Culture of confusion | FAA finds Boeing employees lacked core safety knowledge and feared 'retaliation' over investigations

FAA finds Boeing employees lacked core safety knowledge and feared 'retaliation' over investigations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has released a report criticizing gaps in Boeing’s safety culture, including employee fears over retaliation for identifying safety concerns.

In the report, the FAA finds that whilst Boeing has established programs and taken steps to create a culture of safety, many employees “did not demonstrate knowledge of Boeing’s enterprise-wide safety culture efforts, nor its purpose of procedures.” It also references a “disconnect between Boeing’s senior management and other members of the organization” on safety culture.

The panel identified 27 findings and 53 recommendations based on over 4,000 pages of Boeing documents, more than 250 interviews, and seven surveys.

Further criticism identifies a conflict of interest among managers that led to employees hesitating in reporting safety concerns “for fear of retaliation.” In some cases, managers responsible for performance evaluations, salary and promotion decisions, and disciplinary actions, were also responsible for investigating safety concerns identified by employees, creating structural opportunities for retaliation.

Moreover, some Boeing employees, called Organization Designation Authorizations (ODA) unit members (UMs) operate with FAA powers that allow them to investigate safety concerns. Reporting to the FAA panel, ODA UMs shared cases of changes in leadership behavior and unrequested reassignments upon sharing safety concerns.

The panel was formed following two fatal crashes of Boeing aircraft in 2018, when 189 people were killed after a Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed in Indonesia, and in 2019, when 157 people were killed as the same model of aircraft crashed in the ocean northeast of Jakarta.

Whilst the panel was formed before the door blowout incident on January 5 2024, the FAA released a statement notifying Boeing that it is launching a further investigation into the mid-air incident to determine if Boeing conformed to FAA safety regulations and stating “this incident should have never happened and it cannot happen again.”

However, although the report pertaining to the crashes in 2018 and 2019 acknowledges Boeing has taken steps to re-organize its management structures to avoid conflicts of interest and retaliation, it also finds there are still “opportunities for retaliation to occur, particularly with regards to salary and furlough ranking.”

As well as criticizing Boeing’s safety protocols and management structures, the report also highlights a culture of confusion among employees and their understanding of safety management systems (SMS), including a lack of knowledge of safety awareness metrics.

Whilst the panel finds that Boeing’s SMS procedures do reflect the FAA’s own SMS frameworks, it also finds that employee confusion arises due to procedures and training that are “complex and in a constant state of change.”

The report offers Boeing 53 recommendations including conducting periodic safety culture surveys led by company leadership, creating greater anonymity in investigation processes to prevent retaliation, and ensuring all employees are explicitly clear on reporting processes.

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In a statement to CNN, Boeing admits that although it has “taken important steps to foster a safety culture that empowers and encourages all employees to share their voice, there is “more work to do.”

It also welcomes the report’s recommendations, saying it will review the assessment and learn from the panel’s findings as it continues to improve its safety and quality programs. A quote from CEO Dave Calhoun is also included in the statement, encouraging “all teammates to use their voices to speak up.”

FAA administrators will review the report’s recommendations and “reinforce them as appropriate.”

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