Flag authorities miss the boat in gaining ISM upper-hand

Disaster Prevention and Management

ISSN: 0965-3562

Publication date: 1 October 2000



Pickthorne, M. (2000), "Flag authorities miss the boat in gaining ISM upper-hand", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 9 No. 4. https://doi.org/10.1108/dpm.2000.07309dab.003

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Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Flag authorities miss the boat in gaining ISM upper-hand

Flag authorities miss the boat in gaining ISM upper-hand

A new breed of inspector or regulator has been visiting many ships. This is the ISM auditor. This person may be a representative of the flag administration; or as is more likely, the classification society. Very rarely, the auditor may be from a recognised organisation which is not a class society.

One might have thought that flag administrations would have seized upon the code as an opportunity of exerting their authority directly, and thus play a more active role in safety at sea. Unfortunately, this has not been the case and one does not need to look very far to see the reasons why.

With the exception of one or two countries which have delegated the management of their ship registers to a private company, a flag administration is a department of government, and as such it does not react quickly to change.


Thus, almost by default, class now do the majority of auditing for ISM certification. Moreover, in many cases they carry out this function without a high degree of monitoring from the relevant flag state. There is also resistance from some companies to any "interference" by the responsible flag. The arrangements made with their chosen society are obviously much preferred. The actual auditing under Solas Chapter IX will be done by society auditors not involved with this section. However in some cases due to staffing problems etc. the "wall" between the two sides of a society may be a bit thin. Generally speaking, the huge task of implementation of the code has been carried out remarkably well.

But flag administrations in general would appear to have lost the initiative. A company audit for a Document of Compliance (DOC) can be (although not meant to be) a little intimidating. Not unlike undergoing "captain's inspection" as a first tripper. Hence the natural tendency by many companies of only involving people that they know and are comfortable with.

Ideally a flag authority should do a percentage of its ISM work with its own qualified staff, even if it is only about 10 per cent or 20 per cent of its registered fleet. Where this is not done, then a minimum of monitoring should be possible by instructing the recognised organisation to follow up each audit with a report. Ideally the flag administration should be the party to issue the definitive ISM certificates directly.

The first wave of ISM compliant vessels has gone through the eye of the needle, although not without some groans of protest. I see no signs that it will be any more difficult to get all the second wave through when the time comes. The eye of the needle will stretch and the groans will be a little louder, but it will be interesting to see if many will actually fail the test.

Even with the first phase, by January 1998 there was still a large percentage who were nowhere near their ISM accreditation. However, all or nearly all were ISM compliant by the due date. This miracle was worked by a mad scramble at the last minute to photo-copy manuals and type certificates, which were then placed in company offices and on board the ships.

Any company which is really determined not to comply with the code may do so by flag-hopping from one dubious flag to another every year. The rules of the game permit interim documents being issued for up to 12 months validity in the ease of the DOC, and if the administration so permits, for the Safety Management Certificate (SMC) also.

However both the ship-owner and the flag authority must now reckon with another weapon in the regulatory armoury massed against the sub-standard ship.


Methods of checking ISM compliance have been developed and are now incorporated into the surveyors' manuals of the various MOU countries.

Some countries such as the UK and the USA carried out a concentrated inspection campaign for the first three months or so following July 1, 1998. There were warnings of detention action to be taken against any vessel who dared enter their waters without the necessary papers. However in the event there were no wholesale detentions, although there was a steady proportion of vessels found with ISM deficiencies.

A large bulk carrier had changed register only the week before the inspection. A letter had been prepared by the new flag administration for attachment to the Interim SMC giving provisional acceptance of the existing DOC. This unfortunately had not been placed on board the ship at the time of change of registry.

It was not an uncommon logistical error, as the marine regulatory machine is now so complex and paper-driven that it is not difficult to miss out a certificate or document without which the ship cannot be permitted to sail. This resulted in a detention at a subsequent European port.

Another case involved a tanker where a Tokyo MOU member had backed down, after detaining her for being described as an "oil tanker" rather than a "chemical tanker" on her Safety Management Certificate.

The purpose of the ISM Code is to encourage a safety culture which must include correct documentation, but not to the extent of unduly penalising a vessel's owners for such clerical errors.

It is however unfortunately the case that many countries do not employ suitably trained and experienced inspectors for port state control work.

The everyday minor deficiencies of a well-run vessel should not be confused with the chronic condition of a rust-bucket.

It is also sadly the case that many shipmasters do not appear to have the knowledge and experience to stand up to the PSC inspector, particularly to the ones that wear a uniform. The same may be said of many ship-owners.

So, in spite of the failings of the system it would appear that there are positive signs of improvement in the industry, which can only be attributed to the code. Shipping companies are now reporting casualties and accidents which take place within their fleets to the relevant flag authority without prompting. They are also requesting copies of current legislation and demanding to know future policy with regard to impending regulations.

The introduction of the ISM Code has meant at least two big improvements. One is the disclosure of the owning company and the other the return of the marine superintendent in the form of the designated person or safety manager. If it can also mean the reduction of regulatory oversight of shipping because ship-owners come out from behind their brass plates; become more accountable for their vessels; and take a greater interest in their crews, then it will have proved to be a very worthwhile exercise. Better safety at sea, and just as important a better standard of life for the world's sea-farers, must surely follow.

Mick PickthorneLloyd's Casualty Week, Vol. 317, No. 5, July 30, 1999.