Commercial, Military, Public Service, Services, Training

Summit: Being an Effective Safety Officer

By By Andrew Parker, managing editor | July 1, 2010
Send Feedback

From left to right, Air Life Georgia Safety Director Matt Wallace, Air Methods Corporate Safety Manager Michael Koenes, Squadron Inc. Co-founder Dan Deutermann and Consultant Keith Cianfrani. Photo by Andrew D. Parker

Keith Cianfrani moderated a panel at Rotor & Wing’s 2010 Safety and Training Summit in Denver that featured The Squadron Inc. co-founder Dan Deutermann, Air Methods corporate safety manager Michael Koenes and Matt Wallace, safety director for Air Life Georgia.

“To be a effective safety officer, you have to have a good command climate,” Cianfrani told attendees of the event. “Whether it’s the civilian or military world, you have to have that boss, that commander, that CEO or president of the company behind you. He has to give you the authority to make changes and get things done.” A retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. and currently CEO of Keith Cianfrani Aviation Safety Consultants, Cianfrani noted that many operators don’t have a safety program. “They try to have one, maybe appoint a pilot for safety duties along with being a line pilot—that never works.”


Deutermann, Lt. Cdr. for the U.S. Coast Guard, says that the goal is operational success while minimizing costs and injuries. “You’ve got to encourage people to look at you as the nice guy, and tell you what happened when they have little errors, and even big errors,” he said. “Get them to explain the events, and document it. The only way you’re going to get trends out of that stuff is if you document it.” Also a Rotor & Wing columnist, Deutermann suggested that when a crash occurs, an operator should “look at your safety system and say, all right, our organization has had an accident. You’ve got to ask, if it is human error, did they go around your system, or through it? We talked about how 80–85 percent of accidents are human error. If you start looking at those human errors, you have to ask: Did I have something in place to stop that accident?”

Michael Koenes, corporate safety manager for Air Methods, encouraged safety officers to schedule a definitive time, such as the second Tuesday of every month, for a recurring safety meeting. “The important part—and this is where the communication skills come in—you need to conduct follow-ups with all of your folks to ensure that they understand the programs that you’re talking about, and educate yourself on safety-related topics. There’s nothing wrong with re-calibrating on safety topics and company goals before you convey that message to employees.”

Koenes pointed out that some elements of a safety management program “don’t have to be aviation-related. Give your folks something to take home that they can make their families safe. Talk about poison control, talk about home safety, talk about the 101 critical days of summer—that will get the ball rolling and get them to starting think about safety in all aspects of their lives, not just when they’re in the cockpit flying from point A to B, but all the time.” He adds: “That’s where you change the core value of your folks and that’s where you’re going to start to change the safety culture of your company.”

Matt Wallace, safety director for Air Life Georgia, noted that the safety officer is “where the rubber meets the road, absolutely, so you have to put your personality forward. It’s a thankless job—sometimes it’s even an unpaid position—but your dedication in your training has to come through, to make sure the operation not only is safe, but you have to follow along and so many other things come into play. Profitability, accomplishing the mission, other factors are all important, but the big thing is you’re the manager of making sure that safety is integrated into everything.”

In a small operation, Wallace continued, “you may wear many hats—you’re the trainer and the person they always see.” He encouraged safety officers to “delegate some of those smaller projects like slips, trips and falls, to some of the other pilots. Not only will it help, it will inspire them to be a part of the safety program.”
Echoing points brought up earlier in the session, Wallace reiterated that “everyone is a safety officer in the company, or in the unit, or whatever it is. So delegate some of that authority. Don’t wear out your welcome with all your people, with endless PowerPoints on slips, trips and falls.”

One example Deutermann gave was a pilot who flew into thunderstorms and experienced an accident, when there was a company rule in place to not fly within five miles of storms. “Did the pilot violate and go around your safety system? You had something there to prevent it,” he said. “Now if you didn’t have a policy like that, and you had an accident … that’s when you start making paperwork, new regulations. But try and avoid that as the safety officer—you don’t want to keep putting down rules for everybody,” Deutermann continued. “Look at what you’ve got, and when you have an accident, ask: Did the person go through it, or around it? … I’ll bet, most of the time, they went around it. That’s where you get complacency.”

Nobody wants to be involved in an accident, but when it happens, a safety officer can’t put pilots and employees “on the cross,” Deutermann said. “You have to turn around and say, ‘All right, everybody sit down, and let’s talk about how we’re going to strengthen our culture, our safety system.’ If you get to that point, where you haven’t crucified this person, it’s a non-punitive action and hopefully the rest of us will avoid going around the system again.”

Koenes stressed the importance of obtaining buy-in from all levels of an organization. “We need to convey to all the employees that the safety programs of a company do not belong to the safety department,” Koenes said. “The safety department is there for guidance, for oversight, but the safety programs belong to the employees in general.”

Cianfrani shared a story about when he first started out in aviation, and “we used to wear a little red safety dot. People would ask, what’s the safety dot? And I said, we’re supposed to take time for safety.” Since then, the role of a safety officer has “evolved to the point where it is today—safety needs to be integrated into every aspect of our operation. We shouldn’t take time for safety, it should be a second thought that we just do.” To view Summit videos go to Rotor & Wing's Safety and Training Channel.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox