How to Create a Culture of Safety in your Flight Department

How to Create a Culture of Safety in your Flight Department
Claire Ealding
Nov 10, 2020

Anyone who has ever worked in a flight department has undoubtedly heard the words “safety culture” a time or two, but it’s more than just a corporate “buzzword.”

Good safety culture is the glue that binds an organization together and allows it to grow and prosper. Organizations that foster a good safety culture experience fewer accidents and less turnover [1].

Yet establishing and maintaining a safety culture is a familiar troublespot felt by organizations of all shapes and sizes. And when safety culture is neglected, morale erodes, and at-risk behaviors can increase. Eventually, the chances of an accident occurring increase dramatically.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution for gauging and preserving a culture of safety.

The ultimate barometer for safety culture is a flight department’s most valuable and readily available asset: the front-line employees. They are most exposed to safety hazards daily and, consequently, most aware of the problems.

There are many ways to bridge the gap between personnel and management, but anonymous Safety Culture Surveys are the ultimate litmus test for safety culture. Data from a culture survey can provide you with a snapshot of the current safety climate and, importantly, find areas of “friction” that could use improvement.

So how do we encourage front-line employees to share honestly in a survey? And what constitutes a “good” safety culture?

Before we answer, let’s explain why having a positive safety culture is so vital in the first place.

A Cautionary Tale

Martin Winterkorn, former chairman of Volkswagen, exemplified what can happen if leaders choose to allow unsafe practices in favor of production goals.

Winterkorn was known for creating a punitive safety culture while also discouraging feedback and not listening to problems voiced by his engineers. This oppressive leadership style eventually pressured his engineers into deceiving regulators about their vehicles’ actual diesel exhaust levels [2].

In an ironic twist of fate, Winterkorn’s determination to refuse failure is what eventually led to the highly public emissions scandal. As a result, he damaged his professional reputation along with the reputation of what had been a widely trusted automobile manufacturer.

While the impacts of bad safety culture can be far-reaching and costly, creating a good safety culture is easily within reach. ‍

Let’s review the first and most vital step towards improving your flight department’s safety culture - polling the personnel.

Connecting with the front-line

If we could travel back in time and ask Winterkorn to describe his organization’s safety culture, he would likely paint a much different picture than that of his engineers.

His downfall shows us that communication matters. The bigger the disconnect between top-level management and front-line employees, the more likely unsafe and costly safety issues are to develop.

In fact, this is a common problem as most managers perceive that their organization embodies a better safety culture than it does in actuality [3, 4].

The reality is that your day-to-day role as a manager may remove you from the front lines, and thus you may not know the full extent of the problems and hazards plaguing your organization.

With that in mind, the findings from a Safety Culture Survey may surprise you.

Taking a Pulse on Safety

Your survey could reveal significant unknown issues, such as widespread procedural non-compliance, crushingly low morale, or significant unchecked hazards. Contributing to these issues could also be a culture of fear to speak up and report safety issues due to a perceived threat of retaliation from management.

Surveys don’t have to be a one-time thing (and we recommend that they aren’t). If you repeat the survey once or twice a year, you’ll be able to see how the safety culture within your flight department is evolving and if the changes you’ve made are working.

However, these insights can only be uncovered if the survey is designed, administered, and analyzed appropriately. Let’s discuss this some more.

Neutral and Truthful

Understandably, employees may feel anxious about participating in a Safety Culture Survey that has been distributed by their superiors. Therefore, the most crucial aspect of the survey is that it must be anonymous.

Sometimes having a third-party administer the survey to safeguard the confidential data can alleviate any fears employees might have of being identified by their boss. Using a neutral third-party can encourage more personnel to participate while also ensuring more honest, unbiased, and uncensored feedback.

Flight Department Safety Culture Survey Employee Participation

Take Action

The ultimate objective of using surveys is not only to measure your safety culture but to transform it.

The feedback is ideally used to enact positive changes, improve safety, and allow the company to grow and prosper.

In fact, if the survey is well-crafted, it can even serve as its own motivator to improve the safety culture. Asking employees to share their opinions has been shown to boost morale and make personnel feel more valued.

But one of the biggest stumbling blocks for a flight department happens after the safety culture survey closes.

Imagine you conduct a Safety Culture Survey, and the results indicate that 70% of flight crew are afraid to report on safety issues. That is good information to have, but what will you do about it?

Sometimes the data can be challenging to analyze, or it can be hard to know what to do with all the feedback.

If this problem resonates with you, the best option might be to seek advice and help from experts who can:

  • Design a culture survey tailored to your flight department
  • Complete the statistical analysis of the results
  • Write a full report on the survey
  • Provide targeted recommendations for improvement

Contact us to find out how we can help.

Finally, let’s unpack the elements found within a healthy safety culture.

The Special Ingredients

Establishing a good safety culture is achieved by first satisfying five important “sub-cultures” [5]. We’re interested to see how survey data measures up against these sub-cultures.

These are:

  1. Informed Culture. The organization ensures that personnel understands the hazards and risks inherent in their area of operation. They provide workers with training, material, and intel to work safely and identify hazards. In an informed culture, critical safety information gets communicated effectively.

  2. Reporting Culture. People are willing to report on errors, hazards, and “close calls.” Reporting is dependent on how the company handles blame and punishment – if blame is the typical response to an error, then reports will not be forthcoming.

  3. Learning Culture. Safety-related data must not only be collected; it must also be analyzed and lead to the implementation of safety-related changes. In a learning culture, safety managers have the willingness and competence to draw the right conclusions from their safety information and understand when reforms are necessary.

  4. Flexible Culture. The organization and its employees are capable of adapting effectively to changing demands.

  5. Just Culture. If workers fear punishment, safety reports will not be forthcoming. In a Just Culture, an atmosphere of trust is present, and people are encouraged or even rewarded for reporting on safety issues and errors or mistakes. But this does not mean "anything goes." There is also a clear line between acceptable non-punitive behavior and reckless behavior or intentional disregard for safety.

Many of these practices are intrinsic to the procedures required by a Safety Management System (SMS). If your organization already has a well-functioning SMS, you are likely already on your way to cultivating a healthy safety culture. When it comes to running an SMS, fostering a culture of safety is one of the top five safety-related struggles that we see flight departments face. Click here to read about some other common struggles, and how to overcome them!

A Listening Ear

We have come to understand that safety culture is an open dialogue between all people within the organization.

Completing a Safety Culture Survey enables you to understand how your flight department’s people really feel about safety. Armed with that knowledge, you can make actionable and practical changes that enhance safety and morale.

How healthy do you think your organization's safety culture is? Make a note of your educated guess, and then conduct a Safety Culture Survey to find out!

With years of experience conducting Safety Culture Surveys within civilian and military aviation organizations, AvBrite can help you build a culture of excellence.

If you want to discover your organization’s unique safety identity or bring your desired safety identity to life, contact us today to find out more about our safety culture services.


[1] Boeldt, M. (2017) “How Engaged Workers are Safe Employees” EHS Today. Available from:

[2] Glazer, R. (2016) “The Biggest Lesson from Volkswagen: Culture Dictates Behavior” Entrepreneur. Available from:

[3] Åsa Ek, Roland Akselsson, Marcus Arvidsson, and Curt R.Johansson. (2007) Safety culture in Swedish air traffic control. Safety Science, 45(7), 791-811.

[4] Reiman, T., & Oedewald, P. (2007). Assessment of complex sociotechnical systems: Theoretical issues concerning the use of organizational culture and organizational core task concepts. Safety Science, 45(7), 745–768.

[5] Reason, J. (1997) Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents. Ashgate: London.

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