Safety vs. Risk Management

flight safety

Safety vs. Risk Management
I am starting to loath the word safety. This term has been carelessly bandied around for years. Talk long enough to a fellow pilot or group of pilots and inevitably it will come up.  The Internet is particularly riff with declarations of safety. Even I admit to hippocratic overuse of the word from time to time.

Why such disdain?

I would argue that if you want safety you should bolt yourself to the couch and never leave your home –  nothing is 100% safe!
I love how folks wrap themselves in the heralded flag of safety with no mind to how safe operations are actually conducted. I am not saying we shouldn’t strive to be safer, I am suggesting we are being too lax by virtue of using an analogous term that is virtually unattainable.
What we should really be discussing is risk management.
Management of risk is really the name of the game. Safe is just the end-state we are trying to achieve.
Example: I decide to set a goal to be happy (or insert the word safe) – that’s just too vague. How are you going to become happy? Or define happy.
Risk management is more targeted. It implies you are dissecting each element of risk within a particular operation and managing that risk. It’s more granular and much more useful than the lofty and generic goal of being ‘safe.’
Risk & Reward
If you manage risk you can make real decisions about how much risk you are willing to accept for a given reward. This philosophy is actionable and at the very least provides the appropriate amount of visibility to the individual components that make up a flight.
A Simplified Definition of Risk Management 
By definition risk management is the identification, assessment, and prioritization of risks.
The idea is to mitigate risk whenever possible to lower it to an acceptable level. This might even include risk avoidance (scrubbing the flight) – the classic Go/No Go decision.
Check out the risk matrix below courtesy of the FAA via their SMS (Safety Management System) information online. This assessment tool is what many large operators use to manage risks on a daily basis.
This doesn’t solve the problem of multiple risks that individually are acceptable, but in totality can spell disaster. Nor does it eliminate the subjectivity in how each person judges risk severity/probability. That’s were Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and other tools come into play. We’ll save ADM for another discussion.
Fly safe!


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