How do Safety Management Systems Work?

My introduction to a SMS (Safety Management System) was rather inauspicious. One day the captain and the chief just starting talking about something that was coming. it was going to be bad and it was going to involve a lot of pencil whipping. Seems like every coffee break must have heard the term ‘pencil whip’ a couple dozen times.

When the manuals did show up I couldn’t make head or tails of them but the captain did start putting out numerous redundant forms. It was bad, sort of a self-filling prophecy.

When the auditors started showing up later however they explained the way we were implementing SMS was stupid (not in so many words) , as if it wasn’t obvious.

Anyway, over time the system evolved, we started to understand it better and things began to improve.

Question is will an operation governed by a SMS tend towards a safer operation or will it decend into a CYA situation?

This will depend on company culture, professionalism of the crew and overall mindset. Ideally yes, having a proper SMS, should help bring safer operations, but again, goes back to the culture. SMS is just a tool, utilizing it as a tool is up to the people.


In aviation world, procedures and training lead to an amazing safety record.

In shipping, it’s just become a CYA bullshit evolution–but due to poor design and implementation. Said another way: 1000pages or “procedures and checklist” isn’t a safety system.


There’s a third, related possibility, Earl’s CONOPS, Concept of Operations.

I posted an article here somewhere about one of the car ship’s stability incidents. The ship had a 217 item checklist for cargo operations. That’s absolutely going to be pencil whipped.

Under what conditions did someone envision a checklist like that was going to be useful? Certainly not aboard a working car carrier. A check list that long is less than worthless to a C/M under time pressure to get cargo moving.

As we dont operate active SMS system you can sit there and sign dozens of PTW’s and any pair could cause a Piper Alpha when you drill down.
The more complicated and linked systems are the worse this issue gets.
Perhaps a closed ai system that has read all your vessel docs could give some useful information?

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Here it is: Light bulbs, red lines and rotten onions – Safety Differently

The Hoegh Osaka’s two hundred or so checks for cargo operations alone are a true reflection of this contagion. While the company was busy creating the checks, the chief officer was busy ticking the boxes on the checks, the Master was too busy to verify the checks, the regulator was kept busy assessing the checks, the investigator was busy counting the checks – and with these multiple layers of protection, the safety management system was drifting into failure beneath all these checks. The imaginary world of procedures and checks had drifted too far away from the real world of practice.


I think the key difference between the aviation and maritime world is the downtime for the equipment. It seems that airlines have a roster of available aircraft that they rotate into and out of service for planned maintenance, repair, and inspection.

Ships are on a 5 year drydock / special survey schedule and shipowners are loath to have any downtime in between that schedule. They seem to all be of the school of run it until it fails, then deal with the consequences. Not something the aviation sector is comfortable with for obvious reasons.

I have to agree with you that most ISM systems seem to be in place simply as proof that an ISM system exists.


I worked on a shuttle tanker that had a 90-something page checklist for loading cargo. It didn’t get done much.

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I can only speak to the tug and barge industry on this one. I believe having an SMS is a good thing, that being said, I agree with the previous comments on company culture. The unfortunate action of “pencil whipping” is all too common with companies that have a high turnover rate and a shoreside support staff that is restricted by budgetary requirements of owners both private and corporate, or simply don’t fix anything. At the end of the day it is up to the mariner to do their level best at completing their inspection or maintenance routine to the best of their ability. If a work order needs to be submitted, then submit it and keep a copy for your records. It is all too often where work orders are closed at the discretion of shoreside management without being properly addressed. Having worked shoreside as well this happens all too often. Which is why I do not work shoreside anymore. The principles of The SMS when working properly are great in concept. However, let’s face it. It makes everything look good on paper to customers and regulators but at the end of the day it is the vessel crews that suffer if it is not administered properly.


This was true, especially at first. But the system includes a feedback loop where procedures are reviewed and improved. In my experience good procedures and checklists tend to drive out the bad. Just as a practical matter from wanting to avoid screw-ups.

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We were not in the government-protected Jones Act trade. We were running the same runs as the foreign flag ships, often with a smaller crew (according to the AIS).

The car ship trade is in some ways like driving a bus. Instead of a route we have a trade we run, instead of bus stops it’s terminals. There’s often a ship ahead of us and one behind us. When the ship ahead leaves the terminal we pull in. There’s often another ship behind scheduled for just after we leave.

From here: Bad Seamanship: Is That So?

Car carriers follow an extremely tight schedule, with very short turnaround times. Port rotation and scheduling is planned weeks in advance and the pressure to maintain the voyage itinerary is enormous

I’ve worked on tugs, it’s sometimes hard work with long hours. I’ve also worked car ships, it’s no walk in the park.


You’re simplifying the matter a lot, and it seems like you’re reversing the cause-and-effect relationships. The Safety Management System (SMS) is not just a set of tools useful in all maritime operations. It’s a comprehensive and, most importantly, dynamic management system governing the safety policy of a shipping company. This system includes detailed work procedures, relevant checklists, but also rules for training employees, information flow, control, audits and much more.

It’s also worth noting that SMS is closely linked to the PMS – Planned Maintenance System, and together, they have a huge impact on improving the work culture, not the other way around

On what basis do you claim that a system that worked in aviation can’t work in shipping? Do you really have such a negative opinion about people in the maritime industry?

You’re mixing up terms and making the most common mistake – ISM is not the same as SMS.

I don’t know where you worked, but you probably confused a checklist with a procedure. The newest and also the longest ISGOTT 6 Ship Shore Safety Checklist, covering all legal requirements during tanker loading/unloading operations, has a maximum of fifteen pages.

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Thank you for your opinion, but I promise you I did not. Even had little check boxes and everything.


What font did you use to print this checklist?

We didn’t.

This is the problem with the SMS. I’ve seem it be comprehensively wrong on more than one occasion. For example, a HSE guy pushes a policy on how to inspect and maintain the EPIRB in 2015, by copying the manual and making it match company formatting. He’s laid off in 2017 and not replaced. We get new EPIRBS in 2018. I can no longer follow company policy because they sent us a new EPIRB that’s a different model, and the new “HSE” guy is also the port captain, DPA, and ordering guy, and does not have time or interest in updating the policy. I could write some sort of corrective action report, but more often than not Captains rather not their junior mates make dumb bureaucratic waves that the auditors can look at. Or imagine ECDIS policy written by someone who stopped sailing in 2005. There are plenty of people actively sailing in senior positions that don’t understand ECDIS, let alone someone in the office who has never seen one.

The effectiveness of the SMS depends a lot on company culture and who is in the office.


Sounds like a problem with the way the system is set-up.

Shouldn’t the SMS instructions be ‘IAW the manual’ and the actual step-by-step instructions should be vessel specific instructions?

With our system the captain or chief were authorized to make changes at that level.

It’s in the company’s interest to shift items at that level onto the ships.

Even worse is when you have HSE folks who are not even licensed. The companies that take the effort to ensure they have someone with a deck or engine license in the HSE/DPA role are the ones that actually prfioritize safety/quality. Unfortunately I’ve seen “safety professionals” who didn’t know the basics of maritime safety history. I think anyone in the industry with an interest of safety should have a good understanding of a few basic historic cases with big regulatory impact like the Exxon Valdez, Marine Electric, the Sea Witch/Esso Brussels, Titanic, General Slocum fire, Normandie, heck even Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire(just for general industry safety). Then of course a good understanding of modern recent incidents.

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Exactly! What’s more: if you keep pointing your policy to industry publications like the ICS- Bridge Procedure Guide, whatever number the UKHO has for voyage planning, ect, you can keep up with industry best practice, and the only way a Vetter can get mad at your dumb ass policy is if you have an outdated publication. The ICS PBG checklists were awesome and covered all sorts of things, I love that book.

I’ve interviewed for ISM management positions that pay 50k a year, so unfortunately, companies are going to get what they pay for, and we on the ships get to live with it.

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I’ve seen HSE folks making 6 figures. Pretty much anyone titled Manager or above is making $120k+ from what I’ve seen. Still less then one might make sailing, but pay is usually equivalent to their shoreside Ops counter part depending on level of responsibility. To be a TSMS Internal Auditor you need the appropriate experience, so you’re not gonna find those people for peanuts. If it’s an administrative assistant, experience isn’t really important to me though, as long as they’re sticking to just clerical work. This is in HCOL, Northeast though. Maybe it’s different in the gulf offshore industry. My only experience is in limited tonnage tug and pax, for larger companies.