How can we prevent organisational accidents?

Part 4

What goes around comes around[1], so it is said. I think that idiom is often about bad things but can be about good things too. In other words, something done years ago can pop-up and have an impact on the here and now.

Some Microsoft PowerPoint presentations from the 1990s are difficult to read. One that I kept did convert into a readable format. The subject was Safety Management Systems (SMS). In the mid-90s, as a UK CAA Surveyor, I was presenting at a national workshop on design and production issues talking about the need for SMS. Describing what that term meant and how it should be used by approved organisations in the UK.

Airworthiness is about past, present and future. It’s about aircraft, procedures, and people. It’s about design, production, maintenance, repair, and overhaul. It’s a long-lived discipline that has developed over decades and delivered a remarkably good level of aviation safety performance.

What we were looking at 30 years ago was not only the experience of civil aviation but the results of investigation of tragic accidents in other industries. In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost. 35 years ago, saw the Zeebrugge car ferry[2] disaster that killed 193 people. In 1988, explosions destroyed the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea. Each accident pointed to the need for stronger safety management. Often the question was asked: how could such fundamental errors have been made? One response was: “Of all God’s creations, corporations seem to have the shortest memories of all”[3].

Lots of good people agreed that civil aviation needed to practice safety management but primarily on a voluntary basis. Not only that but there were numerous interpretations as to the meaning of SMS as applicable to the different disciplines in aviation. So, Air Traffic Services and Aircraft Operations went ahead with their own versions of SMS. Unfortunately, design and production organisations lagged. In the background, some specialists were attempting to distil a generic template for SMS.

It was the year 2005 that shook the tree. Measuring safety performance everyone had become accustomed a story of constantly improving global aviation safety. That year saw a series of major accidents which shook confidence and led to a High-level Safety Conference[4] at ICAO’s Headquarters in Montreal. This HLSC brought together Directors General of Civil Aviation and aviation organisations from most of ICAO’s Member States. Resulting from the HLSC was the Recommendation 2/5 and it was dramatic. It called for a new ICAO Annex on SMS. And so, ICAO Annex 19 was born.

It’s 2022. You might reasonably ask – why is it that we are only now implementing SMS for design and production organisations? Good question.


[1] The results of things that one has done will someday have an effect on the person who started the events.

[2] 6 March 1987, the roll-on, roll-off passenger, and freight ferry capsized 4 minutes after having left harbour.

[3] Safety Management, Strategy and Practice, Roger Pybus, Butterworth-Heinemann 1996.

[4] https://www.icao.int/Meetings/AMC/HLSC/HLSC%202010%20Report/HLSC.2010.DOC.9335.EN.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s