Safety à la mode


The safety revolution of recent decades has extended to other modes of transport. Flight Safety Australia examines what they have learned from aviation, and what aviation can learn from them.

There has been a quiet revolution in Australia for thirty years now—one marked not by barricades and riots, but by things that did not happen—accidents mainly. This is because it has been a safety revolution. It began in 1985 with the formation of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, now Safe Work Australia, and the passing of Victoria’s far-reaching Occupational Health and Safety Act. This law set the pattern for other state laws, and differed from previous legislation by focusing on goals and broad principles, rather than specific measures such as specifying the size and shape of guards on factory machinery.

After years of the workplace safety revolution, the effects are being seen in other transport modes. Work safety ideas are influencing how safety is thought about and managed, in road, rail and marine transport. Looking at these recent changes in these modes is like looking at a mirror image of aviation safety, but they also offer fresh lessons and new approaches to teach anyone interested in aviation safety.

Trains, planes and automobiles: Toll Group

Toll does business on land, sea and air in more than 50 countries. Its operations extend from helicopter services and air freight (with a fleet of 35 aircraft including Boeing 737-300F freighters, ATR 42s and Fairchild Metros), to shipping, road freight and delivery (with more than 3000 heavy vehicles in Australia alone). The risks are as diverse as the operation: a pallet falling from a 10 metre high forklift; a 74-wheel B-triple truck rolling on an outback highway; a tired night freight crew landing hard in windshear. But the same general principles apply to managing them all.

Cultural drivers: Murcotts

Murcotts is a driver training organisation that grew from a driving school founded by a journalist sickened by reporting on the everyday carnage of car crashes. Originally, Jim Murcott’s Driving Centre aimed to reduce crashes by teaching drivers how to brake and steer better, but Murcott soon realised these skills were only part of the solution, and a small part at that. Now Murcotts focuses on attitudinal change, analyses the best ways to instill new driving habits while breaking old ones, and emphasises that road safety requires system-wide action. The company trains fleet and heavy vehicle drivers and as well as offering government-accredited drink driver education and assessments.

Most of the themes that emerge from discussion with Toll and Murcotts safety executives are familiar, or should be, to anyone serious about aviation safety. But there are a few surprises.

Management commitment: getting the board room on board

All of Toll’s 40,000-strong workforce have watched a safety video in which managing director, Brian Kruger, makes his position abundantly clear. ‘Businesses that are run well from a safety perspective also perform very well from a financial and any other perspective.’

Kruger pulls no punches about Toll’s safety challenge. ‘We’ve got some parts of our business that are outstanding, but we’ve got to bring everyone up to the same standard.’

Toll Remote Logistics quality and safety manager, Steven Ballantyne, says: ‘The guidance we get from the top filters down through every business unit, whether it’s aeroplanes, helicopters, ships or road transport. You’ll find similar processes throughout. Every part of Toll has risk management processes, safety assurance processes and auditing.’

Toll head of helicopter aviation services, Mark Delany, agrees: ‘It’s not just about talking the talk, it’s walking the walk, and I don’t say that lightly.’

Toll road transport compliance manager, Sarah Jones, says she could not do her job ‘authentically’ without ‘that person at the top who is uncompromising about safety. For example, we had an incident where our people would not work with a customer that consistently stacked the pallets too high—it was unsafe and we walked away.’

Justice for all: the importance of culture

Delany says the generalised but essential management commitment is overlaid with more specific measures, an aviation risk-based approach, safety management systems and just culture.

‘Just culture means people have neither fear nor favour about stepping forward and talking about safety hazards and incidents. If it is blatant recklessness by someone, we take a different view, but that’s extremely rare.’

Delany has a useful metaphor for the subject of safety. ‘It is a conversation that must never stop, and just culture is people having the confidence to speak.’ He says payoff of an open reporting culture comes in the form of solutions to problems that are real but have not yet happened. For example, engineers in the rotary wing division were the ones who suggested helicopter underwater escape training (HUET) for their work in the Solomon Islands, which involved over-water rotary wing flights.

Jones says technology can be a powerful ally of just culture. ‘We now have in-truck monitoring used in truck cabins, with inward and outward facing cameras. It will retain data if there’s a G-force event, such as harsh braking, or swerving, but only for 12 seconds.

‘We’ve found that footage incredibly useful. We don’t use it punitively. We use it with our drivers to look at a situation objectively and it’s been valuable because it’s empirical. It takes a lot of the emotion out of what could be a contentious situation. We’ve used it several times with enforcement officers to exonerate drivers.’

Jones says camera footage has also revealed some unexpected factors. ‘The conventional wisdom is that speed and fatigue are the major safety issues. What our in-cab cameras are starting to suggest is that distraction is at least as important.’

One operator can make an industry safer

Jones sees Toll as in a very strong position to influence the behaviour of its subcontractors. ‘We do that by saying if you want a piece of Toll’s work, first you need to demonstrate to us that you can operate consistently with our values. They’re subjected to ongoing audits to make sure they continue to meet our standards.’

This leads to an unsought responsibility, she says. ‘You could almost make the argument that Toll has stepped into a pseudo-regulatory space. We pull the reward and punishment levers traditionally associated with government.’

Another source of safety innovation is free information flow, she says, citing how the US government regulates trucking. ‘One of the things the US has done well in road transport is have a website (Safety and Fitness Electronic Records, run by the US government Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) which measures transport operator safety performance.

‘Members of the public go on to that website, and what happens every year is that the bottom 10 per cent get wiped off. It happens through doing nothing more than providing credible accurate information to the public.’

Peering over the fence: lessons from other sectors

Murcotts’ director, Geoff Thomas, says: ‘my background isn’t in driver training, it’s in workplace health and safety, and the model that I relate to is aviation safety.’ He appreciates the breadth of the systems focus that aviation safety takes. ‘If you are in a skid, or a stall, it’s a sign that something’s gone wrong: with you, the vehicle, or the environment.’

Jones credits the example of aviation with Toll’s adoption of simulators for truck driver training. ‘We have two truck simulators in Melbourne, and we looked at aviation’s experience with simulation when choosing to go down that path,’ she says. The company hopes to expand its truck simulator program until there are simulators in every state.

Helicopter manager, Delany, sees exemplary safety management in the oil and gas sector. ‘I’ve managed a number of oil and gas contracts from an aviation perspective—they do their risk appraisals and safety cases and set their training and standards appropriately. I’ve always thought that was a great example,’ he says.

Look at the entire system

Ballantyne says taking a systems approach means extending safety approaches to areas of the system where they were once considered unnecessary. ‘Where we are moving forward now is in formalising our engineer fatigue management,’ he says. ‘Aircrew have always been treated well and it’s been simple to manage fatigue because there is backing, but in engineering and other non-flight roles fatigue has been a bigger factor because it’s been effectively unregulated.

‘We now have fatigue management plans for our engineers which say how long they can work, how much time they can have off between shifts, and how much they can work in a week. And we now have human factors training for our engineers—under Part 145 that’s going to be mandatory, but we wanted to be proactive, to walk the walk.’

Jones gives the example of a truck crash captured on video as an example of an accident with designed-in contributing factors. ‘We had a rollover; we viewed the footage and what we saw was that the design of the cab had led to problems. The driver had reached down to the fridge to get a sandwich, and rolled the vehicle. We’ve redesigned the cab so the fridge is now behind the seat and locked.’

A systems approach is the reason why Toll helicopter chief, Delany, says human factors training days are not just for aircrew and paramedics. ‘I want doctors, controllers and HR to sit in,’ he says. ‘People need to know if you ring a pilot on shift and ten minutes later, when the bell (for an emergency) goes, he’s upset because he can’t get his allowances … that’s a safety issue.’

Murcotts’ director Thomas says that ‘although people must take individual responsibility for safety, the system must not blame the individual’. He concedes this is a paradox.

‘We had a situation where a car rolled on a training day. When we did the investigation we found that we’d changed the exercise from one end of the area, to the other end, which meant it was on a down-slope. When someone did the exercise in an overloaded tool-of-trade ute, it went over on its side and we were embarrassed. It turned out that the end had been changed on a wet day and never changed back.

‘There were three factors: the direction had been changed, the vehicle was overloaded, and the driver’s mate was taking a video. Why did our trainer let the camera guy walk up the course? He was new, and we hadn’t inducted him properly. In the end we apologised for not providing the proper induction.’

Subtle nexus: culture, status and safety

Road transport is a dangerous business. Over the 10 years to 2012, 472 workers in the sector were killed while at work. Sarah Jones says part of the danger comes from the low social status of truck drivers when compared to pilots. ‘Many of our drivers are incredibly skilled and I wish they had higher status,’ she says.

Status is important, because safety decisions often rest on it, Jones says. ‘Road transport has chain of responsibility laws that, in effect, require drivers to tell a customer, “What you’re asking me to do is unsafe and I won’t do it.” I think that is a big ask in our industry where 37 per cent of drivers only have year 10 or 11 education and there’s a culture of ‘the customer is always right’. They need a certain level of status to have their voice heard and to be credible.

Jones looks with envy at the tradition of professional pilots wearing smart uniforms, and draws a comparison with Toll’s policy of hi-vis safety clothing as a uniform for its drivers. She is also keen to boost the status of the profession, exploiting competitiveness between drivers for safety ends.

‘We have a driver excellence program in our line-haul division and one of the things they do … is to … consciously tap into drivers’ innate competitiveness and professional pride. They compare drivers against drivers, but also show drivers their long term improvement. We can’t disaggregate the safety impact of that program from other technological changes. But what we can show is a significant reduction in motor vehicle incidents over a five-year period, concurrent with that program. Something has shifted the nature of injuries that our workers are presenting with. Its very rare now to have a driver injured as a result of an accident.’

Have you really communicated?

Thomas says young drivers demonstrate the severe limitations of the current driver education system.

‘Shortly after licensing you would expect them to be fairly well informed on basic road law—yet they are surprisingly poor. They studied they way I did at school: cram before the exam, get through, and then forget about it.’ Skills and knowledge decay if learning is superficial, which paradoxically, exams encourage.

He wonders if pilots studying for their exams suffer from a similar knowledge dump.

Murcotts’ operations manager, Mark Kelly, says the only credible approach is to focus on learning, rather than lecturing. ‘We use the term “what did you discover today?” We move away from telling them how do drive, to letting them discover and learn. The shift for an organisation like ours was to facilitating learning, rather than instructing or lecturing.

‘What they discover is the real measure of what we do as a training organisation,’ says Kelly. ‘Our one-day course boils down to four words: “Look up, stay back”—but that would halve the crash rate if every motorist did that.’


What was striking about these interviews was the interchangeability of the answers. The same themes emerged in aviation, road or warehouse safety. They make the point that safety is an attitude, a discipline, a way of living—equally important whether you fly, drive, maintain or load.


  1. Just some thoughts…

    “I think that is a big ask in our industry where 37 per cent of drivers only have year 10 or 11 education…”
    -Not sure of the link between the ability to make uncomfortable decisions and years of education. Perhaps the view should shift from the “inability” of the driver to the context in which uncomfortable decisions are a big ask.

    “…envy at the tradition of professional pilots wearing smart uniforms, and draws a comparison with Toll’s policy of hi-vis safety clothing as a uniform…”
    -Does hi-vis safety clothing as a uniform increase status, or does it cement a low status? Are uniforms the way to go?

    • Hi JTM,

      Thank you for your thoughtful reading of the story
      Your questions about those two points are valid, but on balance, we think differently.

      While it is true that there are self-confident and insightful people who don’t have much formal education, it’s also true that these skills are more common among the educated. Education brings status in its wake, and its lack is a problem for the status of truck drivers, despite the impressive skill and professionalism that many of them display.

      As for uniforms, none of us at CASA are fashion experts, but there would appear to be a link between uniforms and status – if not why would pilots wear them? Why do commercial pilots iron their shirts to sharp creases, when this has nothing to do with the mechanics of flight safety? IT’s about convincing others, and maybe themselves, they they care about details and thoroughness. This is one of the foundations of safety culture.

      Hi vis clothing is not only of practical use. It signals a commitment to safety, which ought to be admired. This is why site visitors, from the prime minister down are required to wear it. Associations between hi-vis and low status manual labour are secondary, and in the mind of the beholder.

      An interesting point in the discussion, which did not make the final draft was that overseas some notably successful transport and logistics companies insist on stringent uniform standards for all their drivers. They see it is part of their reputation. In the UK, the Eddie Stobart transport company required its drivers to wear ties – perhaps this would be a step too far for Australian culture, but it illustrates the link. Appearances can be disconnected from reality, but they can also create reality, if they help create attitudes.


      The FSA team


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