A systematic review of the effectiveness of safety management systems


Why have we done this report?

Australian aviation, marine and rail industries have all recently incorporated safety management systems into regulations and operations as a required way of managing safety. Safety management systems (SMS) refer to organisations having a systematic approach to managing safety, including organisational structures, accountabilities, policies and procedures. They generally include several common elements such as explicit management commitment to safety, appointment of key safety personnel, hazard identification and risk mitigation, safety investigations and audit, and safety performance monitoring. Although Australia’s transport industries’ SMS approach is following world’s-best practice, little empirical research evidence has been presented to determine the impact on safety of a structured SMS. The objective of this research investigation was to examine the published research literature
into the efficacy of safety management systems, safety programs and related management processes that is applicable to high-reliability transport operations. The examination also aimed to identify which characteristics of these systems, and/or other organisational characteristics or external influences, are most related to the quality of an organisation’s safety management. The outcome of this review may help organisations and regulators prioritise their efforts on those areas most likely to improve safety performance, and provide guidance for reviewing, auditing or investigating an organisation’s safety management processes.

What was found

A comprehensive search of the literature found 2,009 articles, with 37 directly relevant to the objectives of this 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.

Safety message

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.

Type: Research and Analysis Report
Investigation number: XR-2011-002
Author(s): Dr Matthew J W Thomas | Westwood-Thomas Associates
Publication date: 10 December 2012
ISBN: 978-1-74251-303-4
Related: Human factors
Last update 07 April 2014
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