How do Safety Management Systems Work?

BrownWatwrGuy is right. It’s less about the flag than it is the company. Deep down most mariners know that.

A good culture and corporate support goes further than any regulatory scheme. Over the years sailing and as a class and independent surveyor / auditor, superintendent and tech mgr, it became easy to see which companies were walking the walk and which were just talking the talk. 15 minutes onboard or a half day in the home office can tell the difference between what was going to be an easy day and what was going to turn into a root canal type of day.

And I bet every mariner with a bit of varied experience can see the same thing. And near as I can tell flag of the ship has exactly zero to do with how well a company runs their fleet … the best I’ve ever seen are absolutely not US flagged.


Our findings suggest that flag
state is not the most important factor affecting maritime
safety outcomes. However, ships flying newer FOCs are
associated with worse safety outcomes. Of six risk factors
investigated, communication stands out as a potential
safety risk on FOC vessels. These vessels generally
have multinational crews, which may be more likely to
experience unsafe situations because of language
difficulties, and for whom differences in national safety
culture could further confound communication problems.
Despite this, FOC vessels may perform better than
nationally flagged vessels on other factors influencing
safety. END QUOTE

Basis below study ( and there are many studies on the issue of flag state performance/safety standards ) I woud posit it is a bit risky to say " Flag state has exactly zero to do how well a company runs their fleet " but I may be wrong of course.

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The key is „how well a company runs“ their ships.

It is the company’s culture and determination to maintain their assets, protect people, the environment and cargo …. While trying to be profitable.

What flag they choose…. Well it depends on what they are trying to achieve.

But well run, well maintained ships and the ability or desire to do so has nothing to do with flag. It all comes from ownership attitude and goals.

(Yes I know flag states impose regulations)

In that study they are not saying the flag state matters. They are saying that newer flag states have multinational crews which can cause communication issues which in turn can effect safety.

The different languages onboard is the so-called mediating variable that may directly effect safety. It’s not the choice of flag state that directly effects safety.

They say “flag state is not the most important factor affecting maritime safety outcomes” .

Do they say " Flag state has exactly zero to do how well a company runs their fleet " . ?

I am not contesting the cliché stated above regarding safety culture , I am saying there are other "authorities " who do not say , that flag has exactly zero to do with how well a company runs their fleet.

Can this be elaborated upon ?

Now let’s suppose that Big Blue is an entity excercising high safety culture or even just culture. Why , they have not reflagged their ships to Comoros , thus saving milions in registry fees .

Rem : You seem to be exceptionally fast reader : 142 pages in 30 minutes . That is impressive.


Here’s the quote in context.

Perhaps if someone was to do an exhaustive study they could tease out some statistical significant finding that it was some number more then zero but there’s no practical reason to be that pedantic about it.

Of six risk factors investigated, communication stands out as a potential safety risk on FOC vessels.

A post was split to a new topic: Off-topic from SMS thread

I agree and that’s a good way to put it.

If an auditor finds an issue it’s much better if that problem has been:

1: Identified by the crew

2: It’s been documented

3: Has some kind of plan to correct it.

If there’s an issue having all three is best but just having #1 and #2 is better than nothing.

I can see that your background involved a lot more than just brown water small vessels, and why you were able to make the transition multi-flag, deep draft auditing and surveying.

#4 Involvement of your shoreside support

You can have all kinds of plans and send in all kinds of requisitions for repair parts or tech assists but if your company is not providing the support you need than what good is #1-#3?

PSC, and I always do it myself also, typically asks for #4 if an issue is languishing and not being addressed. If there is no #4 than a finding of some type is very possible if not likely.

Language differences is certainly a risk factor but I would consider it lower down the list. This is entirely anecdotal however.

We can’t talk about flag without also talking about the RO. The flag may be setting the rules but for most Flags, its an RO doing the audits. I know I am conflating inspections and audits a bit here but there are some non-IACS member class societies that are also registrars for a very non-reputible flag. Look through the USCG detention reports and you will see the same flag/class combination very frequently.

Even a bottom of the barrel flag with almost zero oversight can be overcome by an on the spot operator. But that is in theory, to me the way flag matters most is that a bottom of the barrel flag attracts bottom of the barrel operator. It’s correlation, not causation.

There definitely is a national culture also. It’s less about an overall understanding/commitment to safety than an appreciation for the need of the administrative side. the old adage applies, “if it didn’t happen on paper, it didn’t happen”. My anecdotal rationale is that certain cultures/nationalities grow up with a distrust of government and flag is the government. They don’t want to talk to flag as much as they really should. There is an age issue too. There are old timers who were around before the ISM Code, their mindset is “I got the ship there and it didn’t sink, what else do you want?”

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If someone other than the crew identifies and reports problems or issues not documented there’s going to be an assumption that the root cause is the crew’s failure to identify problems.

That is my experience at least. Obviously steps 1-3 alone are not sufficient. Necessary but not sufficient.


What I was trying to say was that the effective implementation of an SMS requires both the ship and the shore to do their part. The crew needs to identify and report issues and shore needs to provide the resources to correct them. It’s not all on the crew and it’s not all on shore, it’s a team effort.


I remeber that famous case in HK waters but the uk MAIB was asked to investigate.|
2 ships converged one saying your overtaking the other no port stb.
Both Captains asleep
They dragged the crew into court, found out no common language on board ether vessel , helmsmen knew port and stb but couldnt tell you what day of the week it is in English.
Both lookouts watched the accident happen but said they were only told to watch but not to say anything.

They all work at Boeing now on the 737 line.

Having spent 20 years helping my clients with mobile drilling units to keep their guys alive out there, I feel I should contribute to this thread. The trouble is that to do so requires so many words and I have found myself trolling through quite a bit of what I have written over the years. Probably the biggest problem is the failure of both managers and seafarers to recognise that they actually need formal guidance so that, being instructed by legislators to put a safety management system in place, they tick the boxes, but actually just carry on as they did before. When I found myself discussing safety with rig managers who were taking such an attitude I usually asked them “How would this look in court”. We would hope that with a properly constituted system no lives would be lost and therefore no visit to court would take place, but the response might be, “but what if we put our expertise on the line and lives are still lost, we will be seen to be culpable”. This is can be true, so there is a tendency for safety management systems to be so vague that they are no use to anyone. All I can say is that you should embrace your formal guidance and make sure that it works for you, whatever your position in your organisation. If you want to read about how it can go wrong because people have just ticked the boxes, have a look at the investigation into the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I have summarised it here: .


A good SMS brings in standards.

Especially important in places where there is a high turnover of staff and things could easily be forgotten.

It also stops people from changing work practices, if the correct practices are laid out clear in an SMS people can’t change them without proper review.


Naw. They are pipefitters now here in the shipyard …

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2 posts were split to a new topic: Safety Management Systems (Part 2)