Skip to main content


The International Safety Management Code (ISM Code) was introduced in 1993 following a series of maritime incidents. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) established the code with the aim of ensuring the safety of ships, preventing marine pollution and protecting the maritime environment. In this article, we will look in more detail at what the ISM code is, who it is aimed at, and what its key objectives are.  


What is the ISM Code?


The ISM Code is a very important set of international guidelines for the maritime industry that were developed to ensure safety in shipping and to protect the environment. All ships that undertake international voyages must adhere to the ISM Code, meaning it applies to a wide range of vessels - from cargo ships to container ships, such as those used for freight forwarding.

The introduction of the ISM Code and its standardised Safety Management Systems (SMS) has made global shipping safer for crews and the environment alike, helping to reduce the number of accidents and incidents at sea.


Who does the ISM code apply to?

The ISM code applies to a number of different groups, entities and individuals with various roles and responsibilities related to the operation and management of ships that undertake international voyages. These include:

  • Shipowners and ship operators
    The ISM code is mainly aimed at this group, given that they are responsible for the areas it covers (i.e. implementing an SMS for each of their vessels to ensure safety at sea, minimise pollution, and protect the marine environment)

  • Management companies
    Ship management companies (i.e. those delivering services such as crewing and operational management) must also abide by the ISM code and implement an SMS for each of the vessels they manage.

  • Shipboard personnel
    All personnel who work onboard a ship (e.g. crew, officers, and maintenance staff) are expected to comply with the ISM Code and follow the safety procedures outlined in the ship’s SMS.

  • Flag States
    The ISM Code says that flag states are responsible for implementing procedures around issuing, verifying and endorsing the Document of Compliance (DOC) and Safety Management Certificate (SMC). Furthermore, it states they must conduct audits and inspections to ensure any ships flying their flag are compliant with the code.

In addition to the above, the following groups are indirectly impacted by the ISM Code and use/refer to it to fulfil their respective duties:

  • Shore-based personnel
    Ship agents, surveyors, classification societies and other service providers (whether individuals or organisations) that deliver ship operations services and/or support, such as freight forwarding services, need to ensure compliance with the SMS of any ships they work with.

  • Port State Control (PSC)
    A country’s authorities have the right to inspect foreign ships entering their ports to ensure they meet all applicable regulations, including the ISM Code.

  • Classification societies
    As the name suggests, classification societies are responsible for classifying and certifying ships. The surveys and inspections they undertake as part of their work includes verifying a ship’s compliance with the ISM Code.

What are the objectives of the ISM Code?


The ISM Code was developed to provide a standard framework for effective safety management systems aboard vessels. At a strategic level, it is designed to encourage a safety culture among maritime personnel, and at a practical level it aims to identify potential risks, establish preventative measures, and continually improve safety practices. The primary objectives of the ISM Code are:

  • Enhancing safety at sea
  • Preventing pollution
  • Fostering a safety culture
  • Standardising safety management
  • Improving competency
  • Enhancing emergency preparedness
  • Promoting continuous improvement
  • Facilitating Flag State control


By focusing on these objectives, the ISM Code contributes to safer and more environmentally responsible shipping practices across the global maritime industry.

What are the 12 elements of the ISM code?

The 12 elements of the ISM Code form a framework for establishing and maintaining Safety Management Systems onboard ships. They are as follows:

1. General
Set out definitions and objectives of the ISM Code and how it should be applied.

2. Safety and environmental protection policy
Develop and implement a safety policy clearly outlining the company’s commitment to safety and pollution prevention. Define roles and responsibilities for safety management.

3. Company responsibility and authority
Allocate responsibility for implementing the Safety Management System and ensure personnel have the required authority to carry out any safety-related duties.

4. Designated person ashore
Appoint a designated person/persons (DPA) responsible for ensuring ISM Code compliance and communicating with the ship’s master and personnel ashore.

5. Master’s responsibility and authority
Clearly outline the master’s responsibilities and authority with regards to implementing the SMS. Provide the master with ultimate authority for all matters relating to a ship’s safety and pollution prevention.

6. Resources and personnel
Provide the resources required to effectively implement and maintain the SMS, including personnel and training.

7. Development of plans for shipboard operations
Implement plans and procedures to ensure safety and environmental protection (e.g. risk assessment, emergency response, maintaining shipboard equipment).

8. Emergency preparedness
Outline plans and procedures for handling emergency situations (e.g. fires, collisions, oil spills) in the SMS. Conduct regular drills and exercises to ensure crew are prepared for such an event.

8. Reports and analysis of non-conformities, accidents and hazardous occurrences
Implement procedures for reporting and investigating incidents, near-misses, accidents and non-conformities in order to, where possible, prevent any recurrences.

10. Maintenance of the ship and equipment
Establish procedures to inspect and maintain all equipment and systems on-board the ship to ensure they are safe and reliable.

11. Documentation
Establish an effective document control system, ensuring that safety-related records/documents are available and up-to-date.

12. Company verification, review and evaluation
Ensure the SMS includes processes for the company to verify, review and evaluate its effectiveness and take corrective action as/when necessary.