Safety manager or Safety coach?

Safety Manager or Safety coach?

Source: March 15, 2015 Jan Peeters S/R/M BLOG,

What’s in a name?

The term safety manager is used to denominate the individual responsible for the development, operation and continuous improvement of the safety management system (SMS) deployed by an operator/service provider. He acts as a focal point for safety management issues in the organization.

In this post I’d like to address the term Safety manager and what the term implies versus what actually needs to be done to improve safety performance. The purpose being to provoke some thinking of what the role means and what kind of skill and toolset might be needed to perform well in this role.

Before, the person managing the Flight Safety and Accident Prevention Program was called the Flight Safety Officer. There were several good reasons for the shift to the term “Safety Manager”. First of all the Flight Safety Officer tended to report to the Flight Ops Manager, and his area of concern was the flying part of the operation, in practice that meant he or she was mostly talking with and about pilots. Sometimes there would also be a Maintenance Safety Officer, and a Cabin Safety officer.

The Safety Management System was introduced because, to be effective, the organization needed to address the management of safety systematically, throughout the organization.

A safety management system (SMS) is a systematic approach to managing safety, including the necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, policies and procedures. (ICAO)

The Flight Safety officer’s remit was mostly limited to Flight Operations. Safety events or issues seen by the Flight Operations department might be a manifestation of a long organizational chain of contributing factors originating in different departments.

A problem that could occur was that safety recommendations remained limited to the Flight Operations department, dealing with symptoms rather than the root causes which originated elsewhere. Another issue that the “Safety Manager” title addressed was one of representation. With the position of “manager” came also more access to management meetings, and with that a chance to influence the decision-making process to take into account safety relevant info.


One of the drawbacks of the title “safety manager” however is that the term contributes to the misunderstanding as to who actually manages safety.

A safety manager does not, nor should (s)he, have any authority to make decisions in the management of the company. As such a safety manager, does not directly manage safety. The safety manager, in spite of his name, does not have a manager’s authority, budget or resources to do anything but manage the SMS itself which is in essence a data gathering and measurement machine.

This management of safety is done by the day-to-day decision making of the management team, hopefully based on good information from the SMS which the Safety Manager effectively communicates to the management team. As I explain in another post, having an SMS does not automatically mean that you are managing safety well. The SMS is a tool for the task of safety management.

The problem that I have observed in various organizations is that the management team considers the safety performance of the organization as the safety manager’s problem. Like financial performance, safety performance is an outcome of the day-to-day decision making and efforts of the organization to increase safety performance.

The output of the SMS is data about the organization’s safety performance and helps the management team in their day-to-day decision making, like the financial management system generates data for other dimensions of the business. This is where I think that the term Safety Coach reflects a lot better what this particular function actually is about.

In my personal journey from consultant to coach I have discovered that increasing performance  through coaching is something that is well established and understood through parallels with sport, business and life. Coaching is not a practice restricted to external experts or providers, managers and leaders in the organization can be just as effective as externally hired coaches. Provided they have a structured approach they can add value, and help develop the management team’s skills and abilities in managing safety.

In some organizations, coaching is still seen as a corrective tool, used only when things have gone wrong. But in many companies, coaching is considered to be a positive and proven approach for helping others explore their goals and ambitions, and then achieve them.

I believe a safety coaching approach is key to obtain better safety performance and develop the management of safety as a skill.

If we want to increase the safety performance of our organizations, I believe that framing the function of the Safety Manager as that of a coach to the organization is more productive. It can remove conflicts and clarifies the role of the Safety Manager as one of the people that are able to give the players on the field better overview and focus for the game they are playing. Exactly the fact that the Safety Manager is not directly involved in the day-to-day operations and the fighting of the many crises that seems to entail, allows them to take a step back and look at the whole system, focusing on solutions that benefit the whole group not just individuals.

Any other ideas for how we should denominate Safety Managers?