Transport safety investigations stall

The national transport safety agency is getting less efficient at investigating accidents and safety incidents as it  battles to reduce a backlog of cases, an audit has found.

The time taken and resources needed by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) to complete investigations “have increased significantly over the last five years,” according to a  report  by the Australian National Audit Office  (ANAO) tabled on Thursday.

“The efficiency with which the ATSB investigates transport accidents and safety occurrences has been declining … both in relation to the length of time taken to complete investigations, and the amount of investigation resources required,” it found.

The report found that the time taken on “short” investigations increased from an average of 131 days before 2018 to 236 days over the first six months of that year. “Complex” investigations meanwhile were taking nearly three years to complete in the first half of 2018 – more than twice as long as  in 2016.

The ANAO recommended that the ATSB does more to ensure short investigations are completed quickly, reviews its use of resources and sets more realistic investigation deadlines.

The report also notes that the reputation of the agency took a hit after it was criticised for a three year delay in investigating the ditching of an aircraft carrying a seriously ill patient off Norfolk Island in 2009, when it was forced to reopen the investigation after pressure from a senate inquiry.

“Although the Aviation Safety Regulation Review 2014 stated this was an ‘aberration’ and not typical of the high standard that the ATSB usually attains, this had a negative impact on the ATSB’s reputation,” the report states.

In 2017-18, 6,350 incidents came under consideration for investigation by the ATSB and by November last year it had 122 ongoing investigations. Since then, the agency has attempted to reduce the number of ongoing investigations and take on fewer new ones.

The auditor’s office said the ATSB receives an average of more than 15,000 notifications of incidents and accidents a year but the trend has been steadily increasing since 2010. It noted that Australia hasn’t experienced “a major catastrophic event” that has required a major investigation.

Improving efficiency

The ATSB has acknowledged the findings and says it was already working to improve efficiency before the audit, and has since been applying a project management approach to investigations.

“The ATSB will soon release a varied corporate plan with more suitable key performance indicators for timeliness and demand/capacity,” it added.

Funding for the ATSB, a Commonwealth body established in 2003 to improve safety and public confidence in air, sea and rail transportation, was increased by $11.9 million over five years in the 2017 budget to boost its workforce and meet technical and data needs.

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