A combination of standardised training, regulations, and advancements in technology has undoubtedly enhanced safety in the maritime industry over the past 100 years. Tying these components together at an operational level, safety management systems have been just as instrumental. In recognition that a piecemeal approach to implementing safety measures was not the most effective, guidelines for safety management systems were introduced in the early 1990s and are widely regarded as having achieved a great deal in improving the safety of contemporary ships.
These steps were taken in line with similar approaches, which had been widely adopted ashore and in response to damning safety management comments made in the course of inquiries into several high profile incidents. In one such incident, the tragedy of the Herald of Free Enterprise in which 193 people died on March 6, 1987, Lord Justice Sheen (presiding judge at the subsequent Court of Enquiry), made some stinging comments about management and suggested that “from top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness”.
While the investigation into the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise attributed personal responsibility for the accident to several individual members of the ship’s complement, it also charged management with significant negligence. The official report into the incident continued, “the failure on the part of the shore management to give proper and clear directions was a contributory cause of the disaster”. The IMO soon responded with the inception of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code. Initial guidelines for the safe management of vessels were adopted by the IMO in October 1989.
Subsequently, in 1993, the IMO adopted the ISM Code, which was made mandatory in 1998 and further revised in 2000. The Code consists of two parts, one of which is mandatory and one of which is designated as guidance. Its stated purpose is “‘to provide an international standard for the safe management and operation of ships and for pollution prevention”. While initially it was met with some opposition, the code has come to be seen by many in the industry as an essential component of safe vessel management in the modern day context.
The approach to implementation has been varied with some operators engaging operational and sea-staff to establish the safest practice on board, backing this up with appropriate documentation and training, while others have invested in safety management systems with appropriate software packages.
Despite the associated increase in paperwork, seafarers generally recognize the improvements in safety associated with clear and well- designed safety management systems and consequently support their continued use.
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