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Speaker Remarks for International Air & Transportation Safety Bar Association
Robert L. Sumwalt
Washington, DC

Thank you, Gary (Halbert).

As Gary mentioned, the NTSB believes a Safety Management System (SMS) contains important tools for improving transportation safety. We have three recommendations for SMS in aviation, as well as recommendations for SMS in the marine and rail industries, as well as for pipeline operations.

So, what the heck is SMS, anyway?

A lot of people are asking that very question these days.

Last month, I attended a meeting with a senior FAA official, and I expressed how difficult people were trying to make SMS. He suggested that perhaps the name should be simply "safety management" instead of "safety management system." He stated that with the name "safety management system," it implies something you have. The term "safety management," on the other hand, implies something you do.

And, that really is the essence of it - SMS is about managing safety. It's when an organization manages and values safety in the same ways that they manage and value other vital business functions.

Take, for instance, finances. Organizations typically place great importance on finances. And, because they believe finances are important, they manage them carefully. They appoint a chief financial officer, they have financial controls and procedures, they conduct audits - internally and externally. If the company is publically traded, the CEO and CFO must sign a Sarbanes-Oxley statement to certify that what is being reported is, to the best of the knowledge, correct.

And, why do they do these things? Because finances are important.

So, if safety is important, shouldn't an organization have a way to effectively manage safety?

That's what SMS does - it provides a structured way to manage safety. It is simply a business approach to managing safety.

The FAA says SMS has four components: safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance, and safety promotion.

For me, those terms are not terribly descriptive, so I tend to label them slightly differently.

The way I look at it, SMS has written policies, procedures, and guidelines; data collection and analysis; risk management; and, it is all held together by a forth component - safety culture.

Let's take a quick look at each of these.

First, written policies, procedures, and guidelines. It's a very simple concept - write the way you intend to do things, and then operate that way. Despite the seemingly simple concept, NTSB quite often sees cases where organizations do not have adequate written documentation; or if they do have it, they don't rigorously adhere to it. It's something we see in many, many accidents we investigate.

Data collection and analysis. Basically, the organization collects and analyzes data so they can keep their fingers on the pulse of the operations. And, they collect data from multiple sources.

Risk management. Risk management is one of those topics that when you mention it, people's eyes glaze over. Quite simply, we manage risk whenever we modify the way we do something to increase our chances of success and decrease our chances of injury, failure, or loss.

Through your data sources, you identify hazards. You then decide if the level of risk is acceptable. If the risk is too high, then take measures to mitigate the risk to an acceptable level.

Safety culture. The NTSB has, on a number of occasions, identified a weak safety culture as being a factor in accidents in several transportation modes. Part of the probable cause of the June 2009 Washington, DC, subway accident that claimed nine lives was the transit agency's lack of safety culture. An aviation accident that stands out involved a Cessna Citation that crashed into Lake Michigan in 2007, claiming six lives. NTSB commented on the inadequate safety culture of the operator. We've found the lack of a safety culture in pipeline accidents, as well.

The NTSB is very interested in safety culture, and in the spring 2013, we plan to hold a forum on safety culture development in transportation. This has not been publically announced yet - you are the first to hear about it - and we are extremely excited about learning more about this important aspect of transportation safety.

So, it's difficult to say a whole lot about SMS in 15 minutes, but the key points are that it is a business approach to managing safety. And, an effective safety management system will at least have written policies, procedures, and guidelines; data collection and analysis; risk management; and, safety culture.

I'll wrap it up by saying that the lifeblood of SMS is data - using data to keep your finger on the pulse of your operation; the heart of SMS is a process of continuous improvement. By that, I mean when your data sources indicate the need for improvement, you feed that information back into the system and make those improvements. And, finally, the soul of SMS is having a strong commitment to safety culture.

I want to thank you for your attention and I hope this has been helpful in describing SMS.

Thank you very much.