Safety management systems (SMS), have been implemented in helicopter operations for several years. Although safety management has been part of managing aviation operations ever since the industry took off, SMS have brought about a more structured approach to capture safety hazards and assess their possible consequences and impact on operations.
Much of the success of SMS implementation depends on line employees being enabled by company management to make reports on all sort of safety events, including incidents and potentially unsafe conditions in the workplace. After several years of SMS implementation the time has come to assess where the helicopter operations industry stands in terms of safety reporting practices.
Improving Safety Reporting Culture
Surely the safety reporting culture in the domain of helicopter operations varies significantly around the globe, but it is generally recognized as important by the industry and more and more authorities are putting in place legal requirements in most parts of the world.
There is also significant work going on under HeliOffshore (a global safety organization for the offshore helicopter industry) to share not just reports of individual incidents, but also leading indicators of day-to-day safety performance. “We do this through our controlled-access InfoShare platform within the HeliOffshore Space portal,” says Gretchen Haskins, chief executive officer of HeliOffshore.
According to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) there were 34,744 helicopter-related safety incidents reported EU level between 2007 and 2016. Offshore helicopters accounted for 6,285 of these, while the total number also includes emergency medical services, survey work, business flights and general aviation. In 2016 alone, there were 5,794 reports (of which 879 were offshore operations). In 2015 there were changes to the regulatory framework and this is a key reason for the increase. There is a general perception that the number of reports is increasing each year and this is due to improved levels of reporting, rather than any reduction in safety. “So overall, we feel safety reporting in the helicopter sector is fairly good and improving, and there is significant commitment from the industry,” says Haskins.
Helicopter operator CHC has a safety reporting system in place and on average it receives over 6,000 employee reports per year. “We continue to work to encourage additional reporting and empower our employees to speak up when they see something across our operation. One of our main aims has been to encourage an increasing percentage of our reports being proactive in nature and we have seen considerable success in getting that focus and engagement,” says Duncan Trapp, vice president of safety and quality at CHC.
“The implementation of an SMS, when done properly, has a definite positive impact on safety reporting in helicopter operations. Reinforcement of SMS tenants like safety information sharing and just/fair culture contribute to a willingness for employees to report hazards and events”, says Willis Jacobs, safety and quality manager at Cougar Helicopters.
There exist some best practices to use the safety information coming from the line environment in order to continuously improve operational safety. “Safety incident reporting should be used to identify priority areas where operators can proactively address potential safety issues. Operators also can use the data again to measure whether subsequent actions have had the desired effect. There is collaboration across organisations to share this information so that weak signals can be detected and action taken early”, says Haskins. “ICAO Annex 19 now requires operators to have an SMS and strategic safety improvement plans. HeliOffshore has created an industry wide safety performance model that is like an SMS to collectively drive an improvement programme and to use data to understand where we should be in terms of safe operations”.
A best practice used at CHC is to review safety reports daily and when something is significant the matter is briefed to the leadership team immediately. “It is important that the people making the report know that their input is viewed quickly and at the right level. All of the reports are given a risk rating and managed with accountability to closure and circulated through all stakeholders related to the issue until they are resolved. Risk is also reassessed when all mitigating actions are completed. Visibility of the report in its final form is also an important part of the feedback process”, says Trapp.
“Unquestionably the best practice for promoting reporting and continuous improvement is timely feedback for those that take the time to report. Also, an operator should keep them informed of progress and decisions taken to resolve the reported issue,” says Jacobs.
SMS and the practice of safety reporting have made it possible to identify new types of operational safety issues, which were not immediately explicit before. Safety reporting could involve errors that pilots or maintainers have made and that they report. It could include equipment failures or failure rates that might not be as expected. Additionally, safety reporting could cover areas where procedures are difficult to follow and so they need to be improved. Sometimes it is about interfaces between different groups like operators and air traffic controllers, and the ways these could be improved, notes Haskins.
“With the implementation of SMS, all areas of operations feel that that have a safety voice that can change policies, procedures, and processes that impact their ability to complete the job safely and efficiency. In particular, ground support staff are more inclined to report on operational pressures from customers or from within the organisation, that have the potential to adversely impact operations,” notes Jacobs.
“We have had a few notable success stories, including wrong rig landings, autopilot dropouts, and for employee personnel injuries. For the landing issue, we were aware anecdotally and began measuring and reporting to modify the factors and behaviors that contributed to such events,” notes Trapp. “For the autopilot dropouts, we again knew we had a problem and analyzed numbers to show a trend and then address it with other operators who were also having issues. We were able to share this information with other stakeholders to help find a global solution to benefit everyone. We are dedicated to sharing data with our partners to continue to help raise the bar for safety across the industry. Finally, we were able to identify the top drivers for personnel injuries and deploy targeted initiatives, which has led to a very strong performance in taking care of our team.”
Sharing of safety data
Indeed, safety data sharing is developing some critical mass among helicopter operators, and this is allowing the identification of common industry issues, as well as the sharing of lessons learned. In this regard, Helioffshore is playing an important role. HeliOffshore was founded by several leading offshore helicopter operators in 2014, and today there currently are more than 100 members, including aircraft and system manufacturers, helicopter operators, and leasing companies.
“HeliOffshore is the focal point and portal for information sharing across the offshore helicopter industry. Their InfoShare online system which allows for the wide distribution of de-identified safety information that allows individuals and organizations to be active participants in a worldwide safety program. With a pay-to-play approach, organizations understand and accept that success is user driven. There is still much to be done, but we have made significant progress in the past few years,” says Jacobs.
“We play an active role in a number of work streams, providing leadership and our expert technical resources. We also share certain data to help with industrywide assessments of areas such as system reliability. The HeliOffshore information exchange – InfoShare – is a key area where we can voluntarily share de-identified data that may be of interest and use to other operators – some topics can be technical in nature while other information exchanges might be more operational,” says Trapp. “The HeliOffshore team are also developing protocols for the sharing of flight data monitoring (FDM) data and this is being supported by a new system developed by GE. Other exchanges have revolved around the development of best practice manuals, with the most significant one being created for use in health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS).”
Indeed there is more and more data sharing among helicopter operators today and this includes day-to-day reliability data and also FDM data for operational performance as well as line operations safety audit (LOSA) data from observations of frontline performance. “After analysing the reliability data, HeliOffshore is now working with the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) on fleet-based priority lists for improvements that would reduce avoidable errors being made during maintenance. We are working with the industry to further develop safety reporting capability and share data across the supply chain. HeliOffshore holds regular InfoShare meetings and discussions in an open forum. We also have our HeliOffshore Space as a collaboration tool that is designed to help 24/7 incident sharing”, concludes Haskins.