed by the CEO, should drive the emergence of a positive safety culture. However, the key to success is ensuring that the principles explained in the safety policy become a way of doing business and not just some words on a sheet of paper.

Some 10-15 years after the nuclear and petrochemical industries started developing safety management principles, the aviation industry caught on to the concept of introducing regulatory changes that ensured the development of safety management systems as part of the certification process aviation industry stakeholders have to go through. This change, in many ways only ensured a formalisation of existing safety management processes within the organisations; however, it did trigger the evolution of a general aviation industry safety culture. This cultural change, which already started a few years ago for most organisations, is now in full expansion across all segments of the industry.

Organisational safety culture on an aerodrome is an important aspect of the overall management of safety. The fact that there are so many stakeholders all operating often in a constrained environment and sometimes in a confined space means that the concept of safety has to be adhered to by all partners.

This adherence is not an easy task to achieve as each organisation operating on the aerodrome has its own management processes and organisational culture. The airport operator, who often plays the role of the coordinator when it comes to safety on the aerodrome, has to find creative and sometimes innovative ways to promote safety on the airside. This is where the safety promotion and training aspect of a safety management system comes into play.

Promotional activities in terms of safety can include a multitude of means to achieve the overall goal of making people adhere to the fundamental safety principles laid down on the aerodrome.

Multimedia communication options

The use of media, ranging from printed materials to electronic bulletins can provide good support for communication. The wide range of media available, particularly when modern technologies are integrated into the approach, means that the message and media can be tailored to a particular audience. This is advantageous when the target audience ranges from operational staff on the ramp that can be reached through posters and flyers, to managers in offices who can be reached through web content such as videos or podcasts.

Safety campaigns can be developed on large or small scale and tailored to meet the needs of the audience. The development of a safety campaign should also include the definition of the topic, or topics, to be addressed. The safety data reported through the safety management system should be one of the triggers that will help identify the topics to be addressed.

A workshop is generally going to be aimed at a specific audience and hierarchical level within the organisation. Generally, workshops are held for part of a day and have a very specific focus, such as safety reporting or the management of change. A safety workshop is also a good medium to use to promote other safety activities such as campaigns or safety walks.

The concept of a safety walk is generally undertaken by the senior management who walk part of the aerodrome and spend time to discuss, inspect and review safety relevant issues in the operational areas of the aerodrome. These safety walks have the advantage of giving the ground staff the opportunity to talk to senior management about the safety issues they are faced with on a regular basis. A safety walk can also have a specific focus, such as a Foreign Object Damage (FOD) walk where managers and staff walk the apron areas of the aerodrome to collect FOD.

Rewarding safety adherence

Rewards can drive safety improvements by providing employees with incentives within their areas of activity. The rewards can be given for identification of hazards, for safety reporting or for special and unusual safety performance by a particular employee.

These various tools can always be complemented by new and creative concepts that will bring managers and staff from multiple organisations together with the common goal of improving safety; the only limit to what can be done, apart from the budget, is the creativity of the safety team in charge of developing safety promotional activities.

Overall, the development of a positive safety culture within the airport community is often driven by the safety team and the implementation of a safety management system.

Safety promotion activities will help in making employees and managers adhere to the concepts put forth by the safety management system and will drive for a change in culture. However, it has to be understood that a safety culture will only evolve if all levels of the organisation adhere to the concept of continuous improvement in safety.

  • Thomas Romig, is the Safety Officer at Genève Aéroport.