The ISM Code – Episode 2

ISM Implementation Phase One

The first major worldwide implementation of the ISM Code rolled over the shipping community on 1 July, 1998. In the build-up to that date the maritime press was full of dire warnings about the consequences of this dramatic legislation. The general shipping community expected something of a tidal wave of problems to start in the second half of that year. Instead a ripple of inconvenience barely interrupted normal business.

That implementation, four years ago, affected passenger ships (including passenger highspeed craft), oil tankers, gas carriers, bulk carriers and high-speed craft of 500 GRT and over.

ISM Implementation Phase Two

On 1 July this year the final implementation of the ISM Code scooped up almost every remaining commercial ship of significant size in the world. From the midpoint of 2002 all cargo ships of 500 GRT and above and mobile offshore drilling units must have an approved safety management system and be operating it. This now includes virtually every container ship and small coaster putting to sea for a foreign country. Although Ince & Co. do not foresee any particular problems for the operators of larger ships, such as container ships, in this final stage of implementation of ISM, there has been hardly a word in the press about the difficulties faced by operators of the generally smaller ships that this second stage will affect. Ince & Co. suspect that all concerned have treated this phase of implementation as a “non-event“ based on the experiences of 1998 – how seriously would you take a second Y2K warning?. As recently as February 2002 Ince & Co. discovered owners and operators of small general cargo ships to be completely ignorant of ISM, and it is not inconceivable that this ignorance is quite widespread amongst smaller ship operators.

Methods of Implementation

It is necessary only to consider the differences between the types of ships involved in the first phase of implementation and some of the ships in this second stage to realise that a different approach is necessary in the preparatory stages of a safety management system. The tankers, bulk carriers and passenger ships that needed to comply by 1st July, 1998 were, in the main, relatively large ships. Admittedly bulk carriers can be as small as 3000 tonnes (or even less) but the vast majority are much larger with crew that require higher grades of certificates and with greater numbers onboard. Even though tankers can be quite small, due to the perceived increased pollution risk, this class of ship has been more tightly regulated than other types of ship for a number of years now. These factors probably made the transition into the ISM age much easier for operators of these ships.

A large amount of the world’s coastal trade is carried on by much smaller, more flexible ships that can enter much smaller ports and harbours. The operating margins on these ships in terms of absolute profit are often much less than the pro rata profit margin on a larger ship. Furthermore regulations often require a much lower grade certificate of competency for an officer in the same rank on these small ships. A lower grade of certificate means a lower level of training and/or academic achievement at the very least. With the small number of personnel that are carried onboard smaller ships, with the consequential reduced capacity for extra paperwork, and the potential reduced calibre of officers, it is easy to see that a safety management system prepared for a large bulk carrier would be inappropriate for a small general cargo ship of 1000 GRT.


After the previous (1998) relatively undramatic implementation there may be a temptation for operators of stage two ships to provide their fleets with a “standard“ safety management system that has been used on much larger ships for the past four years. This approach will be inappropriate and will overload the (few) seafarers on these ships with a huge paperwork burden. This may well result in these seafarers simply “ticking the boxes“ (or worse, simply ignoring the safety management system procedures altogether) of a system that can be demonstrated as being incorrect for that type of ship. Without careful monitoring of the operation of the safety management system by the ship operators this practice is equivalent to setting time bombs that will explode in the face of the operators following a casualty.

In the recent case of Eurasian Dream [2002] 1 Lloyd’s Report 719, the Judge observed that the documentation placed onboard the ships was voluminous and reading it would have occupied two to three weeks of the Master’s time. Coincidentally a recent study reveals that excessive paperwork exists in many safety management systems. The Judge also considered that the ships should have been supplied with one concise and clear manual catering specifically for that ship. In other words a safety management system that was designed from the ground up for that type of ship operated by that company, i.e., ship and company specific safety management system.

Ince & Co’s own experience is that there is an ISM aspect to virtually every maritime casualty. Some of the larger ISM problems that Ince & Co. have discovered which are associated directly with the casualty have implications that impact on the seaworthiness of the ship. With the paper trail generated through the safety management system, it is much easier for a claimant to demonstrate that the owner or manager failed to exercise due diligence in the operation of the ship. This will be an even greater issue for smaller ships with their associated lower manning levels and pressure of work. 1 July 2002: a date of quiet danger for the complacent. ISM: a dangerous tool in the wrong hands.

Our thanks to Clive Reed, a Master Mariner, from Ince & Co, which he joined in London in 1997. He has been involved in the investigation and handling of many casualties worldwide including the “Orapin Global/Eviokos“ collision off Singapore and the total loss of the cruise ship “Sun Vista“ in the Malacca Straits. Prior to joining Ince & Co, Clive spent 23 years at sea including eight years as Master of handysize and panamax bulk carriers. After coming ashore in 1994, Clive worked for a major Monaco-based shipowner, developing in-house systems for compliance with SOPEP, cargo stowage and securing regulations and the ISM code.

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