Article "ripped" from Gard's Magazine


The ISM Code – Paradise  Lost ?

 By Tore Forsmo, Managing Director of CFOR.


        The author is currently working in marine insurance as managing director of CEFOR. At one time in his career, and over a five year span, he lived and breathed the ISM Code through active participation in the work of the IMO and chaired the work on Assembly Resolution A.788 (19) “Guidelines on implementation of the ISM Code by Administrations” The author wishes to thank Mr Ragnar Knudsen, a dear friend and a good colleague, for what he has taught him about safety management and life in general.

      Over the past ten years the ISM Code has been a welcome subject in countless newspaper columns and an easy-reaching relief for desperate journalists with fast -approaching deadlines. This year we see the end of the formal race for certification in global shipping. Now, more than ever before, it is time to move on and beyond certification and start focusing again on ISM Code implementation and its goal and objectives. If we fail to do this, we might very well se a “ paradise lost” in paper and bureaucracy.



        The tragic shipping losses in the latter part of the 1980s accentuated the need for a more systematic approach to safety in ten marine industry. It was felt that the legislative regime provided by the IMO and flag states was in most cases satisfactory addressing technical issues. The problem, however, was on the implementation side. Those who actually had to comply with the fast-growing magnitude of rules and regulations and moving further, developing a maritime safety consciousness was needed. Terms such as “compliance culture” and “evasion culture” were introduced as opposites to the ultimate panacea “safety culture” The airline industry was being used as a model for this level of thinking. Most people failed to see that “compliance culture” and “safety culture” were no contradictory terms but merely two complementary features of an industry approach to safety. The airline industry has its historical and culture basis in the military. It has traditionally been operating in a safety culture and yet it is highly compliance-focused with command chain orientation, specific instructions, detailed procedures and with checks and counter-checks on all levels.

        A number of isolated initiatives and legislation preceded the ISM Code, both on national and international levels and in the private as well as the public spheres. Finally, in 1993, the IMO adopted Assembly Resolution A.741 (18), making the ISM Code a reality. It is important to note that during its inception the Code was never meant to be a mandatory requirement, but merely a guideline for industry best practice. The lack of initial public attention was not satisfactory to maritime administrations and by amending SOLAS, two years later the Code was a mandatory requirement, effective from 1998 and 2002 for international shipping. Through mandatory application of the Code, flag states emphasised the need for a systematic approach to compliance with statutory requirements and provided the means for verification and enforcement.



        According to many, the purpose of the Code is to establish a “safety culture” in shipping. The code itself, however, does not mention it at all, and “safety culture” is a vague, unspecific term, which create more confusion than clarity.

        The fundamental prerequisite for being in a position to fulfil the aims of the Code is management commitment and dedication. Any organisation without top management actively involving itself in the process and giving it the necessary internal focus, resources and follow-up is doomed to fail in the end. Top management will need not to pay lip service to safety management but actually “walk the talk”. Organisational commitment, competence, attitude and motivation are simply not going to happen without active top management involvement

        The safety management objectives are to identify risks and establish safeguards, providing safe practice and safe working environment and finally to continuously improve safety management skills. This last item is probably the very essence of the ISM Code. The further highlighted in the text of the code by so-called “dynamic elements”, i.e. , masters review, management review, internal audits and reporting and analysing non-conformities, accidents and hazardous occurrences.

        The aim of the safety management system is to establish a systematic approach to compliance with mandatory rules and regulations and in doing so also taking into account other relevant industry guidelines and standards. The requirements for such a system and the systematic approach to managing safety are laid down in the Code itself.

        The overall objectives of the Code is related to safety at sea, prevention of human injury/loss of life and avoidance of damage to the ( marine ) environment and to property. These are broad and universal objectives.  



        Looking at it from the outside, the process of ISM Code understanding and implementation seems to have been substituted with that of ISM Code certification and compliance. The idea behind making the code “open in means” but “ tight in objectives” is that no two shipping companies are the same and that individual operators know best how to go about running their business, including systems for management of safety. This is at the same time both the strength and the weakness of the Code.

        The strength is in its flexibility to be adopted by the conscientious operator in a manner that secures the objective being reached and not seriously tampering with already established and proven “best practices”.

        The threat lies in that operators caught “off guard” by the Code may very well end up the victims of “well-meaning” consultants and auditors. In order to succeed, ISM Code implementation must be industry-driven, with ship owners and management companies in the driver’s seat. If not, what was one time a fear may easily become reality : a consultant and auditor regime deciding and telling shipping companies how to run their businesses.

        It should be made clear that ISM Code initial certification is only to be seen as a ‘first level’ threshold in an on-going process. It is not a graduation examination but an entry or admission test. If you pass you are allowed to continue to a higher level of systematic learning. ISM Code implementation is about learning and establishing a learning environment. this is a never-ending process, always with room for improving performance. In other words, you are never finished with implementing the Code.

        From a safety perspective, there is no need for concern about the July 2002 Cod certification deadline. As previously mentioned, initial certification should be seen as a starting point, an admission, and not as an end objective. Focus should and must always be on implementation, not on certification.  



        A safety management system without any certification or audit remarks, both internal and external, is not a credible system. It is like claiming to have reached a level of perfection where there is no room for improvement or organisational and behavioural change. In an ever-changing world and in the spirit of safety management, this is a situation where there is good reason for serious concern. Chances are that such a safety management system is merely a static and bureaucratic exercise without any real impact of safety enhancement.



        The desired situation is in fact where implementation of the ISM Code uncovers bad and unsafe practices, errors and even sloppy attitudes. The idea is to allow for making mistakes and errors as long as these are uncovered, dealt with and learned from. These are not bad news, they are in fact good news and are what auditors and inspectors should be encouraging, not punishing.



        It is envisaged that implementation of the ISM Code is a three to seven-year process. Creating a dynamic environment for continuous learning is the ultimate aim of the implementation. it should be universally accepted to make mistakes as long as these create improved awareness and performance. The target is a situation where uncovering mistakes and errors is no longer regarded as negative and subject to extensive press coverage through “naming and shaming”. Instead, the safety management paradise is where the maritime industry, administrations and media will be more concerned with learning and non-learning organisations rather than single mistakes, non-conformities and performance errors.

        But this is an extremely ambitious objective with a slim chance of success. Yet, it is probably the only way forward if we are to see the ISM Code really changing the safety performance in shipping. The responsibility lies on all stakeholders in maritime safety to restrain from short-term penal actions and initiatives and encourage and reward long term systematic efforts.  The ISM Code is a much too valuable concept to be lost in paper and bureaucracy. It still is a unique opportunity for institutional change in the management of safety in modern, international shipping. The responsibility for its success lies on all of us.


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