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Increased Scrutiny of SMS Implementation by U.S. Coast Guard

When it comes to what constitutes full implementation of a safety management system such as the International Safety Management (ISM) Code, there seems to be a disconnect between what different stakeholders believe to be adequate. Different flag states, recognized organizations, class societies, and port state control authorities enforce the code to their own standards, not to mention each individual auditor’s experience and subjective opinions.  The real disparity becomes painfully clear during times of major accident investigations and litigation, when everything is put under a microscope and the level of implementation that was considered “satisfactory” at the last audit can now constitute alleged negligence.

A company may have an acceptable safety management system and a satisfactory level of implementation, that is, until there is a serious casualty.  Once there is a serious casualty, the implication can be that whatever was being done before the accident was obviously inadequate, regardless of how many enforcement officials and auditors had blessed the program previously.  This is not what the ISM was intended to be, but it is unarguably what it has evolved into.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the U.S. Coast Guard’s report of investigation on the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  The report finds fault with all stakeholders and pulls no punches. 

There must be clear and consistent expectations if ISM is going to be implemented as designed.  It seems the U.S. Coast Guard may now be thinking in a similar fashion. In the Deepwater Horizon report the recommendations include an investigation to see if a change to the current inspection and enforcement methods is required to increase compliance with the ISM code. Increased scrutiny of adherence to policies and procedures may be on the horizon. Vessel operators, including towing vessel operators in the U.S. who will soon be required by regulation to implement a safety management system, should start now making sure that their policies and procedures are actually being followed.

Say what you do, do what you say, and be able to prove it!

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