Safety Management Systems often come under the microscope in accident investigations but do they actually enhance safety? A new publication from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, ATSB, provides a qualified “yes”.
Says the ATSB: “Incorporating safety management systems into normal business operations does appear to reduce accidents and improve safety in high-risk industries. At present, there have only been a small number of quality empirical evaluations of SMSs and it is unclear as to whether any individual elements of a SMS have a stronger influence on safety over other elements, although management commitment and appropriate safety communications do affect attitudes to safety. Transport organisations that provide an appropriate investment and commitment to a safety management system should receive a positive return on safety.”
The survey found 2,009 articles, with 37 directly relevant to the objectives of its investigation, and a significant amount of literature published in the past 5 years. However, only 14 involved a SMS designed to avoid low-probability/high-consequence (LP-HC) accidents, with the remaining 23 studies relating to work health and safety. In addition, very few of these studies were undertaken in transport domains, and many studies only measured subjective perceptions of safety rather than objective measures. The limited quality empirical evidence available relate to the difficulty of measuring objective safety improvements in industries where the SMS is aimed at avoiding LP-HC accidents and the relative recency of the application of SMS.
Nineteen studies analysed objective metrics such as safety performance, employee behaviours, and accidents. Several of these found that organisations with a certified SMS had significantly lower accident rates. However, across these studies, there was a lack of agreement about which components of a safety management system individually contributed the most to safety performance.
A further 18 studies used self-report metrics about perceptions of safety within the organisation to examine the effectiveness of a SMS. Although there was also a general lack of consistency across which elements of a SMS affected safety the most, it was commonly found that both management commitment and safety communication were important.