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15 Aug 2020

Effectiveness of the ISM Code

The ISM (International Safety Management) Code, in itself, is not a magic wand, that will bring safety or prevent pollution. It depends on the organization on how it implements the Code. Safe operation of ships and the prevention of pollution should have been any organization’s objective. Yet all over the world owners to save money compromise these objectives. Did not the Titanic on April 15, 1912, sink, trying to create a record of crossing the Atlantic, by going North to cut distance, run into the iceberg?

The sinking of the Titanic, with a loss of nearly 1500 passengers and the crew was an eye-opener. It led to the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) convention. Did the negligence and continued operation of ships compromising safety stop with SOLAS? Sadly not. The investigation by Justice Sheen into the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, on March 6, 1987, looked at why SOLAS had not helped prevent the tragedy. It brought out the necessity for a process-based management system, and the SOLAS Chapter IX was updated to authorize the ISM Code. It provides the guidelines for the implementation of a system to ensure the safety of vessels at sea.

The Flag State Administrations whose flag the ships sail under, legitimize the use of the code making it mandatory for internationally trading vessels. If any company is bent upon not implementing it in the spirit of it, then of course the objectives of the code as also the functional requirements will not be met. Owners and Operators of the vessels often look to short term gains wherein they compromise the standards and bypass the rules. They have to understand that behind every casualty at sea are many detentions and behind them indicators like Major NCs (non-conformities) and near misses.

The Flag States who do not strictly inspect and audit vessels to the ISM Code and issue SMC (safety management certificates), are actually, to retain the business of ship owners, jeopardizing the same ships! Even some responsible Flag States, due to shortage of manpower outsource their duties to ROs (recognized organizations), often represented by class societies. This results in diluted control, as an outsourced process needs strict monitoring of the process to ensure the performance is not affected. Not managing an outsourced process is as good as not taking responsibility. Authority can be delegated, bot the responsibility.

NCs (non-conformities) drive correction and CA (corrective action), and as such should be welcome as inputs to ensure continual improvement of the system based on the ISM Code. Yet, there are every day common examples of Masters of ships negotiating to somehow get the auditors to not give NCs. This is because the management ashore is not mature to realize, that keeping the master’s pressurized and performance being judged by NCs reported is creating an environment of fear and hiding of NCs. A good SMS (safety management system) based on the ISM Code, if correctly implemented should welcome NCs. The DP (designated person) should know that the “only bad NC, is the one which the organization does not know about.”

For domestic vessels, and for that matter towing and small vessels, and perhaps in due course of time for domestic passenger vessels, one would think a new standard would be required? Sub Chapter M for the towing industry in the USA, is nothing else but the ISM Code domesticated. The ISM Code is a useful well thought of document which provides strong fundamentals based on hundreds of years of sea experience, loss of life, cargoes, ships, and fortunes. The process-based management system it propagates would systematize operations. However, for an effective management system, the implementers have to be motivated and committed. The Flag States have to be strict and vigilant in their issue of certificates. When they outsource the certification to Ros, they must not wash their hands of their responsibility. The strict monitoring of the ROs by ensuring good clear concise MOUs (memorandums of understanding) with clear provisions to audit the ROs must be put in place. The owners and operators through their organization should put in place a robust internal auditing program that gives the objective inputs on the implementation of the ISM Code.

– by Dr. IJ Arora