Disclaimer: especially here, the opinions presented are fully subjective, you have been warned!

The safety policies are mainly of two types which can be summed up as Safety First and Safety Management System.

Safety First

This wording means that the organization does its utmost to reduce human losses. It is often the current state before a policy is implemented. Trying to find out what that utmost is, one may be left with the feeling of a great void behind those words. So, Safety First can reassure, at least customers and it is probably the purpose of displaying that slogan, but will for instance insurers or lawyers really believe communication can replace safety?

Harsh paper of David O’Hare: From a safety engineering point of view (…) design changes are the first priority. Training to deal with the possibility of error is the next best approach. (…) Finally, education to increase awareness has a place in the scheme of things but in itself is unlikely to be completely effective. The response by most organizations (…) is to follow exactly the reverse order of priority and generate some sporadic educational efforts (e.g., articles in safety magazines, discussion at meetings etc) instead of delivering the targetted training and design solutions required.

Safety Management System

SMS has several other equivalent names like Safety Programme, Hazard Identification, Risk Reduction, which can also be parts of the SMS. In any case, the written version is heavy (you can still choose your pill). Wikipedia: It is a systematic, explicit and comprehensive process for managing safety risks. It looks like a fractal object, as it applies at several scales: individuals, groups, organizations or companies, as well as designs, machines, production lines. Once an SMS has been implemented, it changes the minds (one of its goals) and everyone will now think according to it in the concerned part of their schedule. A big folder and a persistent effort to spread the policy until the last corners of the organization or working place. What is the price of life?

The chart below gives an idea of the SMS efficiency (note: the scale is logarithmic, so the actual differences are even much bigger). It is difficult to implement such a policy for indivual transport. For commercial airlines, it was simpler: as often over a hundred people die in one single accident, they had to react. Despite some reluctance at first (Ian Oldaker’s paper), airlines understood quickly it was their interest, not least regarding legal protection. When insurance brokers or law offices ask “With which procedures do you ensure safety?”, the companies can show their SMS and look (and be) responsible. And the results are there: even if there still are disasters, airlines are well-known to be the safest means of transport. SMS became mandatory in all civil aviation branches during the 2010s.

In industry, the ILO-OSH 2001 and ISO 45001 norm in 2018 have the same structure and cyclical process. So it is just a matter of time until all branches and significant companies will use some sort of SMS tailored to their own specificities, and this path is very probably without return. Now one can wonder how the Boeing 737-MAX8 accidents were possible in 2018-2019? Here is no expertise to judge, but from the interactions between the FAA and the manufacturer, as published in newspapers, the SMS philosophy may have got lost somehow, despite following the guidelines. With so complex a system, it becomes possible to drop the focus and stick to the rules instead of bearing in mind the reasons for them.

As already written, no safety system is perfect, but SMS looks like one of the best ones around. It demands huge efforts at first and a constant attention then, but it brings a promise worth considering. Finally, when an SMS is running, why hide it? Safety should be highlighted in the organization’s showcase. It could be visible even in the organization’s chart, with a Safety Officer being for instance number two, yes… That would show safety is actually taken seriously and defines the organization, rather than being relegated among the last annexes. It is at least the philosophy of SMS.