Aviation Safety – It’s all about Human Performance and Employee Wellness

For over 20 years aviation has been implementing Safety Management Systems (SMS) – a proactive risk management strategy to identify hazards and preemptively introduce actions to reduce the associated safety risks before they result in an incident. Comprised of company-wide processes with an organizational structure to support them, and sometimes further supported by employee wellness programs, the SMS ultimately results in a mechanism for organizations to measure, monitor and continuously improve their safety performance. 

Maximizing Health & Safety is Critical for Aviation Industry

In addition to SMS, advancements in technology have resulted in significant improvements in aviation safety. However, there is still room for improvement as hazards related to human factors continue to be reported in the vast majority of incidents and accidents. Corporate wellness and its related health assessments could be useful as a starting place to understand employee wellness.

Fatigue in particular has frequently been identified as a contributing factor to accidents and incidents and is recognized as a significant aviation safety risk. Slower reaction time, impaired decision making, memory loss, reduced ability to process information and lack of concentration are just some fatigue affects that can lead to degraded operational performance. As a result, specific focus on managing fatigue, including the introduction of Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS), has been in place for over ten years, and various initiatives and tools have been introduced. Fatigue management programs typically evaluate schedules, workload and rest periods, collect fatigue reports and other data to assess the ability of fight crew to perform their operational duties safely. Standard organizational actions to mitigate fatigue may include amendments to flight time limitations, schedules and sleep opportunities both on and off the aircraft. Raising employee awareness of the fatigue risk and how they can identify and manage it are also effective strategies employed. Outside of work and rest schedules, other safety risks that can manifest as fatigue, including those associated with mental health, have not usually been acknowledged.

That has changed with COVID-19. The impact of COVID-19 on global commercial aviation was unprecedented, and the effects continue to this day. Due to travel restrictions and lack of demand, airlines around the world were forced to ground aircraft, lay-off employees and in some cases declare bankruptcy. From an employee perspective, the uncertainty in their personal lives, introduced by the rapid and constant changes to work and worry about the health and safety for themselves and others was unsettling and introduced economic, social and psychological risks. Increases in stress, anxiety and depression and how they are manifested have been identified as emerging risks in workforces all over the globe. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN health agency, the incidence of depression and anxiety went up by more than 25 per cent in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic alone.

Assessing Multiple Dimensions of Health and Wellness for Companies

As airlines move towards more stable operations, additional risk assessments on human performance are required, identifying any safety risks associated with broader human factors that affects an individual’s ability to be “fit-for-duty”, such as those noted above. Understood as an individual who is physically, mentally and emotionally fit to safely and successfully perform their job functions, the notion of “fit-for-duty” is usually referenced with regards to pilots. However, operators and other aviation stakeholders should consider that everyone in their organization, including non-operational staff and management could be, and a portion probably are, experiencing effects from increased stress, anxiety, and depression and assess how they may emerge as safety risks to the operation. While analyzing these potential risks, it must be recognized that as individuals, not everyone will be impacted or affected in the same way.

As a result, education and awareness on being fit-for-duty as well as the availability of wellbeing and employee assistance / peer support programs for staff are strongly recommended to assist in alleviating these human factor hazards. Once in place, organizations are encouraged to promote both their availability and use on an ongoing basis.

The benefits of doing so are twofold.

  1. To maximize the health and wellness for companies, engagement, and productivity of employees, by providing employees the means to individually assess and address different aspects of their health, while providing organizations with an overall view of their employees’ health trends, in turn driving informed decisions to realize it’s wellness strategy.
  2. To provide information to facilitate safety risks assessments, and the creation of safety performance indicators related to human performance that can be measured and continually monitored.

It is important to note that corporate wellness programs should not just be seen as a Human Resource initiative, but also an effective safety tool. The information gathered from such programs can not only manage the health and safety of employees, but also be used to proactively identify potential safety risks to operations related to human performance. Defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as “the human capabilities and limitations which have an impact on the safety and efficiency of aeronautical operations”, human performance and hazards that can impede it must be a focus of an organization’s SMS. Since the pandemic, it has become clear that mental health is one of those hazards.

The effectiveness of an organization’s SMS to identify and manage safety risks, especially those related to people, is dependent on the safety culture of the organization. Recognized as an enabler of an effective SMS, a positive safety culture embodies the attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and values of all employees within an organization as it relates to safety.

Employee engagement to actively participate in safety processes and wellness programs is critical. Without the employees interacting with the elements of the various initiatives, they would eventually cease to exist. Employers require the input of employees to identify and report events or issues related to fatigue or any other hazard, as it is essential for detecting safety risks early, but it relies upon a safety culture in which employees feel comfortable to do so.

As long as there are individuals in the flight deck, in the hanger or production line, on the ramp, in the control tower, etc., the hazards that can impair human performance, and subsequently introduce safety risk, must be considered as part of an organizations’ SMS. Continued focus on human factors such as stress, anxiety and depression and understanding and managing the impact employee mental health has on operational safety will ultimately reduce the risk of incidents and accidents, making commercial air travel an even safer mode of transport.