ISM Code - what is it ?

International Safety Management Code

Information about the ISM Code

Authored by: United States Coast Guard, 2001

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General Information and References

The ISM Code was adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) by resolution A.741(18). The objectives of the ISM Code are to ensure safety at sea, prevention of human injury or loss of life, and avoidance of damage to the environment, in particular, to the marine environment, and to property. The Code requires companies to establish safety objectives as described in section 1.2 of the ISM Code. In addition companies must develop, implement and maintain a Safety Management System (SMS) which includes functional requirements as listed in section 1.4 of the ISM Code.

Compliance with the ISM Code became mandatory with the adoption of SOLAS, Chapter IX, "Management for the Safe Operation of Ships." The IMO provided amplifying guidance on implementation of the requirements of SOLAS, Chapter IX, and the ISM Code in resolution A.788(19), "Guidelines on the Implementation of the International Safety management (ISM) Code by Administrations."

In a Final Rule, published on December 24, 1997, the U.S. Coast Guard implemented the requirements of the ISM Code into its regulations. These regulations apply to both foreign and domestic commercial ships operating in U.S. waters. To maintain consistency with existing U.S. shipping regulations, some of the terms used in the Final Rule differ from those used in SOLAS and the ISM Code. The following table provides a list of some of those terms and the equivalent SOLAS term.

U.S. Terms   SOLAS Terms
Vessel transporting more than 12 passengers is equivalent to Passenger Ship
Tanker is equivalent to Oil Tanker, Chemical tanker and Gas Carrier
Bulk Freight Vessel is equivalent to Bulk Carrier
Freight Vessel is equivalent to Cargo Ship


Applicability of the ISM Code

SOLAS, Chapter IX, and the ISM Code applies to ships, regardless of the date of construction, as follows:

  • Passenger ships, including passenger high-speed craft, not later than 1 July 1998
  • Oil tankers, chemical tankers, gas carriers, bulk carriers and cargo high-speed craft of 500 gross tons or more, not later than 1 July 1998
  • Other cargo ships and mobile offshore drilling units (MODUs) of 500 gross tons or more, not later than 1 July 2002

Background to the International Safety Management (ISM) Code

The Code's origins can be traced back to the late 1980s, when concern was growing about poor management standards in the shipping industry. In 1989, IMO adopted Guidelines on management for the safe operation of ships and for pollution prevention "to provide those responsible for the operation of ships with a framework for the proper development, implementation and assessment of safety and pollution prevention management in accordance with good practice."

These guidelines were revised in November 1991 and the ISM Code itself was adopted as a recommendation in 1993. However, after several years of practical experience, it was felt that the Code was so important that it should be mandatory.

It was decided that the best way of achieving this would be through the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS). This was done by means of amendments adopted on 24 May 1994, which added a new Chapter IX to the Convention entitled Management for the safe operation of ships. The Code itself is not actually included in the Convention, but is made mandatory by means of a reference in Chapter IX.


Chapter IX: Management for the Safe Operation of Ships

The main purpose of the new chapter is to make the International Safety Management (ISM) Code mandatory. By adding the ISM Code to SOLAS it is intended to provide an international standard for the safe management of ships and for pollution prevention.

The ISM Code establishes safety management objectives which are:

  • to provide for safe practices in ship operation and a safe working environment;
  • to establish safeguards against all identified risks;
  • to continuously improve safety management skills of personnel, including preparing for emergencies.

The Code requires a safety management system (SMS) to be established by "the Company", which is defined as the shipowner or any person, such as the manager or bareboat charterer, who has assumed responsibility for operating the ship. This system should be designed to ensure compliance with all mandatory regulations and that codes, guidelines and standards recommended by IMO and others are taken into account.

The SMS in turn should include a number of functional requirements:

  • a safety and environmental protection policy; instructions and procedures to ensure safety and environmental protection;
  • defined levels of authority and lines of communication between and amongst shore and shipboard personnel;
  • procedures for reporting accidents, etc.;
  • procedures for responding to emergencies;
  • procedures for internal audits and management review.

The Company is then required to establish and implement a policy for achieving these objectives. This includes providing the necessary resources and shore-based support. Every company is expected "to designate a person or persons ashore having direct access to the highest level of management".

The Code then goes on to outline the responsibility and authority of the master of the ship. It states that the SMS should make it clear that "the master has the overriding authority and the responsibility to make decisions ..." The Code then deals with other seagoing personnel and emphasizes the importance of training.

Companies are required to prepare plans and instructions for key shipboard operations and to make preparations for dealing with any emergencies which might arise. The importance of maintenance is stressed and companies are required to ensure that regular inspections are held and corrective measures taken where necessary.

The procedures required by the Code should be documented and compiled in a Safety Management Manual, a copy of which should be kept on board. Regular checks and audits should be held by the company to ensure that the SMS is being complied with and the system itself should be reviewed periodically to evaluate its efficiency.

After outlining the responsibilities of the company, the Code then stresses that the responsibility for ensuring that the Code is complied with rests with the Government. Companies which comply with the Code should be issued with a document of compliance, a copy of which should be kept on board. Administrations should also issue a Safety Management Certificate to indicate that the company operates in accordance with the SMS and periodic checks should be carried out to verify that the ship's SMS is functioning properly.

The Chapter entered into force under the tacit acceptance procedure on 1 July 1998. It will apply to passenger ships, oil and chemical tankers, bulk carriers, gas carriers and cargo high speed craft of 500 gross tonnage and above not later than that date and to other cargo ships and mobile offshore drilling units of 500 gross tonnage and above not later than 1 July 2002.