Safety in the Workplace – The Aviation Model

This was not a great month for the aviation industry with the events that unfolded on that fateful Southwest flight. A woman lost her life, and that’s terribly sad. That said, that is the first fatality on a domestic commercial flight since 2009. Almost 2,600,000 people fly in and out of US airports every day. There area about 10,000,000 flights every year. Consider that for a moment. Millions of people fly every day for 9 years and there is one fatality. Few industries can claim that kind of safety record.

The really impressive takeaway is what the aviation industry is doing for the safety of the customers it serves. Admittedly there are customer injuries on airplanes, but considering the high stakes involved in transporting millions of people at speeds exceeding 500 miles per hours, the safety record in the aviation industry sets a strong example for other industries.

Clearly, the aviation industry didn’t start out as safe as it is today. Much of the work that has been was reactive – a catastrophic failure would lead to learning. The aviation industry in the United States has worked hard to achieve and maintain the standards and practices that have resulted in a strong culture of safety. Teams of researchers have spent decades trying to understand where the issues are in the industry and how to eliminate the risks they have identified.

What did millions of dollars and thousands of hours of research reveal? People are the problem. Human error is the most common reason for an incident. There are three types of human error that result in incidents: communication, decision-making, and leadership.

COMMUNICATION. DECISION-MAKING. LEADERSHIP. What organization hasn’t had issues with this in the workforce? We’ve all seen it. In some cases, all mixed together like a stew of poor performance. And when employees make mistakes in these areas, we reprimand, we write up, and then maybe sometimes we coach. Sort of. How can we do better?

What does the aviation industry do when a mistake is made? They create an opportunity for learning. The aviation industry as a unique tool at its disposal that many other industries don’t understand or use. The no fault reporting concept that is based on the idea that human error is a reality. They train and they practice and they test, but human error is going to happen, and when it does, they want to learn from it. They want pilots to tell on themselves. They want co-pilots to tell on pilots. They want full disclosure. Because if they get that information, they can figure out how to avoid it the next time. There isn’t immediate punishment or interrogation. It’s communication for the greater good. Sure, if a pilot is negligent he or she will wind up in a heap of trouble. And if an issue goes unreported, there is no question that the consequences will be severe. But the general point to no fault reporting is to open the dialogue so that employees constantly learn how to better communicate, make better decisions, and become better leaders.

No fault reporting can positively impact accountability. It is much easier to stand up and say I screwed up when I don’t feel like I’m immediately going to be yelled at or punished. I don’t want to screw up. I want to be good at my job – whatever my job is. I can also admit that I made a mistake because I’m not the only one that makes mistakes and I know that when we are able to freely discuss mistakes. Do all employees feel that way?

From a personnel perspective, I’m certainly not advocating that we just overlook every mistake. For example, a pilot cannot fly intoxicated, report it and them be immune to consequences. Reporting an issue doesn’t always protect you from reasonable consequences. There are sets of standards and rules that each organization has and if you blatantly violate them, discipline will follow. This isn’t about that kind of issue. It’s about how our employees learn from errors and how we create those learning opportunities in an organization that needs employees to pay attention.

Another component in the strong safety record of the aviation industry is Crew Resource Management (CRM). Simply put, CRM is a set of training procedures used when human error is a factor and the stakes are high. It encourages crew members to question and challenge each other to help keep each other accountable. If one member is making a decision that might result in risk, the others should not simply stand by and watch. They shouldn’t mumble or wait to say “I told you so”. They should clearly communicate in a way that will be clearly and immediately understood. They should speak up, ask questions and work to see the situation through. Once again, we see the themes of communication, decision-making and leadership come into play. It encourages respectful questioning of others, including authority and helps identify when what is happening is different than what should be happening, which is an early sign of an error. It’s training that encourages assertive, direct communication between coworkers.

It’s an interesting thought. Really, these concepts apply even beyond safety. What organization doesn’t want employees who are good communicators, decision makers and leaders? But especially when it comes to safety initiatives in the workplace, it may serve us well to take a closer look at how the aviation industry has become a leader in safe, effective work environments.