[Guide] All About Marine Safety Management Systems (SMS)


Working on a ship comes with a number of different risks. From cargo hazards to container fires, there are plenty of opportunities for accidents and incidents when you are out at sea. This is what makes a marine safety management system (SMS) vitally important for lifesaving, efficiency and the environment.

In its 2020 Safety and Shipping Review, financial services provider Allianz highlights that although there were fewer total losses of vessels in 2019 than ever before (41), the number of shipping casualties and incidents rose 5% year-on-year to 2,815. This shows that there have been great steps forwards in terms of industry safety, but there is still work to do.

In this article, we’ll give you an overview of safety management systems, what they should include, the responsibility of crew members and more.

What is a Marine Safety Management System (SMS)?

In the International Safety Management (ISM) code, issued by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a safety management system is described as

“a structured and documented system enabling Company personnel to implement effectively the Company Safety and Environmental protection policy.”

Is the Marine SMS a Legal Requirement?

It is a legal requirement that all commercial vessels must create a document detailing the procedures, policies and practices that crew must follow to ensure the ship travels safely at sea. This SMS should always contain essential information regarding:

  • emergency situations
  • safety culture and reporting
  • lines of communication
  • regulatory details
  • audit procedures.

The creator of the SMS, usually the owner of the vessel or a designated person within the business, may also add any other relevant information they feel should form part of the SMS.

The SMS functions as a way to monitor the hazards that can occur on your ship and to control the risks. That’s why you should review it regularly to keep it up to date.

Each SMS will be slightly different as they are tailored for the type of ship and the kinds of cargo it carries.

What is Included in the Safety Management System (SMS)?

You should tailor each marine safety management system to the specific vessel, based on size, cargo, location, the likelihood of bad weather and other factors. But there are a number of sections that you should include. Here are the essential items you should feature in your marine SMS:

General Information:

  1. Designated Person:
    • Details of the appointed person responsible for maintaining the Safety Management System (SMS), including their affiliations with the vessel, crew, and shore-based organization.
  2. Safety and Environmental Policies:
    • Plans for ensuring workplace safety and environmental protection, including measures implemented to achieve these objectives.
  3. Resources and Personnel:
    • Information on organizational size, qualifications of personnel, training programs, and assessment outcomes.
  4. Master’s Responsibilities:
    • Roles and responsibilities of the Master concerning safety, environmental compliance, policy implementation, crew motivation, SMS oversight, and support from the company.
  5. Company’s Responsibilities:
    • Support provided by the company to the Master and Designated Person, including operational oversight if not directly managed by the owner.
  6. Operational Procedures:
    • Detailed safety management procedures onboard, responsibilities assigned, including inspections, risk mitigation, permit acquisition, pre-departure checks, and procedures during voyage.
  7. Emergency Procedures:
    • Protocols for responding to fire-fighting, man overboard, abandon ship, rescue operations, pollution incidents, flooding, and associated crew training and drills.
  8. Reporting Procedures:
    • Guidelines for crew reporting of accidents, incidents, risks, and non-conformities, and processes for analysis, correction, and documentation.
  9. Maintenance Procedures:
    • Methods for planning, scheduling, and reporting maintenance activities.
  10. Documentation:
    • Procedures for documenting activities and storage of relevant documents.
  11. SMS Review:
    • Process for reviewing, assessing, and updating the SMS to maintain effectiveness and relevance.

Maintenance of the Marine SMS

A marine safety management system is essentially a risk assessment tool for the vessel. As such, it needs to be a flexible document that changes and adjusts to different destinations, types of cargo and other variables.

This means that the operator needs to regularly review and update the SMS. It is up to them how often they perform this task, but it is important for the SMS to cover all the potential risks a vessel could encounter. Some experts suggest reviewing the SMS on an annual basis, as well as if you have to add any new information into the document midway through that year. Because new hazards appear often, and the operator must add these to this dynamic document.

By the way…One way to create your own dynamic SMS is through Capptions. The platform offers you the capability to create custom checklists, forms and workflows to manage your QHSE obligations. You can update it at any time, making it a truly dynamic document that adjusts to you and your business.


What is the ISM code?

The ISM code is also known as the International Safety Management code. It came into action in 1994 as part of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention, to provide a set of regulations to improve safety in the marine industry. In addition, it looks to protect the environment and cut pollution too. A marine SMS is a vital part of ensuring the operations of the vessel stick to the ISM guidelines.

What is the difference between DOC and SMC?

Both DOC and SMC are certificates that you need to run a shipping company. You gain both by having a marine SMS in place and adhering to it.

The DOC is the document of compliance and you need one for each type of ship you run. Your government issues an interim DOC when you launch your company or add a new type of vessel to your business. You gain the full DOC once the authorities audit your performance against your SMS.

An additional requirement is the SMC, or safety management certificate, and you need one for every individual ship. You earn the SMC when your government audits you to check that you are operating in accordance with your SMS and that you meet the ISM code.

What is IMO and how does it work?

The IMO is the International Maritime Organization and it is responsible for the safety of the international shipping industry. And, it also aims to reduce and prevent pollution from ships. The IMO meets every two years and issues policies to meet its aims. It is not in charge of enforcing these policies, though. Individual countries’ governments sign them into law in their jurisdiction as part of their national standards and police them accordingly.


It is essential that your vessel has a thorough and up-to-date marine safety management system. At the very least, the SMS is invaluable for risk management. Without one you find yourself breaching the ISM code as well as your national law and at risk of having action taken against your business for breach of safety obligations.

In addition, failure to properly assess and plan for hazards, emergencies and accidents could lead to injuries and even fatalities in this high-risk industry. So, it is in everyone’s interests to make certain that you are doing everything you can to make your domestic commercial vessel as safe, efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. The SMS plays a key role in achieving this.

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