What’s in a name?

In aviation Safety Management Systems, 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 organisation.

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 Programme in airlines was called the Flight Safety Officer. There where 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 organisation needed to address the management of safety systematically, throughout the organisation.

A safety management system (SMS) is a systematic approach to managing safety, including the necessary organisational 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 organisational 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 of safety issues rather than the root causes which originated in other departments (e.g. maintenance, planning, HR, Ground Ops… ).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 except to manage the SMS.

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 organisations is that the management team considers the safety performance of the organisation 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 organisation to increase safety performance.
The output of the SMS is data about the organisation’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 organisations, I believe that framing the function of the Safety Manager as that of a coach to the organisation 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?

About the Author
Jan Peeters

Jan is an experienced Safety practitioner who is always on the lookout to improve SMS and the management of safety. He coaches organisations and individuals in Safety Management.

6 Responses to Safety manager or Safety coach?
  1. Hallo Jan,
    Een goed verhaal. Spreekt mij, als SMS trainer, erg aan. Misschien binnenkort een keer afspreken?
    Gr Jaap

  2. […] But despite the misleading title, the Safety manager does not manage safety at all. He or she manages the SMS the output of which goes to the management team, and in the end it is their decision-making and most of all their actions in implementing safety recommendations that will improve Safety Performance of the operation. I explain this in another article at length here. […]


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