Safety Management System (SMS) vs. Program

Safety Management System (SMS)

In my over 30 years of assessing safety efforts, I have seen just about every good, bad, and ugly safety “program” you could imagine.  Many are merely versions of command and control where the workers are given the rules and told to follow them (or else). Others attempt to adopt just about every shiny safety object that comes along, regardless of their redundancy, collective complexity, excessive cost, or efficacy.  I have seen organizations that commit to VPP, Vision Zero, Zero Tolerance, BBS, incentive schemes, motivational speakers, and safety days – all concurrently and without strategic integration.  These collections of unintegrated “stuff” come on top of traditional safety activities such as inspections, audits, safety meetings, ever more procedures, accident investigations, etc.  While some of these activities may add value, they do not constitute a strategic system and often overwhelm safety staff, management, and the workforce in what I call a “drift into complexity.”  Although common, such a hodgepodge of safety tactics is a far cry from the kind of coherent and strategic safety system so important for achieving outstanding safety performance and continuous improvement.

What is a Safety Management System?

No matter how much traditional safety “stuff” you do, it does not necessarily mean you have a functional safety system.  Without a robust safety management system (SMS), however, safety results are largely dependent on luck and good intentions.  This is not a strategy for safety success.

Effective systems are strategic.  They consist of interacting interdependent elements all organized to accomplish something.  But you have a system whether you recognize it or not.  The question is whether or not your system is promoting safety improvement or setting you up to fail.  Like us humans, no system is perfect.  That is why any safety management system (SMS) should be nimble, dynamic, and open to change as the organization, evolves, gets smarter and commits itself to continuous improvement.  With that in mind let us look at the Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) cycle.


PDCA, is a cycle for improvement that was originated and made popular by two of the fathers of modern quality control, Walter Shewhart and Edward Deming.  PDCA is a widely accepted method employed to coordinate actions toward specified goals and objectives and to ensure continuous improvement.  PDCA is now the foundation for the two most accepted safety management system (SMS) standards: ISO 45001, Occupational Health and Safety and ANSI Z10, Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.  Using the PDCA foundation, these safety systems first identify desired goals and objectives with plans (P), for how every level of the organization will contribute to those goals by doing (D) specific goal directed activities. To provide for accountability and to ensure those planned activities actually happen effectively, they must also be measured and evaluated – commonly known as the check (or study) step (C).  Multiple feedback loops (e.g., worker input, walkaround data, inspections, incident findings, etc.) are established to ensure that the check step learnings reflect reality. Continuous improvement is then driven by acting (A) on what is learned.  Note: PDCA systems are not static but are constantly transforming themselves as they learn and adjust to continually improve.  They are not, like so many safety programs, check-the-box efforts that may, or may not, get evaluated on even a yearly or quarterly basis.  Continuous improvement does not occur on a schedule, but rather as emergent needs are identified.

Of all the different safety management system (SMS) options in circulation I believe ANSI/ASSP Z10 is the most useful and informative.  Among other good things it contains a wealth of practical implementation guidance.  If you have not already established a safety management system, it is a great model.  The following excerpts from the standard should give you an idea of why I recommend it.


“The management system in this standard is designed to continually improve safety and health performance and is aligned with the traditional Plan-Do-Check-Act approach for improving the workplace.”

The management system approach is characterized by its emphasis on continual improvement and systematically eliminating the underlying root causes of deficiencies…. This systematic approach seeks a long-term solution rather than a one-time fix.”

“Plan-Do-Check-Act is the continual improvement foundation for ANSI Z10…. The vast majority of opportunities for improvement are realized by addressing system deficiencies – not people.”


Programs are not systems.  Programs are generally static and tend to expand exponentially.  Safety problems and incidents prompt ever more programs, procedures, and rules. As a result, many companies are drowning under a sea of rules, cardinal rules, overly complicated procedures and high-dollar behavior modification schemes.  The result is a prohibitively expensive and overly complex workplace where getting anything done, including safety, is far too difficult.  

An effective safety management system (SMS), on the other hand, helps companies focus and coordinate their finite safety resources on clearly defined goals and objectives.  The system is interactive and dynamic. It evaluates and improves itself on an ongoing basis to ensure that progress toward safety goals and objectives meets expectations and that overall safety is improving as a result.  The safety profession has an important role in both the development and, in particular, the evaluation of the safety management system (SMS).  In subsequent articles we will explore how those of us in safety can help make optimize our SMS effectiveness.

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Jim Loud

Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all Laboratory operations.

Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.

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