The key to improving safety in any industry – from oil and gas to railways and airlines – is to go beyond simply creating a safety management system but embedding safety into the company culture, focusing on prevention and identifying potential gaps.
In a recent step toward improving safety, Amtrak tapped the aviation industry to help it evaluate and update policies. According to Theresa Impastato, Amtrak’s senior director of system safety, the railroad’s safety team “now includes a combination of career railroad employees augmented by people who have experience in aviation, healthcare, systems engineering, aerospace engineering, nuclear power generation, defense systems, petrochemical processing and heavy metal mining,” all of which are industries that have had to create safety management systems to protect lives.
The New Airspace recently spoke with Michael Ball, senior aviation leader who is on the board of directors of the Air Traffic Control Association, about this effort. He shared his insights on how Amtrak might help the aviation industry by sharing its safety practices.
“Amtrak certainly will benefit from how other industries have evaluated safety situations and established a policy and set of procedures around safety management,” Ball shared. “The challenge will be to make sure it isn’t just an exercise in creating what I call ‘shelfware.’”
According to Ball, shelfware occurs when a company hires a support contractor who goes through the “safety planning and process” procedure, checks all the boxes that need to be checked, and writes it up in a nice document that is signed by the government entity. Then, the agency, in this case Amtrak, says “Yep, this is our safety management system.”
“The people who are ultimately responsible for implementing the SMS probably have never read the document in its entirety and haven’t thought about its implications to its operations, its employees, or its culture,” he said. “To create an effective SMS, you need to think about all of those things, as well as people and their training, the implications of whether they are trained, the capabilities of the safety technology, and what threats are out there.”
As Ball explained, safety management systems in any industry are designed with a specific procedure in mind that everyone should follow.
“Even if your organization has done all the proper documentation, had all the meetings, and set all the policies, if you don’t follow up by making sure the training is changed, the training manual is updated, double-checked that the new policy is in the training manual, and then insisted on checking that people are getting the required training, you’ve wasted time,” Ball said. “Follow up is critical.”
By reaching out to experts, Amtrak should get a better view into the complexities involved in creating and implementing SMS plans.
“I hope those experts are sharing that an SMS isn’t about going through a checklist, filling out all the forms and writing up documents,” Ball said.
The challenge for Amtrak – like it has been for countless other industries – will be in institutionalizing what is in the SMS, he said.
“An SMS is not a panacea. Organizations have to go further,” Ball said. “From top levels down, people must have the discipline to follow what is laid out in the SMS or safety management documentation. Then they must drive it into the organization’s culture in terms of training, procedures, and policies that emphasize that humans have a responsibility to call out things they are worried about.”
As Ball points out, an effective SMS is one that is implemented meticulously and then revisited to ensure it is still relevant and effective as technology and company culture evolve. Then, and only then, will safety management get better.