We can reconcile our organizational priorities with a sincere commitment to safety.

“Safety First!” It’s a common battle cry. Many operators proudly claim that safety is their “top priority,” particularly in the wake of a high-profile accident. But the open secret is—it’s not. Come on, we know it’s not.

Turn the cameras off and ask an experienced director of ops, director of maintenance, or chief pilot if safety is honestly the top priority in their organization. The director of safety would likely give you a polite chuckle and perhaps even a reference to Mike Rowe, host of the hit television series Dirty Jobs. In a 2009 TED Talk and several similar discussions, Rowe asks us to consider accepting a SAFETY THIRD mentality.

Rowe admits, “I value my safety on these crazy jobs as much as the people that I am working with. The ones who really get it done; they’re not out there talking about safety first. They know that other things come first. The business of doing the work comes first. The business of getting it done.”

Successful business owners and CEOs understand that sustaining a profitable business is always priority one. They must manage and accept some residual risk to remain a viable organization. Failure to prioritize core aviation business objectives of turning wrenches and flying missions and instead fixating on eliminating all risk is an unsustainable business model. There’s no way to eliminate all risks without locking the hangar doors and grounding the aircraft.

Having bluntly acknowledged the reality of the inherent risk in aviation operations, how do we reconcile organizational priorities with a sincere commitment to safety? We can start by looking at safety from a whole new angle.

Safety as a Core Value
David Michaels, PhD, MPH, a former assistant secretary of labor for the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), offers some compelling thoughts in his Mar. 21, 2018, article in the Harvard Business Review, “7 Ways to Improve Operations without Sacrificing Worker Safety.”

Regarding how one should view safety, Michaels advises, “Today and every day in the future, corporate leaders need to reassess what safety means and how their company can achieve it. They need to recognize that safety is a value proposition, that safety management and operational excellence are inextricably linked.”

When referring to CEOs who take their safety commitments seriously, Michaels continues, “… my bet is you won’t hear the same old tired line that ‘safety is a priority.’ They understand that safety is not a priority—it is an essential precondition of their work. It is a fundamental component of their operating culture. Safety, ultimately, is at the core of what they do.”

Safety as an Imperative
As this month’s Spotlight on Safety poster (below) illustrates, safety should be an imperative in aviation operations. Retired US Army Brig. Gen. Timothy Edens echoed this core value during his tenure as commander of the US Army Combat Readiness Center.

Eden repeatedly emphasized that safety was an imperative to mission success, not just a priority. “Priorities are dynamic and vulnerable. They can be watered down or traded away,” he said. Successful operators, the ones who get it, consistently proved that safety is tightly woven into the very fabric of every organizational activity.

Those who apply a similar mindset understand that no matter how we choose to characterize our safety objectives or “priorities,” what matters most is consistent decision-making, actions, and behaviors that demonstrate an uncompromising commitment to safety from the top down and the bottom up of every organization. In other words, they walk the walk every day, and we can do the same.

Turning Words into Action
I’m not suggesting replacing company messaging with new slogans such as “Safety Is Our Core Value” or “Safety Is Our Imperative.” We’re all getting a bit weary when we hear speeches not backed by action. So, how can we deliver more than words and instead focus on the things that matter? Let’s begin with a clear objective—preventing accidents.

Assessing how hard we’re trying to avoid accidents is something we can track. The concept of quantifying and monitoring accident prevention effort (APE) was first introduced by D Smith, Aviation Safety Division manager with the US Transportation Safety Institute (TSI). Smith’s Quantum Safety Metrics is taught and used by top-tier organizations to provide clear evidence of meaningful safety action and return on investment (ROI).

Smith says Quantum Safety Metrics makes it easy for safety managers and company executives to answer the question, “How do we know we’re making a difference?”

“APE is a valuable tool to help an organization quantify its efforts to build safety capacity,” says Jason Starke, PhD, director of safety and product development for Baldwin Safety & Compliance (an HAI safety program partner provider). “Businesses often focus on measuring outputs or outcomes without measuring the safety activities that could positively influence those outcomes.”

To learn how APE and Quantum Safety Metrics can help you make a difference in your organization, contact TSI’s Aviation Safety Division at [email protected].

Minimum versus Maximum Effort
It’s a new year. So, let’s assume we’re ready to explore ways to elevate safety in our operations. Are we doing our best to prevent accidents for the right reasons, or are we in a race to the bottom, seeking to meet the minimum standards—to appease government regulators, insurance underwriters, and contract managers? Do we claim to be so busy complying with the minimums that we fail to see the ROI in doing more? With such demanding minimum standards, how can one achieve maximum effort?

If we accept our status quo with a dismissive “we’ve never had an accident” excuse, what must happen for us to change—an unthinkable tragedy? The nasty event that our flawed logic assumes can only happen to others, resulting in loss of life, aircraft, insurance, trust, reputation, customers, contracts, or the entire business. Try assigning value to all that!

If we’re investing time and resources to stock a better war chest, what should we fill it with to help prevent a preventable accident? Where does one begin? What does “maximum effort” look like when we imagine the unimaginable, and is it necessary? Let’s acknowledge that merely meeting the minimum standard falls short, while achieving maximum effort may also be unrealistic. Instead, let’s aim to improve a little this year. That’s an achievable goal. Who’s in?

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more? Be sure to attend the Safety Directors Forum, the theme of which is “Safetyism—How I Learned to Slay the Sacred Cows and Focus on Things that Matter,” at HAI HELI-EXPO 2024, Feb. 26–29 (exhibits open Feb. 27–29) in Anaheim, California. Hosted by the HAI Safety Working Group, this free event represents the first of several safety events and resources you’ll find at this year’s HAI HELI-EXPO.


  • Chris Hill

    After an aviation career in the US Army and Coast Guard, Chris Hill oversaw aviation safety management systems throughout the USCG as aviation safety manager. He holds an ATP rating and has logged more than 5,000 flight hours, primarily in military and commercial helicopters. Chris joined HAI in 2018 as director of safety.

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Chris Hill

Chris Hill

After an aviation career in the US Army and Coast Guard, Chris Hill oversaw aviation safety management systems throughout the USCG as aviation safety manager. He holds an ATP rating and has logged more than 5,000 flight hours, primarily in military and commercial helicopters. Chris joined HAI in 2018 as director of safety.