We use our own cookies as well as third-party cookies on our websites to enhance your experience, analyze our traffic, and for security and marketing. Please read our Cookies Policy.

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

By Jonathan Stolk

EHS Industry

December 10, 2021

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. 

Marine Safety Management System

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:

Section What to Include
General Information Information on the vessel, the owner or company that owns the ship, and details of its operations. 
Designated Person Details of the person tasked with maintaining the SMS. It should include information on their links with the vessel, the crew and the organisation on land that owns the ship. 
Safety and Environmental Policies Information about how the owner intends to create a safe workplace as well as protecting the marine environment, along with details of the measures taken to achieve these gains. 
Resources and Personnel The number of people in the organization, the qualifications they hold, training they undertake and results of assessments based on that training.  
The Master’s Responsibilities The responsibility of the Master over safety and environmental issues, including implementing those company policies. In addition, the need for clear, appropriate orders, motivating the crew to follow the safety and environmental policies and also reviewing the SMS. It should detail how the company supports the Master in their role. 
Company’s Responsibilities Information about how the company supports the Master and/or the Designated Person to perform their duties. It should also include details of the person responsible for the operation of the ship, if that is not the owner.  
Operational Procedures This contains the safety management elements that take place on the ship and who is responsible for them. This includes inspections, risk reduction, acquiring permits and more. You could detail the safety procedures prior to setting sail as well as those that take place at sea. This section should provide easy-to-digest information that can form part of the training for your crew.  
Emergency Procedures Details on what happens in the event of fire-fighting, man overboard, abandon ship, rescue, discharge of polluting materials, flooding and other events. You should also give information about training and drills to help prepare the crew. 
Reporting How crew members report accidents, incidents, risks and non-conformities. Also include information on how to analyze and correct these situations, as well as how to document them.  
Maintenance How the crew should plan maintenance, schedule it and report it once complete. 
Documentation How you record your documentation and where you store the relevant papers. 
SMS Review Details on how you intend to review the SMS, assess it and update it to keep it relevant and effective. 

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. 

Learn More >>
Maintenance of the Marine SMS


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. 

References and Further Reading