Aviation Safety Letter 3/2003

The ASL Interview - Dennis Ford, Manager of system safety, Vancouver Island Helicopter Ltd.

by Gerry Binnema, System Safety Specialist and ASL Contributing Editor, System Safety, Pacific Region

Denis Ford
Denis Ford is the Manager of System Safety at Vancouver Island Helicopters Ltd. (VIH),
a company with about 70 aircraft working primarily in British Columbia and Alberta,
as well as other areas of Western Canada, and various International locations.

ASL: Where do you fit into the structure of the company?

DF: I have a reporting relationship that allows for direct access to the President of VIH, although on a day-to-day basis I work with the General Manager or the Departmental Managers themselves. My responsibility is anything that has to do with safety. That's not to say that nobody else is responsible for safety in the various departments. My job is to help pull everything together - to oversee what other people are doing about safety issues in their respective areas and assist in the identification and procurement of the resources required to fill in the gaps.

While I do not have a specific safety budget, I have never been restricted in the operation of the Safety Department. When, as a result of investigations, major changes to procedures or equipment modifications are required, overall budgetary consideration is given. Those items that require immediate attention due to immanent safety issues are treated as a priority, with those of lesser urgency being budgeted for and implemented over a longer period of time. The actual Safety Department has a relatively fixed set of operating costs. While the Safety Department is often involved in the identification of issues as a result of independent or joint investigations, the recommendations and costs of implementing them will normally fall within the Maintenance, Operations, or Training Departments.

ASL: Do you believe that your company possesses a strong safety culture?

DF: Yes, and it's getting stronger all the time. Although I am relatively happy with the safety culture here, I'm a perfectionist so I always want it to be better. Perfectionism is of course, not something that can be obtained in safety related matters, for as we all know, there is always room for continued improvement and to believe otherwise would be foolish.

ASL: How do you do that? How do you get people to think safety?

DF: You need to get everyone actively involved in the Safety Program. Safety crosses all of the departmental boundaries within a company. We need to work towards eliminating as many of the cultural divisions that have existed between administrative office personnel, pilots and maintenance staff as possible. Mistakes happen because of a breakdown in thought processes such as judgment and decision-making. Those distractions or interferences are the same, regardless of who you are or what you are doing. Safety is a frame of mind you must strive to carry with you 24 hours a day, at work, at home, or at play. Safety is most effective when it becomes a habit as a result of routine, and not treated as something that only needs to be thought of while at work.

Contributory cause and risk management training is provided to all of our personnel. In doing so, they become more aware of their own thought processes and begin to think about causes and contributory factors of events that have occurred in their own life. Our training also brings people together from the various departments and exposes each of them to the different priorities and ways of thinking that these other departments often require. One of the things we do during the training is take an example of a typical helicopter job that, at face value, most of the people in attendance would not consider doing because it appears to be too risky. We then have a look at what steps can be taken to reduce the risk and then reassess whether it has been brought to an acceptable level. Most people are surprised to find that you can often reduce the risk significantly, and in many cases to a manageable level, by the implementation of seemingly small changes in procedures.

Most people are already practicing risk management, but they had never attached that label to it. Doing a walk around, a daily check or an inspection, or checking the sling gear before using it, are simple examples of risk management in practice.

ASL: Can you describe your reporting system?

DF: We have three different reports: Accidents or Incidents Involving Aircraft and Vehicles, Occupational Injuries or Illness, and Unsafe Conditions. The forms are available at every base and in every aircraft. The forms have very colorful borders so they don't easily get lost on someone's desk. Although we have three distinctive methods of reporting, the investigation and follow-up are the same for each. The formal reports would usually come directly to me. I attach a report number and identifier and then forward them to the respective departmental manager. In most cases that manager has been aware of the problem right from the time of occurrence or submission of the report, and has already started an investigation. The circulation of the actual report form does not delay that investigation.

The most critical step is to make sure that the report follow-up does occur. It's relatively easy to do the investigation and find out what contributed to the event. The challenge is to ensure that the resultant recommendations are implemented and that any procedural changes or equipment modifications are consistently supported. If you don't do the follow-up, and visible implementation has lost its momentum, you will ultimately lose employee participation in the reporting system, which will lead to an ineffective safety program.

ASL: What is the greatest challenge of being a safety manager?

DF: As a comparison, from an operations or maintenance manager's perspective when you see something that needs to be done, you can often take charge and make that change within the system yourself. In safety, much like instructing, you may know what needs to be done, but you need to motivate others to achieve the desired result. Because the possible negative effect of doing something in an unsafe fashion is not always obvious or measurable, the long-term success in implementing a change requires understanding and personal "buy in." This may involve a few people, an entire department or even the company at large, and that will take time.

One of the biggest challenges is keeping the safety program free from the departmental barriers that often exist within an aviation company. Transport Canada tends to deal with the maintenance and operational aspects of a company separately, and while quality assurance and emergency training are very specific and to a large degree effective, there are many other aspects of safety that are not unique to a particular department. However, when it comes to ensuring that the same urgency is paid to the company safety program, safety can often find itself competing for the time of a specific department, with the regulatory nature of Transport Canada. In other words the temptation is there to set aside general safety issues while those of an externally regulated nature are dealt with. Obviously that is not acceptable and while the company tries to ensure that doesn't happen, there is a continual tug of war with respect to the time and energies of the departmental managers.

Flight 2005 will help bring many of those issues to the same level of urgency and importance, but my concern is that the responsibility for the control of safety within an organization will be assigned to one of the traditional departments and embedded for example within the Operations Manual. The success of a safety program and how it contributes to accident prevention is often dependent on immediate response to a situation or a hazard and the typical ops and maintenance methods of implementing regulated change can take too long. Remember, there are a lot of people within an organization who are not assigned to operations or maintenance, and yet their involvement and effect on safety is just as important.

Other than the specific Safety Systems, such as Quality Assurance and Emergency Procedures that are already embedded in maintenance and operations departments, I feel that in general safety should stand on its own. All of the procedures and policies within a company's Safety (and Health) Program should be cross-referenced by the other traditional departments where required, but be available for immediate change as the need arises. In doing so, the departmental cross-reference requires no change, and procedures can be improved throughout the company in a very timely and efficient fashion.

ASL: What benefits have Vancouver Island Helicopters seen as a result of having a strong safety program?

DF: While the statement could be made that our safety program gives us a higher competitive standing in the industry, particularly in those markets where the clients now demand that their suppliers have a visible and effective safety program, the real benefit is a feeling of pride and professionalism from within our own organization and knowledge that the safety of our personnel is what really matters. That makes our motivation for safety internal and that is where the long-term success of the safety program and the company itself will be generated.

In terms of proposed safety management system (SMS) legislation, we are already four fifths of the way there, so we don't see any big change coming in order to comply with SMS regulations.

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