Perusing the FAA’s system safety handbook while doing some research for a current job, I came upon an interesting definition of severities. What’s interesting is that the FAA introduces the concept of safety margin reduction as a specific form of severity (loss).

Here’s a summary of Table (3-2) form the handbook:

• Catastrophic – ‘Multiple fatalities and/or loss of system’
• Major – ‘Significant reduction in safety margin…’
• Minor – ‘Slight reduction in safety margin…’

If we think about safety margins for a functional system they represent a system state that’s a precursor to a mishap, with the margin representing some intervening set of states. But a system state of reduced safety margin (lets call it a hazard state) is causally linked to a mishap state, else we wouldn’t care, and must therefore inherit it’s severity. The problem is that in the FAA’s definition they have arbitrarily assigned severity levels to specific hazardous degrees of safety margin reduction, yet all these could still be linked causally to a catastrophic event, e.g. a mid-air collision.

What the FAA’s Systems Engineering Council (SEC) has done is conflate severity with likelihood, as a result their severity definition is actually a risk definition, at least when it comes to safety margin hazards. The problem with this approach is that we end up under treating risks as per classical risk theory. For example say we have a potential reduction in safety margin, which is also casually linked to a catastrophic outcome. Now per Table 3-2 if the reduction was classified as ‘slight’, then we would assess the probability and given the minor severity decide to do nothing, even though in reality the severity is still catastrophic. If, on the other hand, we decided to make decisions based on severity alone, we would still end up making a hidden risk judgement depending on what the likelihood of propagation form hazard state to accident state was (undefined in the handbook). So basically the definitions set you up for trouble even before you start.

My guess is that the SEC decided to fill in the lesser severities with hazard states because for an ATM system true mishaps tend to be invariably catastrophic, and they were left scratching their head for lesser severity mishap definitions. Enter the safety margin reduction hazard. The take home from all this is that severity needs to be based on the loss event, introducing intermediate hybrid hazard/severity state definitions leads inevitably to incoherence of your definition of risk. Oh and (as far as I am aware) this malformed definition has spread everywhere…