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Posted 8 years 67 days ago ago by Admin


In today's safety culture, zeroing in on the “who and what” of unsafe acts has become the new priority—again. Companies have been working overtime to arrive at a common safety destination, or to target specific safety practices in an effort to reduce the number of incidents. Yet, injuries still occur and aircraft are still damaged.

So what about the safety program itself? Could it be that a company’s safety program is now the new root cause or the top event in a bow-tie diagram? Maybe we need a safety program for the safety program.

Shouldn’t We Be Accident Free?

Decades of safety history in the helicopter industry reveal the lineage of our current programs. In the beginning it was simple: you got hurt or you damaged something and you got fired. No more issues.

When that didn’t seem to work, companies implemented a kinder, gentler method. Don’t get hurt and you got a belt buckle, plaque, or jacket. After that plateaued, safety incentives were elevated to TVs and cash. Funny thing was that although the basic safety numbers were lower, we still had workers sporting Band-Aids and limping around. Maybe those safety rewards were too material in nature.

To combat this trend, safety programs became broader and more behavior orientated. New proactive incentives encouraged co-workers to look out for each other’s best interests. Customers jumped on the bandwagon by presenting ultimatums to helicopter operators: strengthen your internal safety programs by adopting oil industry safety practices—or lose our business. In a few cases, customers even offered incentives to their employees if they reported alleged safety violations committed by vendor personnel, including “unsafe acts” committed by flight crews during flight. That really took “safety” to the next level.

Currently we have safety representatives in every facet of the helicopter operation. New departments have been created for the sole purpose of wiping out all unsafe acts. With such a robust history and developed culture of safety, one would think that by now the helicopter industry would be incident and accident free. But we’re not there yet. Ever wonder why?

It Can’t Be

Certainly it can't be the lack of safety documentation. Current safety documentation has grown from a 10-page outline with simple charts to a 300-plus page, multiple volume manuals of policy and procedures complete with interactive videos.

Certainly it can't be the number of safety meetings, or lack thereof. Daily crew tailgates, weekly departmental meetings, and quarterly division reviews appear to keep everyone updated and engaged in current safety topics.

Certainly it can't be the lack of corporate leadership and investment. Today, helicopter companies and their customers are spending hundreds of thousands--if not millions--of dollars on safety program marketing and incentives. Not to mention the considerable time corporate executives allot to meeting with the workforce to ensure they know that safety is a top-to-bottom effort.

So what’s still broke?

Troubleshooting Safety

Maybe we can “troubleshoot” safety from a mechanic’s vantage. Helicopters and safety programs actually have similar foundations. For one thing, both need balanced components in order to function properly.

For example, with helicopters the main rotor and drivetrain must be operationally balanced, otherwise the unbalanced condition causes a rough ride, or worse, damage to the aircraft. It’s the same for a safety program. If a program is heavy on safety videos but light on safety meetings, the program is unbalanced in its coverage and message.

So how do we tell when we have an out-of-balance situation? On the helicopter side, the pilot or customer may feel the resultant vibration from the unbalanced condition, and it’s reported to the mechanic or written up in the aircraft logbook. Or maybe a mechanic will discover it during routine maintenance. Either way, it’s pretty straightforward.

OK, so what about the safety side? Surely, if an employee or supervisor senses an unbalanced situation in the safety program, they can take their observation to the next level and report the defect without retribution. Furthermore, if warranted, anyone can send a letter or email to the executive level expressing concern about a problem in the safety program. Or can they? Maybe it’s not so straightforward.

Now, with the unbalanced situation reported, the next step is to measure the severity of the unbalance. For the helicopter, the use of specialized equipment like Chadwick or RADS will give the mechanic a clock angle or position and the amplitude or intensity of the unbalance measured in inches per second (IPS).

Unfortunately, there isn’t any specialized equipment you can hook up to a safety program to measure its unbalance. However, there are established tracking methods that measure the effectiveness or “amplitude” of the safety program. Just as with IPS, if a safety program’s total recordable incidence rate (TRIR) is high, this indicates a problem (unbalance) with the program. Still, it does not pinpoint its location or position relevant to the whole program.

Fixing (and Creating New) Problems

After several ground runs, the mechanic has enough information to correct the balance chart clock and make balance weight adjustments to the aircraft. However, what if on the third run the chart called for a 10-gram adjustment, but the actual move line crossed through the chart’s zero bull’s-eye and relocated the unbalance position to a new clock angle? An experienced mechanic knows that every aircraft and vibration have their own unique sensitivities that require minor tweaks to established procedure. With a simple 50-percent reduction in the weight adjustment, the mechanic brings the unbalance situation back into manufacturer’s tolerances. The problem is solved.  

Now, here is where our comparison comes together. If a safety program can only measure the amplitude, and not the clock angle, of its unbalance, then it is destined to wobble around with some good years and some bad years. It’s like trying to balance your ceiling fan by taping pennies to the blades. You get real close, until the tape breaks launching a penny through a window. This leaves you with the same unbalanced fan and a new problem: a broken window.

But the most important point beyond the clock angle is the reference to acceptable tolerances. Everything has limits and tolerances … except current safety programs. Even though a 0.0 IPS reading is theoretically possible in helicopter balancing, it is not practical in the real world. The same goes for a safety program. Yes, there is balance equipment more precise than a Chadwick or RADS with tolerances in the millionths of IPS, but it still has a tolerance. So why don’t safety programs have tolerances?
Goals vs Dreams

Don't get me wrong; I do not condone experiencing a single injury nor a single incident of damage. Still, arbitrarily stating “zero” as a safety goal—when history and science point to the astronomical low odds of ever achieving that level—makes “zero” a dream instead of a goal.

Nobody wants to get hurt, injure someone, or damage equipment. Still, it happens. Everyone knows that nothing in life is perfect. So why should a safety program set a goal of perfection?

Just like the task of balancing, sometimes to hit the bull’s-eye we have to do a little less, or we create new problems. I’m reminded of an old cartoon drawing that depicted a firing squad encircling their intended victim. Except in our case the victim is an incident or accident.

Safety should not be a target or even a destination, but rather a never-ending journey.

About the author: After a 32-year career in maintaining helicopters, Scott provides limited maintenance consulting services through his company, TEK Aviation LLC. He can be contacted at [email protected] .
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