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From Safety To Safety And All The Steps In Between

In Greek mythology, the story is told of Icarus’ and his father’s attempt to escape from Crete using wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. His father’s warning not to fly too close to the sun for the wax to melt was not heeded by Icarus and as a result, he plummeted to his death.

The risk of death, injury or damage to property has never been an insurmountable hurdle in man’s quest to master new frontiers. Rather, we try to reduce and control to an acceptable level the risks associated with these activities.

In the afore-mentioned myth, the father recognised the risk involved in their activity and subsequently communicated a mitigation measure to all participants involved. Unfortunately, in many industries today, the same concept of safety is practised, i.e. identify the risks and communicate the mitigation measures to all involved participants. If only it were that simple! Fifty percent of the flights in the mythology ended up in a catastrophe. If our industry’s understanding of safety is still this primitive, then we should expect an equally high number of casualties.

Let’s stay with the inherently dangerous and risk prone aviation industry. There is this well-known saying, “If we were meant to fly, God would have given us wings,” seems to suggest that we all recognise the hazard rich aviation environment. Yet, we continue to fly!

The number of fatal accidents in aviation was about sixty accidents per year in the 1960s. It’s about twenty in our modern times. This is a remarkable feat considering that the number of flights has not remained the same but has seen an exponential growth since the 1960s. To put this in relative terms – the number of fatal accidents in aviation has dropped from around 9 to 10 accidents per million flights to around 0.2 accidents per million flights in recent times.

We thought it safe to fly in 1960 so we paid good money to fly. So, how do you take something that was safe and make it safer? What steps must you take to achieve such feat?

The Wright Brothers and other pioneers had little engineering knowledge and experience to guide them. As can be expected, accidents were rife during those times. With operational experience came improvements in technology and regulation of aviation activities. The first efforts at improving safety came through the optimisation of the hardware.

When the causes of accidents started being attributed to “human error”, there arose the need to focus on the individuals and crew involved in aircraft operation. This resulted in a further improvement of the safety performance of aviation.

In recent times, the organisation’s role in accident prevention has become the focus of attention. The decisions, inactions and attitudes at the organisational level can and do contribute to the chain of events that lead to accidents. Recognizing that many opportunities exist to stop an accident is the first step in moving from reactive to predictive thinking.

To enjoy an acceptable level of safety, akin to that of the aviation industry, an organisation is required to implement a systematic integration of all these safety concepts into a repeatable, proactive and predictive process. It is imperative that this approach be considered in the same manner as other aspects of business management.

The safest aircraft is the one not flying. The safest factory floor is the one that is shutdown. The safest construction site is an empty lot. If, however, we want to fly, manufacture and build, then it behoves on us to reduce the associated risks to safety to an acceptable level.

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