How do Safety Management Systems Work?

I see Port Captains, Port Engineers, Safety Guys, and DPAs who are not only unlicensed but have never sailed at all.

More and more Port Captains who were only deckhands or mates.

Go to your eye doctor and get him to properly prescribe some new lenses so you can ditch your rose-colored glasses.

Shipping is a shit industry with low margins, high capital costs, very little oversight, and lots of incompetent people.


Here’s Designing an Effective Safety Management System (SMS) by Prof. Nancy Leveson

Mostly theory, discusses SMS in general, with the exception of a graphic about the Herald of Free Enterprise nothing about maritime. This part about culture is relevant.

With regards to culture - this graphic:


The middle and top levels are not the culture; they merely reflect the organizational culture. While attempting to make changes only at the top two levels may temporarily change behavior and even lower risk over the short term, superficial fixes at these levels that do not address the set of shared values and social norms on the bottom level are likely to be undone and become ineffective over time.

My introduction was on a tug related to the RCP. In hindsight, I received no specific training and I don’t even recall anyone even pointing me to the manual. I only realized after I left that when I read on their website that the company was RCP. My next company at least had a one-day training before I joined my first boat but in hindsight it was geared to surviving an audit not any real introduction to the purpose or goals of an effective SMS.

If a captain opens an ISM/SMS conversation with any reference to pencil whipping other than it’s forbidden then he/she should no longer be a captain. He is undermining the effective implementation of the SMS which will 100% lead to some sort of incident down the road be it an accident or some type of administrative incident from outside parties. Bouchard ring a bell to anyone here?

For an SMS to be effective, it has to be endorsed and championed from the top. If anyone between the CEO and the vessel views it as something that we are doing just to do because we have to then the system will not achieve its stated goals.

ISM training is severely lacking throughout the marine world, US-flagged and foreign. Most Master’s seem to know to do the checklists on board but don’t really understand how to use it in working with and relating to their offices. From a vessel perspective, a good SMS will give you tools to self-report non-conformities which should accelerate the process of filling any related requisition. Personally, I think this is the best CYA there is. It essentially punts the responsibility to the office. “Mr CG/Auditor, I sent a requisition to the office and self reported the non-conformity.” You may still suffer the NC but it puts the responsibility on the office during the corrective action process. Unfortunately many times the office just blames the ship and doesn’t take the CA process seriously so why would they expect the ship to implement the system seriously. “Are you working your plan and is your plan working?”

Personally I think a big part of the problem with SMS-creep is a desire to close NCs quickly even when they are BS. There is an acceptance that the auditor is always seen as right and the simplest course of action is to just create a new checklist as a preventive action so we end up with a large number of overly redundant checklists that tries to proactively mitigate every possible risk and event.

The CA process is the key to an effective system and if neither the vessel nor the office try to just close things out quickly instead of doing a deep root cause analysis then the system will not prove effective.

An SMS is a two way street. Both the office and the vessel have to do their part in ensuring the effective implementation of the plan or it will not be successful. Look at the USCG detentions page of foreign flagged vessels. You will see a very large number of ISM deficiencies on top of the safety deficiencies.
CVC 2 Detentions

I would make one edit … “How well it is utilized is up to the people”

1 Like

The important factor here is we are talking about a liner trade with quick turnaround times and tight schedules. The checklist could not be completed in the time available. The writer mentioned “the work to rule” option in a highly unionised workforce, not an option available to most in world shipping.
In the aviation industry a pilot does not use his/her professional airmanship to decide what part of a check list he or she can disregard.
Bilge and tank monitoring systems must be more robustly designed and reliable. The days of the carpenter or the lamp trimmer doing the dips are long gone. The system should be a critical item.
The master chairing a preloading meeting would have to schedule it so far in advance of berthing at a port in Europe there is a likelihood of the rotation being changed or the load changing.

1 Like

I suppose the only way to make it work is to go by the procedure and checklist exactly as written. If it takes a long time to do it and costs money…oh well. Make it so cumbersome that either 1) The procedure must change, or 2) the industry must change to accomodate even if it’s more burdensome.

Very likely the main reason commercial airlines (in the USA, at least) are so safe is because the pilot really doesn’t have much decision making ability. Everything follows a procedure and is repeated exactly the same in every phase of every flight.

In aviation this has been true. The procedure must be followed, and if it doesn’t work, it is fixed. Shipping will never get there. The players are just too dumb/don’t give a shit.

1 Like

I’ve always found SMS bulky and impractical, and also, almost always out-of-date. I’ve just never found a well-writen and dynamic SMS.

What I have found are documents and checklists written by people who are not experts, and by those who have never sailed. I’ve found companies extremely hesitant to change or update SMS documents. Ive found SMS documents full of redundant inspections and forcing things to be done in a haphazard fashion.

I’ve been trying to get one section of my company’s SMS updated for a whole year.

A mariner doesn’t get promoted from 2/M to C/M to master delaying the ship because they were carefully filling out paperwork that is clearly nonsensical or only marginally useful. They get promoted because they can get things done. The critical items have to be done, the stupid parts have to be skipped



SMS means:

Do whatever you have to to get job done on time and under budget, and just pencil whip all the bullshit paperwork, but pretend that you know the SMS and take it seriously.


With that attitude nobody would need to spend time and money to create (or buy) SMS Manuals for their ships.

Even the most comprehensive and well founded manual do no good if the people that should be using it is unwilling, or unable, to put the content to good use.

I have to agree with a lot of the sentiment here… I really fail to see a point in me checking the oil in a CPP on a ship with a fixed prop… yet my SMS tells me to check it all the same.

I’ve really never seen one that was technically useful or made much of a difference in safety compared to prior eras that didnt use a SMS.

Not that it couldn’t be useful, I’ve just not encountered one. Best safety I’ve seen comes from senior officers that understand and explain how a job should be done with the juniors and crew and listen to questions and concerns.

1 Like

Yes, until you make captain and get authorization to make changes.

I’ve consistently found SMS as a static document, where the Captain is unable to prod the office to make changes.

That’s a problem. Crew aboard the ship, closest to the operation should be authorized to make changes. There are the experts in ship operation at that level.

Our system had so-called ‘Vessel Specific’ items which the captain or chief could modify.

1 Like

We too have vessel-specific check lists. I’ve been trying to change a few for a year! The whole process and the immense push-back has really turned me off from trying to streamline or processes.

Every part of my company’s SMS is solely the onus of the office, same with our maintenance programs. A lot of nonsense, but it will never get fixed because the office doesn’t want it fixed.

1 Like

SMS is a “controlled document.” I believe that’s a requirement for an SMS. That prevents the Captain from making changes. The office does not want a different SMS for every vessel. They want a single SMS for the entire fleet.

At small companies operating small vessels, the SMS is often just something copied from another company with the name changed to be able to show the USCG.

The multi-hat untrained DPA has no idea what that tiny portion of his job requires. He thinks it’s just to receive crew complaints, and say no to anything that costs money.

ISM is just a few pages. SMS needs to be small, concise, and simple enough that new guys can digest it, not several binders with 1000 pages. Most of SMS should be fairly standard within a given trade so that it’s familiar to rotary officers.

1 Like

You’re right about the vessel specific section, office approval may be required.

But the SMS should include a carve-out for the captain and chief to modify procedures that involve the day-to-day operation. Example are the captain’s standing orders, night orders.

Which documents are included can be determined just by looking to see who signed them.

1 Like

So when the ship receives a new EPRIB (for example) nobody on the ship is authorized to change the inspection instructions?