A version of this article appears in the May 26 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology's MRO Edition.

With a Safety Management System (SMS) mandate forthcoming in many parts of the world, numerous maintenance organizations are trying to shift to an open culture in which problems and risks are consistently reported so they can be analyzed and addressed. One of the biggest challenges companies face in making this transition is getting technicians fully onboard.

Many are concerned their disclosures could have negative repercussions. Others believe management will ignore submissions so it isn’t worth their time to participate. In large organizations where initiatives often come and go, there can be a skeptical sense of “this is just the latest program and it will go away.”

Vector Aerospace UK faced these kinds of issues when it launched its Quality & Safety 1st campaign in early 2013. Creating an open culture was the cornerstone of the campaign. Quality Director Chris Hosking, tapped to implement the initiative, says his biggest challenge has been changing the environment to one in which workers believe they can take an active role in identifying things that need to change—and can see it as a positive contribution.

His strategy was to demonstrate some quick wins to show employees the program was working and their input mattered. One early “win” came from analysis of reports that showed “slips, trips and falls” were a top issue, with people stumbling over uneven walkways and other hazards. 

Vector quickly marked walkways more clearly, improved their condition and put in more crossing points. As of the middle of this month, just five events in this category had occurred this year, a 15-per-year pace. Even with a possible uptick in winter, the figure will come in well below the 51 occurrences reported in 2013.

Results like this are immediately shared with employees, who in turn are motivated to continue reporting. “Our emphasis at the moment is to give people the confidence that they are being listened to,” Hosking explains, noting that a dedicated quality/safety leader visits worker groups every week to provide feedback on their submissions. “We are telling people that what they are giving us is making a difference. We have a small safety team and can’t do it all ourselves-—so we need everyone involved.”

Employees have responded. In 2012, prior to Quality & Safety 1st, only 31 reports were submitted through Vector’s occurrence reporting system; in 2013, that number soared to 104, and it continues to grow. The near-miss accident reporting system has seen a similar jump, to 60 reports in 2013 from 40 in 2012. 

“Whenever you start to drive a culture where people are reporting more, it is likely to give you a slightly different view of what’s going on,” Hosking observes. “It could look as if more things are happening when in fact employees are just telling you what’s happening rather than hiding it.”

Analysis of this ever-expanding body of data revealed another prevalent problem last year: head injuries. There were 50 occurrences in 2013, mostly from technicians standing up under a piece of equipment or bumping their heads in tight spaces. To address it, the company introduced “bump caps” at the beginning of this year. Similar to a baseball cap but with a very small visor, these lightweight caps are reinforced with hard plastic linings. Every technician received a cap, and Vector mandated the head gear be worn any time a worker is under or inside an aircraft. The result: zero head injuries to date this year.

Hosking’s next big safety initiative will be around hand protection. Report submissions have revealed that as technicians move heavy objects, many of them injure their fingers, causing a work stoppage. Vector is now running trials of various glove solutions along with an awareness campaign about the problem.

In March, the company installed a new database behind its near-miss accident reporting system, enabling a broader set of metrics and richer analysis. This will allow Vector to even more effectively identify opportunities for risk mitigation, injury prevention and safety improvements.

All of this gives Vector a running start on SMS. In April, the company announced it had engaged Atkins Global as a collaborative partner in producing an SMS, which will build upon the Quality & Safety 1st campaign. “One of the difficulties of SMS is being able to demonstrate you have a safety culture and a just culture,” Hosking concludes. “While 15 months is nowhere near enough time to change a culture, we are demonstrating a changing culture.”