Are Safety Management Systems Worthwhile?

The implementation of Subchapter M gives new urgency to a frequently asked question.


By Tony Munoz 2016-11-18 00:26:13

Safety Management Systems (SMSs) have been around since the 1990s with the establishment of the ISM Code. As all mariners know, the International Safety Management Code was adopted by the IMO in 1995 and became mandatory in 1998 for companies operating certain types of vessels. The mostly “blue water” SMS requirement was developed in response to numerous ship disasters and has been a mixed success.

Now, almost 20 years later, a Towing Safety Management System (TSMS) is being recommended by the U.S. Coast Guard in its newly released 46 CFR Subchapter M Final Rule for the tugboat and towboat industry, which raises the question: Are Safety Management Systems really worthwhile? And how will they work in a “brown water” environment?

To help find the answer, we turned to one of our feature writers, Dione Lee, President of QSE Solutions in Seattle. Dione has been helping companies in the maritime industry with their Safety Management Systems since the ISM Code went into effect and currently conducts a two-day workshop on the subject at the Maritime Institute of Technology & Graduate Studies in Baltimore as well as at the Pacific Maritime Institute in Seattle. So she is an expert.

Let’s get right to the point. Are Safety Management Systems worthwhile?

Dione: Extremely, but only if implemented correctly. If not done right, they can actually have the opposite effect, creating unintended consequences like a disgruntled workforce and lots of frustration and discontent over the SMS and its requirements.

That’s concerning. How so?

Dione: Back in the 1990s it was all about paper and documentation. There was little emphasis on practical application. Unfortunately, most mariners are not writers. They’re hands-on people. They operate vessels. If some decide to go shoreside as a Port Captain or assume another managerial role, they still, most likely, do not want to sit behind a desk all day and sharpen their writing skills.

So the task of composing the policies and procedures was shipped out, and a cottage industry was born to put in writing the safety expertise of crews and shoreside management. Unfortunately, most outside help at the time – those who could write and were familiar with a management system, primarily ISO 9001 – were already indoctrinated into a very prescriptive format and style. So when given this task they produced a whole series of hard-copy manuals that nobody read or understood.

So they were essentially operating in a vacuum.

Dione: Yes, but with good intent: The person hired to produce the manual felt compelled to ensure nothing was missed and so relied heavily on the wording of the regulations themselves without consulting the mariner on what was needed to ensure best practices. There was little or no connection to the real world of the seafarer. Information was often copied and pasted from the regulations verbatim. The “hazard communication” standard is a good example. We typically find that companies will copy and paste the regulation right out of the CFR instead of taking the training requirements and inserting them into the appropriate place, like a training matrix or ensure the training provider’s curriculum meets the standard.

What was the result?

Most mariners were unhappy, as you can imagine. Here they are doing their job with high autonomy, and the next thing they know management has just delivered them ”the how-to” on what they already know how to do and have been doing safely for years and actually have a license to do. Management, on the other hand, felt like it had just delivered a valuable gift, costing them most likely between $50,000 and $100,000. It expected a “high five” and instead got a very negative response.

Fortunately, lessons have been learned. Companies are realizing that “less is more” when it comes to writing Safety Management System manuals, and they have become a lot more open to hearing and incorporating what their mariners have to say.

Can you give us some examples of success stories?

Dione: There are so many. I am fortunate to work with quite a few companies that have benefitted from implementing a SMS. If I had to give one reason why some companies have successful systems and others do not, it would be this – a commitment to doing better. Successful companies see their SMS as a framework for continual improvement. They set realistic targets based on objective evidence to attain a common goal – zero incidents.

If they have more than zero incidents, they dig deep to understand why and how they can improve. They listen to the people on the vessels, come up with processes to streamline procedures, and then monitor and measure performance to accurately know where they need to apply resources.

This continual improvement system is called the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” cycle, its origins credited to W. Edwards Deming and Walter A. Shewhart. First Plan, incorporating risk and opportunity assessment into the process. Then Do, by implementing the plan. Then Check, to see if the plan is working. And finally, Act for continual improvement.    

Is there a return on investment? Are there benefits to be had?

Dione: Absolutely! There is first of all a cost-savings as a result of fewer incidents. Most companies will start seeing a dramatic difference between the second and third years of a well-functioning SMS. Fewer incidents also result in lower insurance premiums and more business from customers who want to see a functional SMS in place. It’s a big selling point when competing for new business. Other benefits include higher employee retention because an SMS, if implemented correctly, promotes better communication and teamwork. As a colleague of mine likes to say, “One team, one fight.” His team’s fight is to eliminate incidents completely.

Can companies of all sizes – large or small – benefit from a Safety Management System?

Dione: Very much so, which is one of the beauties of an SMS. It provides a framework that is completely adaptable to your own operation, large or small, simple or complex.

If a company is just starting out with an SMS, what’s the first thing you would recommend they do?

Dione: Learn as much about the subject as possible prior to developing and implementing one.

How can they do that?

Well, one way is to attend a seminar on the topic, such as the upcoming SMS workshop at MITAGS in Baltimore in December. I happen to teach that one, so I hope you don’t mind if I put in a little plug for it. Let me give you some background on why this course is different.

Back in 2008, after receiving a lot of feedback from masters and mates about how they felt that SMSs were the bane of their existence, I thought it would be helpful to put together a series of Continual Improvement Workshops so vessel and shoreside personnel could share experiences and learn or relearn what a successful SMS can do to achieve zero incidents. MITAGS-PMI was very supportive of the concept and helped to launch, promote and host these workshops, which have proven to be a huge success.

We take a very practical approach in an environment that encourages critical thinking and robust conversation – all with the goal of “How do you reach zero within a safety management framework?” People walk away with a new perspective. They get new ideas, like how to use existing software to manage documents differently. They feel reenergized. In case some of your readers are interested, there’s a Successful Safety Management System workshop coming up on December 19-20 at MITAGS in Baltimore.

Thanks, Dione. Some of our readers may take you up on that.


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.