Update Aug 2002 B

Let's take the plunge into genuine risk assessment

Has the industry lost the plot over the ISM Code? Capt Terry Ogg , right, examines the issues involved

Section: Law
Release Date: Wednesday August 28 2002

About 22 years ago, I was serving on a bulk carrier called the Eastern Saga .

We were in Houston, having a satellite navigator fitted by a shore technician. The Old Man asked the technician: "Are these things reliable, I mean, do they break down?"

The technician replied without the slightest trace of irony. "Well Cap", it will only break down when it enters the failure mode." It seems, Houston, we may have a problem after all.

The English language is they say, a living language. New words and phrases become common currency in a remarkably short space of time, while others fall into disuse and obscurity.

Sometimes, newly coined phrases are actually more useful than those they replace because of a gra- phic quality they possess that adds a layer of coded meaning.

These days, friends will often say "don't go there" when the conversation is about to take an unwelcome turn. Someone who has "lost the plot" is, well, certainly not on the same page, if you see what I mean.

Lawyers are of course adept at the coded message, obtaining opacity or imparting meaning at will through the use of handy phrases.
I always give an opponent a mental gold star when the word "voluminous" appears appropriately in correspondence, as in, "our client's ISM documentation is voluminous". Translated, it usually mean", "if you think we are going to photocopy all our client's files you are sorely mistaken".

In contrast, it could be inappropriate usage to query a lawyer's bill on the basis that it is voluminous. But perhaps we shouldn' t go there.
The ISM Code brought its fair share of new words and phrases like "designated person",non-conformity and "corrective action". Most of these, like the straightforward, clear language of the code itself, took little effort to understand.

After all, the code was drafted without the help of lawyers. The concept too, was breathtakingly clear.

Back in 1995 I wrote that the ISM Code represented a simple and wholly uncompromising concept and my views have not altered.
A major underlying principle of the code was to get shipowners to accept that the primary responsibility for safe operation of their vessels lay with them.

The code gave them a one-size-fits-all framework to help discharge that responsibility. But along the way, a significant number of shipowners, and in particular those who probably would have benefited most from its proper implementation, appear to have been convinced that the code represented nothing more than an unwelcome change in the legal regime and have diverted much of their safety management efforts into a backside-covering exercise.

Dire warnings of the consequences of failure to comply by marine industry bodies, commentators and lawyers (including me) may have contributed to the development of this attitude. Those warnings were, and still are, justified but it is unacceptable to the shipping industry at large that fear of the legal consequences should become the dominant force in place of a genuine attempt at the assessment and management of risks in shipboard operations.

Over 10 years since its publication, four years after its mandatory introduction and with the ISM Code now applicable to the operation of most of the worlds shipping tonnage, we still do not really know how well ISM is working.

Safety management systems come in all shapes and sizes, from the sparse to the voluminous, from the clear and lucid (the best I have seen recently was produced by blue chip Japanese managers) to the barely intelligible. The gulf between the best and the worst appears enormous.

Nonetheless, all these systems have been vetted and approved by or on behalf of the flag states concerned.

What ought now to be cause for considerable concern is the way in which common deficiencies, either in the safety management system itself or the manner in which it is operated, are ratified so extensively that they are on the point of becoming "institutionalised".

An absurd point, which is why it is worth mentioning, is the use of checklists.

Checklists form the backbone of most shipowners' safety procedures and records. As records of procedures performed they are required to be reliable and credible. Everyone knows how easy it is to "flog" checklists. Quite often, items of equipment covered by a checklist may not even have been looked at - the course recorder is a very frequent example - but all the check boxes will be ticked.

So far as I know, no sandy beach has been polluted, no seaman injured, because the course recorder has not worked for the last three months. More to the point, it is quite legitimate to find and record that some item of equipment is not working. So why don't most checklists include a "no" column of check boxes as well as a "yes" column? A "no" column might even permit the officer of the watch to believe he is participating in something meaningful, not simply forming a link in the chain of backside-covering paperwork. In fact, why not exclude non-essential items such as "synchronise bridge and engine room clocks" altogether? If you are going to rely on checklists, either approach is better than having the veracity of the entire checklist called into question.

A more worrying issue is the adequacy of the safety management systems themselves. Taking fatigue as an example, could it be that systems that do not incorporate a comprehensive, fully functioning fatigue prevention programme are defective? The conventional response is that if a safety management system is approved and certificated by the flag state, it cannot be defective. Well, as the late Bill Hicks would have said, let me pose four questions: Yes? And? So? What?
My eye was caught by two articles in Lloyd's List in July relating to the thorny issue of fatigue. The first was a warning by Gard P&I Club over the dangers posed by crew fatigue. The second was a profile of a master of a car carrier managed by Barber Shipmanagement.

The master in question was in the far from typical position of being able to discuss fatigue issues with his managers. Top end organisations can usually be expected to tackle difficult issues like fatigue, but what about "ordinary"shipowners?

Beyond a nod to the existing messy legislation, a significant number would not touch fatigue with the end of a mucky stick. In fact, when it comes to fatigue prevention, some safety management systems appear to be as much use as two men short - quite literally in some cases. Fatigue is a very difficult issue.

There are commercial and economical implications for shipowners now, and in the future perhaps, training and onboard operational structure issues for the shipping industry at large. Now that the scramble for ISM certification is over, isn't it time we revisited the clear language of the ISM Code, took a deep breath of its meaning and took the plunge into genuine risk assessment?

Capt Terry Ogg is a senior marine investigator and consultant with Clyde & Co in London. He trained as auditor/lead auditor for ISM/ISO9002 in 1997

Reproduced by kind permission of Lloyd's List