Keeping it Simple on Safety Management

As an insurer of fishing vessels, a significant proportion of Sunderland Marine’s claims relate to crew injuries (most commonly due to being struck, falling or becoming entangled) and hull claims that include engine failures, groundings and foundering.

In many cases, an effective system of safety management would have prevented these incidents from happening at all. Indeed, the ILO c.188 Work in Fishing Convention brought recognition that safety management systems are key not only in establishing how to react when things go wrong but to preventing them from going wrong in the first place.

Put simply, safety management is about safe working practices in a safe working environment on a safe vessel. But safety management needs a structure, and this is where the ‘Safety Management System’ (‘SMS’ for short) comes into play.

The SMS provides information on how things are to be done on the vessel: Who does what; how to do it; when to do it; and how to record it.

Safety management systems are a relatively new concept in the fishing industry, despite the extensive and admirable work behind existing initiatives such as the free-to-use ‘Safety Folder’.

At Sunderland Marine we have extensive experience in safety management through our work with merchant vessels. But before we go any further, it’s important to stress that we are not going to say “copy the ISM Code” as used in commercial shipping. What we will say however is: “Don’t make the same mistakes!”.

On merchant vessels, safety management systems have been in place for almost 25 years. In that time, we believe that these systems have become bloated, unwieldy, disorganised, and over-complicated. Instead of being a useful guide for those working on board, the SMS has become something that is sometimes ignored and even disparaged.

Worse still, the SMS can end up being used to pin the blame on the crew when something goes wrong. A manager could say that someone on board messed up because the procedure in the safety management manual wasn’t followed, even though the procedure may have been unworkable or unrealistic in the circumstances,  or so well-hidden that no-one knew where to look for it.

So, if you’re looking to introduce a safety management system for a vessel, or perhaps wanting to improve an existing system, we hope you find the following pointers useful:

  • The system must be workable – keep it concise and relevant. A simple and sensible system is more likely to be understood and followed. Complex or confusing systems will be ignored, followed incorrectly, or worked around.
  • Keep the language simple, clear and methodical – people are less likely to use a checklist or understand a procedure if it’s full of waffle.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Different vessels present different risks. For example, the risks when working on the deck of a pelagic trawler differ from those on a crab catcher or potter. The SMS should be vessel specific.
  • Get the crew involved – they are the people carrying out the work and perhaps best understand the risks. Seek their input when creating and reviewing policies and procedures: this will help ensure the procedures reflect the reality of onboard working.
  • Take time to explain to the crew why a policy or procedure is in place. If they do not appreciate the need or understand the reasons for its inclusion, there is less chance of them following it.
  • The system should encourage proper planning of work – in some cases this may require a formal written risk assessment or simply an informal undocumented ‘toolbox talk’ just before starting the task.
  • The system must not become an excessive administrative burden. The system must not create a ‘tick-box’ culture.
  • Policies and procedures are only effective if the crew know about them and understand them. Make sure the crew read and understand these when joining the vessel for the first time and after any amendments have been made.
  • Think how the policies and procedures can be enforced – what action should be taken if violated?

Find out more

Sunderland Marine has published a briefing on simple safety management for fishing vessels which can be found below or at: