Safety Culture and ISM. Will paper safety help us? Last updated 08-Sep-2014

The article below represents my opinion as a critical user of ISM code. My legal background taught me that legislation whether good or not has to be obeyed, same could be said about ISM. Shipping industry of today cannot live without ISM and everyone has to live by the rule. But it does not mean that one also has to be silent about all the problems related to application of ISM in daily seafarers’ life. So below is my personal view as an insider, which does not reflect or based on any of my employers’ acts, activities and/or business/safety statements.

I can guess that nowadays the word ‘safety’ is one of most used on board of modern merchant vessels, either verbally or in electronic documents or on paper. There is probably nothing wrong in it. The problem begins when we start using this word without attaching any real meaning to it, as a sacred word from the moder prayer book - ISM. Safety nowadays is a tag, password (to non-existent reality) and a sacred word, which by magic of reluctantly completed checkist makes just a job - the safe job. That is where ISM usually begins and ends - call whatever you do the safe job and if no accident happened all requirements are met.

So that is about ISM, at least in its modern status - of worship of words. I call it 'paper safety' (an non-existent reality), a bureaucratic set of rules, instructions and checklists which on the basis of foolproof presumption, covers every new accident with new checklist and circular, thus providing shipping managers with sufficient evidence against anticipated insurance claims. The simple truth is, that each or almost each accident leads to financial losses and monetary obligations, and most, if not all, of such losses and obligations insured. To get reimbursement from the insurers, the owners have to show that safety system is/was established and fully operational. Therefore the main goal of ISM is systematisation of simple rules to always have sufficient recorded evidence against insurance and third parties claims. That is why we need new checklist for any new disaster: it signifies that system made "lesson to be learned", analysed mistakes and comes out with the new procedure (checklists and manuals) covering latest accident(s).

Then what is the safety culture in comparison with ISM, and why they have not much in common? Safety culture helps individual to find and follow the safe way of performing his duties in an uncountable variety of cases, because no money but his life is on stake, because individual does not care much about an outcome of the dispute between the owners and the insurers in case of his death on board. Individual simply prefers to stay alive. This why safety culture cannot be promoted via ISM, they just have different goals.

Safety culture existed and exists all the time men go to sea as the sum of skills, experience and education. It serves to each seafarer, whether one appreciates it or not, and helps to stay on board and return home in good health. As all natural things, safety culture has its weak points: skills, experience and education are not equally distributed between seamen, just as any other natural trait. But if understood correctly safety culture can be easy developed as skills and experience grow with the time spent at sea.

ISM, in its turn serves to ship managing companies as a set of procedures developed to provide documentation of recorded activities which help to recover their insurance money in case of accidents. It does not develop in same way as safety culture does by evolution from simple to complex, by obtaining new professional and practical skills. ISM like a huge, weak, old sail which getting holed each time in new place and therefore getting patched again and again, with new holes appearing as soon as the old ones patched. It does not care about seaman real skill, education and experience which would help him to survive in emergency, so far as all procedures well documented and there is a proof that all trainings, briefings and instructions being carried out in accordance with safety policy – no matter what fate is waiting for seaman - all risks covered and company’s interests are preserved.

But even if some deficiency will be found inside this ocean of paper records, never fear – there is simple answer to all and any – new procedure to cover previous and so on and so on… Such fool proof system brings us all to the level of fools and thereupon treats us as fools. This why so many young seafarers have natural dislike and incomprehension of ISM as highly formalised and inhuman system.

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