The International Safety Management Code for the Safe Operation of Ships and for Pollution Prevention, otherwise known as the ISM Code, was introduced to the maritime industry as an amendment to the SOLAS (Safety of Lives at Sea) Convention in 1994, and specifically to the superyacht industry in 2002. The ISM Code has been viewed as something of a paperwork labyrinth in the eyes of many managers today, so in a bid to provide clarity and efficiency, Adrian McCourt, managing director of Watkins Superyachts, holds regular ISM training days for Watkins Superyachts employees, and on 13 August, 2014, was invited to attend one such workshop in London.

McCourt began with an outline of the history of ISM, the origins of which date back to the late 1980s which saw the loss of the Dona Paz, a ferry which collided with tanker Vector, killing over 4,000 passengers. The same period hosted the Lord Justice Sheen enquiry into the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise and 197 lives at sea due to bow doors being left open, and it was this that lead to Lord Justice Sheen’s description of a “disease of sloppiness” surrounding management, a phrase many believe to be the ethos of the Code and what it aims to remove from the maritime industry.

“ISM was driven by a need for accountability and responsibility. Managers need to be accountable,” explained McCourt. He outlined that management’s dealings with the Code should be based on a “continuous loop of improvement”, which requires both a no-blame culture and ongoing risk assessment. “A lot of people get frightened by risk assessment but it isn’t that hard. People have got smarter and realise it can be dealt with scientifically,” he explained. This should not involve tick-box reports, however – a favourite method for many managers today. “The trouble with checklists,” added McCourt, “is that people focus on the checklist and not on the bigger picture.”

McCourt draws on past maritime accidents to highlight lessons the industry can learn

An interesting facet of the Code is that of the Master’s accountability and responsibility: management must define and document the person responsible for the operation of the ship, other than the owner, who will have overriding authority. “The yacht captain can override the manager if it’s a safety matter. And why shouldn’t he? That’s why he’s there,” postulated McCourt.

A somewhat tangent turn the superyacht industry has taken in the context of ISM is that surrounding the role of the Designated Person Ashore (DPA), something McCourt noted “commercial shipping companies are much more astute about than yachting”. In the commercial industry, the DPA is, in most cases, at the very top of the management chain, however in the confines of this niche industry, “management can be a bit of an irritation”, said McCourt and as a result many DPAs in yachting will be a general manager or a broker – someone in a lesser position to make high-pressure decisions in an emergency.

McCourt outlines the objectives of ISM

McCourt concluded by outlining the process of an ISM audit and the categories of non-conformities: a major non-conformity, which identifies an immediate threat to the safety of personnel or the ship or a serious risk to the environment; a minor non-conformity, which identifies the non-fulfillment of a specified requirement; and an observation – a statement or fact for which action is recommended as part of the “continuous loop of improvement”.

The ISM Code is complex, due in part to the ongoing evolution of SOLAS. Yet dedication by management to understand the intricacies of the code, either through their own research or attending these types of workshops, should be sufficient to improve comprehension and, consequently, a safety culture on board, and provide the knowledge that will enable managers to adhere to McCourt's ISM ethos: “Plan what you do, do what you plan and record it”.

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