Safety managers are meeting up to share ideas, solutions, and support.
Isolation. It’s a commonly heard word among those who’ve taken on the responsibilities of being a safety manager.
A number of them, however, have started meeting in groups to help each other and provide support for newcomers to the industry.
Vector talks to two of those groups.
South Island group
Rebecca Gibb and her husband Matt have been in business for 15 years at Helicharter Nelson. Their safety management system (SMS) came on line last July.
Rebecca belongs to an upper South Island safety managers meet-up group, which she says has made her feel more comfortable and confident in her role as the safety manager of Helicharter, “because you’re reassured by the others about what you’re doing”.
“And every time I walk away from a meeting, I have something quite valuable that I can use in my own systems.”
A good tip that Rebecca picked up from another group member, Debbie Lawn of Ahaura Helicopters, was the use of regular quizzes, which act as a knowledge top-up for staff.
“For example, I recently did a weight and balance quiz to coincide with an audit,” says Rebecca, “making sure there weren’t any gaps in staff general knowledge or processes. It helped with my general knowledge too. Even simple questions can be great for general awareness, like, ‘Where’s the SMS manual located?’
“Another useful takeaway from one of the catchups was breaking down the emergency response plan into segments, with training each month, rather than trying to cover the whole plan once a year in one big session.”
One of the founders of the same upper South Island group, Pip Foster, who is employed by four operations as their safety manager, remembers feeling a bit lost at the beginning of her SMS experience, without anyone to bounce ideas off. Having the opportunity to meet with like-minded people has been invaluable.
“The potential for an incident in one company could be the same as that for another company. So the lessons from the SMS meetings are useful to everyone.
“But I also get to see different perspectives, because my companies are all fixed-wing, and all the others in our group come from helicopter-related businesses.
“Sometimes, just having a coffee and a chat gives you enough ideas to get on with. You need to tap into the combined group experience. Debbie, for instance, has been in business for 28 years and she’s a mine of knowledge!”
Despite her experience, Debbie Lawn thinks the meetings have huge potential to drive safety initiatives for her, as much as for the others.
“We’re a mix of owner-operator safety managers and employed safety managers, but we all have a passion for safety, and are always looking for smarter ways to improve our SMS.
“I’m probably further down the track than some of the other members because we became certificated two years ago. It feels like I’m able to help them along, but it’s good having a way we can all learn together, so there’s something pushing me along as well.”
In these meetings, ideas about training, audits, meetings and reporting are discussed, along with aviation-related happenings in workplaces and in the wider aviation community.
“A lot of what we talk about is keeping our SMS relevant,” Debbie says. “It needs to make a difference to our business, or we don't get buy-in from our staff.
“We also discuss the challenges we all face, like the isolation you can experience in the role, keeping up momentum after implementation, staff buy-in, and being a safety manager in your own business.”
One of the key challenges for a safety manager, Debbie says, surrounds continual learning. She says it would be easy to take the foot off the pedal after initial implementation.
“That’s why this group is really good – it’s pushing us all to keep going. It’s not just a case of thinking I’ve ‘passed’ so I’ll wait for the next audit. You need to be continually improving.
“As part of that, we’re planning on doing informal mini-audits for each other.
“The group will collectively audit the SMS at each safety manager’s place of work so group members can get feedback on their safety management system.
“Everyone is looking for better, smarter ways to do things.”
Debbie urges new safety managers to connect with others in the industry.
“There are some safety managers I know who’re facing an uphill battle, with little support from their company.
“For those who need help, I’d like to think I could be giving back, as lots of people helped me get to where I’ve got to on my journey. Everyone in our group feels the same.
“Not everyone who’s been invited to one of our catchups has come. Sometimes perhaps that’s because they’d be in the room with their commercial competition, but, at the end of the day, we just all want everyone to be safer.”
North Island group
Alex Fraser, from RTB Heli, and her husband Nick, are in their second year of operations.
After attending her first safety manager meet-up, Alex says she’s just trying to absorb as much information as possible.
“It’s just my husband, me, and our loader driver. We’ve also got three young children, so you’ve got to be willing to admit when you need help and reach out – rather than trying to battle through, and fudge it when you don’t know.”
Alex says another member of the group, Emma Tilyard of V3 Heli, “has been incredible”.
“She’s so open, approachable, and forthcoming with any information. Both she, and her husband Mark, have been such a big help to us. Even before we had our entry audit, they helped review our SMS to make sure that we had everything we needed.
“The more you can share, the better off we’ll all be. I feel like the last year has flown by, but I’ve definitely learned heaps and feel much more comfortable and confident in my role.
“I’d say to any new safety managers, ‘Definitely try to surround yourself with people who have more experience, because it’s only going to lift you up’.”
Emma, who’s both the safety manager and occurrence investigator for V3 Heli (another husband and wife operation employing one ground crew member), remembers when she was in the same situation as Alex.
“When we started our business, I went from being a pilot’s wife, hearing his stories about the industry – but not, frankly, having a massive interest – to getting chucked in at the deep end as safety manager. I didn’t know what a safety manual looked like. The 13 pillars of SMS meant nothing to me.
“I felt so alone, and we ended up with a safety manual Air New Zealand could have used – 139 pages!” laughs Emma.
In their SMS group, Alex, Emma, and others talk about their experiences around safety unique to each attendee.
“I’ve been able to get feedback from the group about how they would approach a situation I’ve faced,” says Emma.
“We also had a situation where one of the women in the group had an issue, and she put a couple of possible solutions to the group.
“She wasn’t sure how to proceed and her boss had told her to ask the group. It was awesome he was advocating getting advice from us all.”
Emma describes another group member, Charis Work, of Rotorua-based Heli-Hire, as, “The kind of person you could go to and say, ‘Hey, I don’t even know what a safety manual looks like!’”
For her part, Charis says there’s never a silly question and everyone is happy to offer support or advice.
“I enjoy knowing I have support from people in the industry. It would be awesome if other safety managers in the same region were able to organise this sort of thing.”
The group also chats frequently online. “Members will send through something and say, ‘Hey, I’ve just started doing this as part of my SMS and it’s working well’,” says Emma. “It’s great stuff that we can implement as well.
“We get together only a couple of times a year, but it’s all the quick chats and online messages between those times which help.
“It’s also knowing that, when you have a question, you’ve got multiple people to approach.”
Meetings on the horizon
The newly appointed CAA Chief Advisor, Safety Management, is Penny Stevenson. She’s keen to get in contact with groups like the ones described here, and with individual participant organisations.
“I’d like to meet these groups very soon. Firstly, because they’ve asked us to! But I also want to ask them what value they would see in some form of ‘gathering’ of safety managers. What that might look like. Where? What group numbers would work best? Across what sectors of our certificated organisations? What topics would they like to see as themes?
“We’re obviously interested in ensuring that such gatherings help develop these groups’ understanding of the ongoing management of safety – but we need to make sure the gatherings are relevant to what they want.
“So I’m really keen to gauge what they think would be valuable.”