SMS in context

black-hawkSMS in aviation has been evolving since the early 1990s when it was recognised that Technological, Human and Organisational factors all had a part to play in creating an inherently safe work environment. Integration of these components is the key to success.

Consider the time when someone is learning to drive a motorcar - perhaps a son or daughter.

We all know it can be a potentially dangerous time.  The media is often filled with bad news stories regarding motor vehicle accidents. Experienced drivers have seen enough, perhaps even had enough close calls (or even accidents of their own) to know the potential dangers on the road, and generally speaking, are happy to share this with less experienced drivers.

But new drivers - they just want to get their license and get mobile.

So there is a system, both formal and informal, to protect them;

  • P_platesQualification is regulated - with age requirements, logging of 'L plate' hours, and a series of skills and competencies required before they can attempt the license test.
  • Due to inexperience, there are restrictions on post-license privileges
  • They learn and practice basic 'roadmanship' skills such as;
    • A speed limit is a maximum, less than this when appropriate is safer
    • Extra caution is needed in wet and slippery conditions
    • A recognition that road surface and terrain may require new skills
    • There is also recognition that night driving has its own unique challenges
  • There may be other restrictions that parents apply to their children using their cars
  • New situations (say off-road driving) may require further training
  • There is ongoing monitoring of performance (Police, RBT etc)
  • There is regular safety communication messages in the media

So what we are seeing is; formal process,  a recognition of hazards, treatment of risks, further training for new situations and continual communication in a bid to reduce the possibility of a negative occurrence.

This is management of safety - within a system of sorts.

Consider some significant case studies below;


The Piper Alpha Disaster

Piper Alpha 3

The Piper Alpha platform  accounted for nearly 10 percent of North sea oil and gas production. On 05 July 1988 an explosion and resulting oil and gas fire resulted in the complete loss of the platform and the death of 167 men.

The disaster was the worst offshore oil disaster in terms of lives lost and industry impact, and resulted in sweeping changes to the off-shore oil and gas industry  ...read more

The Herald of Free Enterprise


The Herald of Free Enterprise was a 13000 ton Roll-On Roll-Off car and passenger ferry operating between England and Belguim.

This type of operation was highly competitive and on the night of 06 March 1987, the ship and crew were under significant time pressure to depart with a maximum payload

The ship capsized shortly after leaving port....read more

The collapse of Enron

Enron entrance

The bankruptcy of American  energy company Enron in 2001 was one of the most significant financial collapses in history.

The company fell from being one of the the seventh largest in the US by Fortune 500 in to a spectacular collapse in the space of several months.

Although not a disaster in physical terms, the similarities with SMS are an interesting comparison...read more

When considering case studies of disasters, always the galling aspect is how none of them needed to happen.  They were all preventable, even predictable, but it was the failure of multiple defences that allowed them to occur.

SMS seeks to create a predictive, generative culture that has the ability to identify technological human or systemic weaknesses that could lead to disaster before they become a reality.  Of course, no system is fail-safe. But it is possible to have such a robust safety culture, through SMS, that the odds are reduced to the minimum possible.

Complex systems should not fail due to a single factor. The single point of failure is what all organisations seek to avoid.  SMS provides the means to store the collective corporate knowledge build through time and experience, and pass that on to the next generation of workforce.