Why is a Safety Management System (SMS) Important?

What is a Safety Management System (SMS)? 

An SMS is an organized system that is a comprehensive plan implemented by marine companies to ensure the safety of the ship, its crew, and the marine environment. Implemented correctly, it helps identify where hazards originate, allowing steps to reduce or remove risk.

A vessel’s SMS reflects the international requirements of the ISM Code.

So, why is this important?

Firstly, all domestic commercial vessels must have a safety management system (SMS) by law (Marine Orders MO504). Your vessel’s SMS should be based on a risk assessment of your operations and drafted via a review of the ISM Code. It should describe how safety, pollution control, maintenance and operations are managed on your vessel.

An SMS will detail correct work methodologies, training, awareness, and best practices while at the same time encouraging the development, maintenance, and continuous improvement of a safety culture within a marine company.

This all sounds very official, but why? Why is this important? Some points are self-explanatory, such as training – educating crews on how to use machinery or safe practices such as – don’t stand in the kill zone.

Others, such as better work practices might not be as clear but are designed to implement better work practices, techniques, procedures, and rules for the crews that follow them.

Due to a large number of pollution incidents and personal injuries/deaths, the ISM Code was brought into force. The entire system is designed to get you home safely to loved ones. To protect you from injury or illness relating to the work you do. For companies, it’s about accountability, making sure crews are supplied with what they require to do their jobs correctly, while at the same time, reducing the risk of environmental pollution.

It’s about instilling best practices within a work culture that everyone benefits from, and while sometimes expanded SMS’s can feel cumbersome, or heavily document/form heavy, efficient feedback and regular testing of an SMS can help mature it into a fluent working document for a team & company.

You don’t have one, or it’s out of date, what next?

Like any document not reviewed at regular intervals, an SMS can lapse into a dated form that does not correlate to the work you do. It’s important to remember that it’s everyone’s responsibility to review and offer feedback on an SMS. Keeping it current is keeping safety at your workplace up to date.

So, what to do if you can’t find one on your vessel, or it’s covered in cobwebs from never being opened? It’s time to redraft the one you have or make one from scratch. As stated earlier, it is the law and not having one available is liable to get someone in trouble during an audit.

What to include in a Safety Management System

For ease of reference, an SMS is derived from the ISM code and usually includes the following sections at a minimum –

Vessel operations

  • Company & Vessel Details
  • Risk Assessment
  • Maintenance schedule


  • Owners, Masters, Designated Person Ashore (DPA), Crew – Details for all & responsibilities
  • Relevant qualifications & training to the operation


  • Procedures for onboard operations
  • Emergency Preparedness
  • Hazardous occurrences & non-conformances (Incident Reporting)


  • Logbook
  • Passenger List
  • Crew List
  • Records

These are the main parts of a basic SMS. However, the plan might vary according to the type of the vessel, its operations or the cargo carried. Each section usually extends into subfolders covering specific areas within the operation/company.

For Australia, our governing body, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) supplies resources to help you develop a safety management system, this includes:

  • Guidelines for a safety management system
  • How to develop a safety management system
  • Templates for a safety management system
  • Risk management in the national system
  • Emergency procedures flipchart
  • Crewing Guidelines

And much more.

Using these guides will assist you in rounding out the above sections, afterwards, it’s time to customize it to your operation and company needs.

I don’t have the time to build this

Building out an entire SMS can be very time-consuming. Most companies have some parts of an SMS in place, but not a fully drafted system in use, in their company.

The first step is for a company to audit their SMS, to identify any holes or discrepancies it may have.

The second step is to fill in these proverbial holes, updating the SMS into a working document for everyday use.

With these two steps also come two issues, Time and maintenance.

Auditing, building & maintaining an SMS relevant to your company is a timely practice, not to mention continuously improving it via auditing. Larger companies will have dedicated personnel or departments to oversee this. Unfortunately, smaller companies usually lack the resources to maintain or enact an SMS.

Outsourcing to a company such as Tiller Technical can alleviate this. Outsourcing your requirements to a professional company, allows you to focus on what you do best, running your own company. Tiller Technical, with its experienced team of former engineers, can review, update and audit a professional SMS for your company, and optionally, maintain it.

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