ICAO wants to make 'just culture' safety reporting and investigation global

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The International Civil Aviation Organisation wants to stop the automatic prosecution of pilots, air traffic control officers and other frontline staff following accidents or incidents. At present, automatic prosecution is standard practice in many states.

The organisation has prepared a working paper for its Accident Investigation and Prevention Group (AIG) meeting in Montreal on 13-18 October.

If the committee recommends the adoption of the paper's proposals for promoting a global "just culture" relating to incident reporting and accident investigation, it will almost certainly lead to radical new additions to Chapter 13 of the ICAO treaty, which defines standards and recommended practices for accident investigation.

A "just culture" is a sophisticated concept for which an internationally accepted definition does not yet exist, so ICAO sees its first task as defining its characteristics.

Citing "an urgent need to establish an effective balance between the requirements for improving aviation safety and the requirements at national and international level for the administration of justice", the paper asks the AIG "to support and adopt for inclusion in Annex 13 the description of a just culture".

It says: "A culture in which frontline operators or others are not punished for actions, omissions or decisions taken by them that are commensurate with their experience and training, but where gross negligence, wilful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated."

This definition, drawn up by Eurocontrol in conjunction with other aviation agencies, is already being promoted in the European Civil Aviation Conference states.

The working paper explains that a just culture "will greatly facilitate the reporting and sharing of safety data as an essential contribution to enhancing safety in international aviation", and provides evidence that the criminal prosecution of those who have filed voluntary reports revealing mistakes that were often a product of an imperfect system, has resulted in the collapse of reporting systems in countries where the prosecution took place, creating a cover-up culture instead of a transparent one.

If adopted, the proposals would "urge states to adopt and implement just-culture principles" within their own laws.

Unusually, the paper proposes that states go further than persuading the judiciary to implement changes to legal practices for the benefit of aviation safety: it encourages countries to "provide guidelines to aviation professionals on how to interact with the media, to achieve the right balance between providing relevant and accurate information to the public while preserving the needed confidentiality of individuals in the interest of aviation safety".