Commercial Vessel Compliance

4/19/2018: U.S. Flag interpretations on the ISM Code

Submitted by Capt. Matt Edwards, chief of the Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance

The Commandant’s Final Action Memo regarding the sinking of the S.S. El Faro (see Safety Recommendation #15) noted that supplementary guidance would be promulgated to ensure the ISM Code is effectively implemented on applicable U.S. flagged vessels. The Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance (CG-CVC) recently released a new Mission Management System Work Instruction regarding the U.S. Flag Interpretations on the ISM Code (CVC-WI-004, U.S. Flag Interpretations on the ISM Code) to provide supplemental flag state guidance regarding the development, implementation, and verification of SMSs on U.S. Flag vessels. This work instruction also includes specific provisions to assist in assessing risks and developing contingency plans for emergency shipboard situations, and is designed to be used in conjunction with CVC-WI-003, USCG Oversight of Safety Management Systems on U.S. Flag Vessels. Industry stakeholders and Recognized Organizations are encouraged to reference this guidance when developing, implementing, and verifying SMSs in order to promote a strong safety culture throughout the U.S. flag fleet.

A safety culture is the sum of what an organization is and does in the pursuit of safety. An effective SMS should support and encourage a “safety culture” to address issues of human error and omissions while continually improving compliance with the applicable regulations. Additionally, a strong safety culture promotes an environment where all employees share the responsibility for safety in the workplace and the company has an established policy to protect employees from retribution for speaking up to prevent a hazardous occurrence.

A series of vessel accidents in the late 1980s linked to human error along with a movement among vessel owners to transfer the responsibility of vessel operations to ship management companies suggested a link between the increase in accidents and management faults. In response to these concerns, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the International Management Code for the Safe Operation of Ships and for Pollution Prevention (International Safety Management [ISM] Code) Nov. 4, 1993. The ISM Code, which is mandatory for certain vessels engaged on an international voyage, addresses human error and human omissions to ensure safety at sea, prevent the occurrence of human injury or loss of life, and avoid environmental damage.

The ISM Code places top management in a position to provide for safe ship operations, establish safeguards against identified risks, and continuously improve safety management skills of shore and shipboard personnel. The implementation of a Safety Management System (SMS) provides a means to meet these safety objectives and serves as a platform for company management to document company guidelines related to:

• Safety and environmental protection policies
• Instructions and procedures to ensure companies operate ships in accordance with relevant Flag and Port State regulations
• Defined levels of authority and lines of communication between, and amongst, shore and shipboard personnel
• Procedures for reporting accidents and non-conformities with the provision of the ISM Code
• Procedures for preparing for and responding to emergencies
• Procedures for internal audits and management reviews

The ISM Code and an SMS are more relevant today than ever before. As vessels increase in size and complexity while crew sizes decrease to an optimum level, a fully functional SMS enables a vessel owner to tailor vessel operations to a wide range of conditions. Additionally, as advances in maritime technology outpace the rate in which corresponding regulations or guidelines may be established, an SMS serves a critical role in bridging the regulatory gap and ensuring safe operations.

The Spring 2016 edition of the Proceedings of the Marine Safety and Security Council provides additional information on SMS.

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

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