A Safety Management System – Beacon or Burden?

Credit Piet Sinke
Credit Piet Sinke

Published Jun 1, 2019 9:35 PM by Karen van Vliet and Jan-Hendrik Hensen

Whether a company implements a Safety Management System (SMS) due to ISM Code or Subchapter M requirements or to align its own internal processes, the value it will add to the organization will be found in the quality of the set-up of such a system. Will it be an administrative burden? Or a beacon to light the right direction? With careful attention paid to the level and complexity of the organization and with a strong focus on the user, a SMS will serve as a beacon. 

Though standards like the ISM Code are strict on what should be documented, they normally provide limited guidance on aspects to increase the workability of the documented system, like structure, size, and complexity of the SMS. Four pillars that one can use for designing a system are: 
•  User;
•  Structure;
•  Dynamics;
•  Communication.


When designing a SMS, the user should be put in the middle – as he or she is the person that will actually use the system. Start thinking about what information the user actually needs on paper and what can be left to his/her competency. Often multiple tasks need to be conducted at the same time, so the mental load should be considered. 

Also, it is worth considering the format of the information that will be provided to the user. For certain tasks or for sharing best practices within the company, the use of sketches or pictures might be more effective than bringing the message by text.  


To maximize the accessibility and effectiveness of the SMS, it is recommended that the SMS be into different levels and that it is diversified for the different types of vessels in the fleet. Therefore, before commencing the detailed design of the SMS, collaborate with users to ensure that the structure is logical and results in a hierarchy which is clear to everyone involved regarding policies, procedures, work instructions, etc. 


As the company changes, the SMS changes. Therefore, the SMS will basically become a dynamic system. Or, at least, it should. Over time, new items will be added to the system, due to changes in the organization or work environment for example. To continually develop and improve the SMS, various input can be used:
•  Results from risk assessments;
•  Result from audits, inspections, incidents, and near misses;
•  Feedback and suggestions for improvement from the users, clients, and authorities; 
•  Project close-outs and lessons learned.

As essential as developing a SMS, it is also essential to maintain it, and – like pruning a tree – delete parts which are no longer of any use to keep it up-to-date and fit for the intended use, and user. 


The SMS can be seen as a feedback loop in two directions. It is developed and implemented to ensure that all personnel in the organization are aware of the way work is to be done. However, it should also capture experience from the people working with it in order for others to learn. Therefore, it can also be used as the platform for capturing and sharing safety critical information within the company. It is essential to encourage people to come up with suggestions for improvement and to report near misses and incidents. 

Contributing factors in the success of these reporting schemes are the openness regarding reporting, the timely feedback provided to the people on their report and the actual steps (e.g. forms, on-line, apps, etc.) people have to take in the reporting process. When this is balanced, the company is able to become a learning organization.

Tug Use in Port

This and much more is discussed in the new third edition of the book Tug Use in Port. The chapter on ‘balancing safety’ which involves various subjects such as risk management, safety management systems, and the ISM code and Subchapter M, is a contribution from Jan-Hendrik Hensen and Karen van Vliet – both working for Quattor P.

The large-format hardback book is illustrated with a wealth of detailed diagrams, graphics and photographs. The book can be ordered at a price of €45 at The ABR Company Limited.

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