Safety Management Systems (SMS) 


Are you ready to start implementing, in whole or part, a Safety Management System (SMS) approach within your organization?  SMS can improve the safety performance and culture of an organization as well as enhance business practices and operations.  While safety in and of itself may not be a primary business objective, research has shown that adopting SMS principles can improve the bottom line of an organization by increasing employee productivity and engagement.  When senior leadership is committed to safety, emphasis is placed on adherence to safety policies, processes, and procedures; continuous improvement; and a learning environment.  These concepts, if applied correctly, can create a positive safety culture in which employees work collaboratively with management without fear of reprisal, adhere to safety policies and procedures without cutting corners, and increase productivity by avoiding costly mistakes.   

SMS is not just a means for reducing risk and improving safety, it is also a management philosophy.  More specifically, it is a “people first” philosophy that can add value at all levels of your organization. It can also be a vehicle for change to reverse complacency.

It is recognized that transforming your organization with SMS does not happen overnight and, as such, taking measured and incremental steps toward implementation is the more practical approach.  In this respect, there are aspects of SMS that can be developed and implemented in the short term that can have an immediate impact on your organization. 

Come find out what SMS is all about and explore what might work for your organization.


SMS is a systematic approach to managing safety and includes organization structure, programs, policies, and procedures that help to minimize safety risk in an organization.  It includes four components: 1) Safety Policy, Safety Risk Management, Safety Assurance, and Safety Promotion.      

Safety Policy – A set of policies, processes, and procedures that commits senior leadership to safety and holds them accountable for safety within their organization.   

Safety Risk Management – A systematic approach to identifying, assessing, and mitigating safety risks in an organization.  It is also an integrating component of SMS and is essential for incorporating safety in business planning, decision making, and operations. 

Safety Assurance – A method of evaluation of the effectiveness of risk mitigation and controls within an organization.  It is also a process for the identification of new safety hazards and continuous improvement.  

Safety Promotion – A method of creating a safety culture within an organization.  This includes the development of effective safety training and communication. 

Common Assumptions 

SMS is a Federal requirement that does not apply to my organization – The voluntary adoption of SMS principles may be beneficial in terms of increasing safety, safety culture, and productivity within an organization.  It is true that SMS implementation is only required for certain sectors of the industry.  However, it is likely that over time more sectors of industry will be subject to SMS requirements.  Federal regulators are implementing SMS as a way to reduce regulatory complexity, hold the industry accountable for safety, and create a force multiplier for safety assurance.  Federal resources are limited.  When the industry is committed to safety, less Federal oversight is required.     

SMS does not increase productivity – Although counterintuitive, focusing on safety can increase productivity by engaging your workforce to ensure that all organizational safety and operational policies, processes, and procedures are followed.  This reduces mistakes, minimizes downtime, and protects against latent problems.  Effective safety assurance ensures that opportunities for risk reduction and continuous improvement will be identified.  Reductions in safety risk often go hand in hand with operational efficiencies.             

SMS implementation will be expensive – The cost of implementation is a function of your organization’s size, structure, and operations.  The development of new policies, processes, procedures, and the associated training will have some upfront costs, but this is typically offset through gains in productivity and reduction in incidents or accidents where safety is compromised.     

A restructure is required to implement SMS – Often organizations use SMS implementation as an opportunity to restructure, but this is not a requirement.  There are ways to add, modify, or supplement existing operations with SMS principles.  These principles may also be applied incrementally to achieve a higher level of safety over time.  With any organizational change, developing a well thought-out plan is a necessity and communicating that plan with the workforce is essential. 


Simply stated, as a first step it is critical to assess current operations and existing safety culture to establish a baseline for planning SMS implementation within your organization.  An initial assessment of your organization would include the following: 

  • An assessment of current operations including review of: 1) formal policies, processes, procedures, and training; 2) informal guidance, instruction, and best practices; 3) current safety-related controls and associated processes for risk mitigation; 4) Quality Management System and other related programs; 5) and your organizational structure as it relates to operations and safety.   
  • An assessment of baseline safety culture in the context of a recognized standard of essential organization elements that are typically present in organizations with a strong safety culture.  For example, an assessment of this sort might be based on the nine characteristics of safety culture developed by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)1.  These nine characteristics are as follows: 1) leadership commitment to safety values and actions; 2) respectful work environment; 3) environment for raising concerns; 4) effective safety and environmental communication; 5) personal accountability; 6) inquiring attitude; 7) hazard identification and risk management; 8) work processes; and 9) continuous improvement. 
  • A gap analysis that shows where your organization may be missing key components of a well-designed organization based on SMS principles.  This analysis will include prioritized recommendations for organizational improvement, keeping in mind that cost is often a constraint and increased/improved productivity is a goal.  

With an organizational safety assessment in hand, a detailed plan for SMS implementation can be developed.  The plan must be specific enough in order to manage expectations throughout the process; it must also include a robust communication strategy and opportunities for input from all relevant stakeholders, including the entire workforce.  The plan may include performance metrics and measures of effectiveness that can be used to assess the implementation process itself and to validate the expected result.  An SMS implementation plan may include the following: 

  • A leadership commitment to safety and change; 
  • Revised policies, processes, and procedures with a focus on hazard identification, safety controls, and risk mitigation; 
  • Safety training and communications; and  
  • Evaluation methods including processes for continuous feedback and improvement

And finally, effective execution of the SMS implementation plan is essential.  When executing the plan, many will be eager to know if changes are working.  While it may be tempting to declare victory with revised policies, processes, and procedures, the organizational change journey does not end there.  It should be noted that SMS is a set of principles, as well as a leadership approach and mindset.  It is a new way of thinking about your organization, the services and products you provide, and the people who are part of that process.  In this respect, a strong commitment to safety is crucial.  Your commitment to safety will permeate throughout your organization and help guide you through implementation and beyond. 

Let FACTOR help you and your organization plot a new course with SMS as your compass. For more information contact FACTOR today. 

1 BSEE. 2013. Final Safety Culture Policy Statement.  Volume 78, Federal Register, Pages 27421-27424 (

More Articles