International Safety Management Code

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History for development of ISM Code :

On the evening of March 6, 1987, the cross-channel Ro-Ro ferry Herald of Free Enterprise, carrying more than 450 passengers, around 80 crew, more than 80 cars, and close to 50 freight vehicles, left the Belgian port of Zebrügge for the English port of Dover. Soon after the Herald of Free Enterprise passed Zebrügge's breakwater, water flooded into the ferry's lower car deck and destabilized it, causing it to sink in a matter of minutes. 193 lives were lost. The immediate cause of the accident was that the bow door remained wide open, allowing the great inrush of water as the vessel increased speed, while the fatigued assistant boatswain directly responsible for closing it lay asleep in his cabin. The public inquiry led by Justice Sheen revealed that the assistant boatswain's negligence was simply the last in a long string of actions that laid the groundwork for a major accident. The Sheen Report did not stop at identifying the shortcomings of the ship's master and his crew. The inquiry revealed that the shore management, Townsend Car Ferries Ltd., was just as blameworthy. Numerous memos written by Townsend ship's masters pointing out the need to implement safety-enhancing measures or address serious deficiencies on board their vessels went unheeded (Rasmussen and Svedung, 2000). The Report summed up the management's cavalier attitude towards safety in the following statement: 'From top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness'; (Sheen, 1987).

The Herald of Free Enterprise was a modern ferry equipped with advanced technology and manned by a highly qualified crew. Only seven years prior to the accident, it was built in a German shipyard according to international maritime safety regulations. Why did it capsize? The general frustration in the shipping industry following the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise is typical of the kind of accident that precipitated in a paradigm shift in maritime safety administration and the development of the ISM Code.


The ISM Code provides an International standard for the safe management and operation of ships and for pollution prevention.

The purpose of ISM Code is:

  • To ensure Safety at Sea
  • To prevent human injury or loss of life
  • To avoid damage to the environment and to the ship.

SOLAS adopted the ISM Code in 1994 and incorporated it into chapter IX. By 1998 much of the commercial shipping community was required to be in compliance with the ISM code. By 2002 almost all of the international shipping community was required to comply with the ISM Code.

In order to comply with the ISM Code, each ship class must have a working Safety Management System (SMS). Each SMS consists of the following elements:

  • Commitment from top management
  • A Top Tier Policy Manual
  • A Procedures Manual that documents what is done on board the ship, during normal operations and in emergency situations
  • Procedures for conducting both internal and external audits to ensure the ship is doing what is documented in the Procedures Manual
  • A Designated Person Ashore to serve as the link between the ships and shore staff and to verify the SMS implementation
  • A system for identifying where actual practices do not meet those that are documented and for implementing associated corrective action
  • Regular management reviews

Another requirement of the ISM Code is for the ship to be maintained in conformity with the provisions of relevant rules and regulations and with any additional requirements which may be established by the Company.

Each ISM compliant ship is audited, first by the Company (internal audit) and then each 2.5 to 3 years by the Flag State Marine Administration to verify the fulfillment and effectiveness of their Safety Management System. Once SMS is verified and it is working and effectively implemented, the ship is issued with The Safety Management Certificate. Comments from the auditor and/or audit body and from the ship are incorporated into the SMS by headquarters.

The requirements of the ISM Code may be applied to all ships.

The ISM Code was created by the IMO and Ferriby Marine's Capt. Graham Botterill, Specialist Advisor to the House of Lords in the UK on ship safety, among others.

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