Why do safety management systems fail?

To start off, there needs to be an explanation of what Safety Management Systems aim to accomplish for those who use them. A Safety Management System, or SMS, is more of a business approach to maintaining a safe environment. To put it simply, it works methodically to identify and monitor hazards and control risks continuously. At the same time, an SMS makes sure the current risk control measures in place are doing their job successfully.

The ethical, financial, and legal basis of this method is imperative to understand for it to work properly. Ethically, the employer is obligated to ensure safe working conditions for all employees. Financially, they are responsible for reducing incidents that cost the company money. Lastly, they are legally responsible for following set rules that define how a workplace achieves the highest rate of safety.

Now, how do these systems fail? Most of this failure resides in a lack of engagement on both the management and worker scale. But there are a handful of other aspects that must be realized to avoid SMS failure:

  • Lack of Engagement – Both employees and management must be engaged for SMS to work as it should. No engagement between both parties may be because the reporting tools are too difficult to use, there's limited access to those reporting channels, transparency is non-existent, it lacks a two-way communication system, there is a lack of information, there are prefabricated conceptions that reporting will equal negative repercussions, and there may even be a language barrier. Overall, a lack of communication and organization will result in lackluster engagement.
  • Poor Decision Making – Take for example if there was a focus on saving on costs and staying compliant with regulations and standards at the management level. Safety may fall through the cracks in this scenario, which would disrupt the goal of following an SMS method.
  • The Inability to Answer the Four Fundamental Questions – If the questions are, "What is likely going to be the cause of the next accident?" "How do you know that will happen?" "What can you do about it?" and "Is the solution working?" cannot be answered then the SMS method will fail. This outcome stems from a lack of taking this problem-solving method seriously, or only doing the bare minimum because it is required at the moment.

Safety Management Systems are excellent tools to use in all kinds of environments where safety improvement is a high priority. However, everyone must be on board to change the safety culture in a way for this kind of method to perform at the highest degree.


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