ISM Code: A Burden for Seafarers?

It is often debated whether ISM Code has been successful and has achieved the purpose it was made out for. Seafarers complain about the extreme paperwork and record keeping which has made their life difficult.  Old timers remember with nostalgia the pre ISM days of shipping. Is ISM a burden for seafarers?


International Safety Management Code incorporates all International conventions like SOLAS 74, MARPOL 73/78 and STCW 95/2010 etc. and gives them strength. ISM brings them all to one platform and integrates them on the working schedule of the ship and into the day to day activities.

A significant section of shipping feels burdened by the ISM code and are struggling to implement the ISM code on ships effectively because of inadequately functioning safety management system. But in those companies where SMS is working, it is resulting in safer, more efficient, and a more profitable operation of ships.

Complaints Against ISM Code

Some of the common factors and complaints on Safety Management Systems which do not appear to be working satisfactory are as follows:

  • There is too much paperwork.
  • The procedure manuals are voluminous and difficult to read and refer.
  • Some procedures are irrelevant and not specific to that ship or system.
  • The SMS is brought off the shelf or copied from other company and not developed in house.
  • There is no feeling of involvement in the system.
  • It is only ticking boxes in checklist, without actually carrying out the required task.
  • There are not enough people to undertake all extra work involved.
  • There is not enough time to undertake all the extra work involved.
  • The personnel are inadequately trained for the job.
  • There is no support from the company.
  • There is no perceived benefit as compared to all the input involved.
  • ISM is just a paper work exercise.
  • The seafarers are not respected by the management.
  • The senior officers have become clerks and dedicate all time to paperwork to avoid detentions.
  • Actual supervision and control by Chief Engineer and Captain is suffering as they are busy in paperwork.
  • There is no support and guidance from senior officers as they sit on computers all day making reports and replying to messages.

These negative views are expressed by ship staffs who are been forced with a system which was developed without their involvement.

What Makes a Safety Management System Effective?

The basic fact is that SMS will only work if those personnel who are involved in its implementation actually want it to work. This means that the Head Office Management staff like Technical managers, Technical Superintendents, Training Staff, Auditors and Senior Officers on ship. Just getting Safety management Certificates and complying with paper work does not make the SMS effective.

The desire and motivation that makes personnel to embrace a new system comes if there is a belief in the management and the company. This belief comes from a “Company Culture” that has to be developed. This belief comes when you know that the company cares for you and when there is no duplicity, intentions are clear, and transparency is valued. This company culture then can be easily molded to a safety culture. Those companies who have an effective SMS have the following points in common:

  • There is leadership and commitment is from the very top of the management, i.e. Owner, CEO, etc.
  • The paperwork has been shrunk to manageable levels- including procedure manuals, checklists, reports etc.
  • The personnel on board have a sense of ownership and empowerment and they know they are making a difference.
  • The shore staff as well as the floating staff has a choice of continuity of employment.
  • There is a two way communication between the office and the ship.
  • There is mutual respect for each other and awareness of the importance to the individual and the company of managing safety.

These factors have enabled a company culture to be developed which then generated a safety culture. These factors produce a congenial working environment and safety consciousness in which people take responsibility for their own safety and contribute towards the safety of others and company as a whole.

As a natural consequence of the development of this company culture there is a change in the attitudes and values of the personnel. The immediate result is that the accidents, near misses, claims and compensation start decreasing.  As the safety increases the motivation and willingness increases allowing people to become more efficient.

What ISM Code has Achieved?

In spite of everything which has been said or discussed, the truth is that ISM with its paper work and documented procedures has achieved the following objectives:

  • It has made people concerned about safety.
  • It has made people feel responsible before signing as they are now legally responsible.
  • It guides the crew in proper working.
  • Helps in re- training and learning due to easy access to procedures.
  • Makes us care more about the environment.
  • Supports seafarers in doing morally correct and ethical things.
  • There is always reference material available for those who want to learn

A correctly designed Safety management System with procedures that are ship specific and paper work which is manageable are the key indicators of successful implementation of ISM Code by the company.

When ship staff realizes that the Office means what it says and they are really concerned about their safety then ISM is not a burden any more. When personnel realize that ISM makes them safe and empowers them to make correct decisions then ISM is successful.


Author: Chief Engineer Mohit SanguriMarine Insight -

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