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

Re-thinking the ISM Code

The ISM code, when implemented in 1998, was meant to encourage organizations to take ownership for the safe operations of their ship and the safety of the environment they operate within. Many years hence and the benefit of the ISM code is still being debated. Has it been a boon or a burden to the maritime industry?

Given the number or maritime accidents and loss of lives, most would opine that safety would be second nature to those at sea. Something like wearing a seatbelt when driving a car where the person does it for their own safety and for those travelling with them. It is not done out of fear of the enforcement authorities. So then why has the ISM code not driven a similar safety culture within the maritime industry?

Boon or Burden?

In many companies, the ISM code implementation has become a paperwork drill; where it is seen as a means of demonstrating to regulators that the requirements have been met. The reasons for this culture are many, including but not limited to:

  • Lack of effective communication between ship and shore staff (one of the key issues the ISM code aimed to address)
  • Fear of reporting of non-conformities / near misses (lack of job security)
  • Hierarchical structure of companies
  • Authoritarian leadership (my way or the highway)
  • Systems not customized to the vessel (generic to the fleet)
  • Poor system implementation

The ISM code provides a system approach to continual improvement but only when the code is implemented in the right spirit. Personnel often do not understand the ‘WHY’ for implementing an SMS and their need to do the right thing. Often conformity/compliance is stressed even when the actions may not be the right thing to do. Measures such as Bridge Resource Management are add-ons to ensure effective communication of risks and challenging of group thinking. However, often the training is not sufficient to enable challenging a senior officer unless they are encouraged to do so. Most mariners today view the SMS on board as a burden. Over-documentation is slowly killing the system and once incorporated into the system, requirements rarely get removed. SMS reviews done by the Master do not truly evaluate how the SMS is adding value to the effectiveness of the system.

The Case for Risk-Based Thinking

ISO 9001 in its revision in 2015 introduced the concept of risk-based thinking, wherein organizations shall assess the risks to their system given the changing environment they operate within and then plan to take actions to address these risks. This concept of risk-based thinking is driven down to awareness of the entire staff of the need to contribute to the effectiveness of the system. While the ISM code in its objectives requires companies to identify and safeguard against all risks this has in many cases become a paperwork exercise of completing a risk assessment form and filing it. The ISM code in essence has encouraged companies to identify potential emergencies, prepare contingency plans for them and the drill in these. Often these are limited to the same 10 or 12 scenarios such as grounding, oil spill, man overboard etc. Many maritime companies are ISO 9001 certified but often the scope of this certification only extends to the shore-based offices. While the certification scope may be limited, there is nothing stopping companies from extending the system to vessels or at the least the concept of risk-based thinking.

The safety culture must start with the commitment of the leadership and then be reinforced throughout the organization. The fear of reporting non-conformities must be eradicated. This can only be achieved when personnel are confident that there will be no repercussions. Regardless of the safety culture of organizations however, given the contractual nature of employment at sea, it is often difficult to inculcate a sense of commitment to the SMS. Mariners in general tend to work safely and watch out for safety of their shipmates. At times though, the culture of “follow the procedure” leads to actions being taken even when they may not be the best, given external influences and circumstances.

Consultation and Participation

ISO 45001, a standard for occupational health and safety management systems, introduces the need for ‘organizations to maintain a process for consultation and participation of workers at all applicable levels and functions, and, where they exist, workers’ representatives, in the development, planning, implementation, performance evaluation and actions for improvement of the OH&S management system’. Getting inputs from the entire workforce enables quicker and easier buy-in to the system. The SMS while capturing the various requirements should be designed for easy use by the users of the system. Often SMS manuals on board are bulky and rarely referenced. Personnel choose to follow the practices they have learned over the years from other ship mates and mentors rather than reference the SMS.

When asked for feedback on how to improve the system, many mariners have ideas but the system at times does not provide an avenue for this feedback to be captured and formally implemented within the SMS. Best practices often remain limited to a vessel as a result. Following the concept of risk-based thinking, organizations need to consider the risk of barriers to participation and take measures to reduce these. Many accidents/incidents and near misses could be addressed if mariners could have asserted themselves in the situation and alerted someone to the problem/potential non-conformity.


Some in the industry are calling for increased regulation to improve the maritime industry in ensuring ships are operated safely. However, regulators can only do spot checks. They are not on board 365 days of the year. Operational pressures play a major role in how risks are assessed. The grounding of the Torrey Canyon is a prime example of this as is perhaps the Titanic.

As the use of technology increases and reliance on electronic systems, consequently new risks will be introduced to the maritime industry. This new era will benefit from a re-think of the ISM code to encourage the inclusion of risk-based thinking (beyond just a documentation exercise) and the participation of mariners to actively improve the SMS and embrace safety. In conclusion, maritime companies (with or without a change to the ISM code), in the interest of their mariners and the maritime industry at large need to rethink their approach to implementation and maintenance of the SMS.