Rules and codes designed to ensure safety at sea

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 14 January 2017


Even the best trained crew can only work with what is provided on board and SOLAS has plenty to say in this regard. Not all of the regulation is in the SOLAS text and all operators should be aware of the IMO publications Life-Saving Appliances including LSA Code and the International Fire Safety Systems (FSS) Code. It is in these that the detail of the various regulations can be found but as with all IMO Codes and Conventions they are subject to continual revision.

Depending on ship type there are a number of other codes that cover safety aspects of the cargo being carried. Among these are the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code, the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes Code (IMSBC Code) which replaced the Code of Safe Practice for Solid Bulk Cargoes (BC Code), The International Code for the Construction and Equipment of Ships carrying Dangerous Chemicals in Bulk (IBC Code) covering chemical tankers, and in addition special codes for grain and timber cargoes.

The latest version of the Life-Saving Appliances including LSA Code referred to above is the 2010 edition but there have been a number of amendments since that will need to be incorporated into a new edition at some future date. The book – which is almost as large as the main SOLAS text (which itself has now been consolidated into the latest 2014 version) and runs to almost 300 pages – is in fact a compilation of three separate texts.

First and foremost there is the LSA Code itself which was adopted in 1996 and came into force in 1998. The Code is essentially the detailed mandatory requirements of the equipment needed and referred to in the main SOLAS text. Also included are recommendations for testing of equipment and the Code of Practice for evaluating and approving life-saving appliances. The vast extent of safety regulations contained in the main SOLAS text and in the LSA and other codes precludes a highly detailed account of them here but the codes should be consulted when drawing up safety systems and during system audits.

The provisions of the LSA Code are not restricted to SOLAS ships since they have also been incorporated into the IMO’s Code for the Construction and Equipment of Mobile Offshore Drilling Units – better known as the MODU Code. The MODU Code was first published in 1989 but was agreed some ten years earlier. It was deemed necessary because of the growing number of drilling units then being built. At that time, drilling units were mostly of the rig or jack-up variety and not the drill ships that are becoming common today. Modern drill ships need to comply with both SOLAS and the MODU Codes.

From the point of view of seafarers and ship operators, some of the content in the book related to prototype testing might seem to be superfluous since they should be able to expect that a type approved piece of equipment should be fit for purpose. However, there is an important point that relates to this and that is the identification of any International Standards Organisation or – in the case of electrical equipment International Electrotechnical Council standards – that need to be complied with.

Usually any appropriate ISO standards numbers are to be found printed or attached somehow to pieces of equipment. Comparing the numbers with those in the book will help crews ensure that equipment on board is the most up to date and not an obsolete item supplied in error.

Wrong ISO or IEC numbers can also be an indication that the equipment is not genuine and had been pirated in which case no confidence should be put in its effectiveness.

The Human Element

Skilled seafarers almost always mean safer ships and it is appropriate that within the IMO, both training and the various elements around safety come under the auspices of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) one of the two main committees and a number of its sub-committees.

While a skilled crew will make the best of the equipment and tools they are given, the condition of the ship and its equipment are also major factors in overall maritime safety,
Unfortunately, despite the priority given to training by high level operators, the human factor is often cited as a cause in marine accident investigations.

Sometimes a cavalier attitude to training is evident even though an emphasis is placed on particular aspects by port state control and flag state audits.

As with all matters relating to ships, the first and foremost authority that can regulate and legislate on the competency of seafarers is the flag state. But just as in most maritime affairs, the basic standards have been agreed by most nations to be the remit of the IMO although the organisation does not issue any certificates or overly concern itself with the way in which training and education is delivered beyond formulation of a number of model courses.

Since the restructuring of the IMO sub-committee framework in 2013 most of the regulation of training falls to the Sub-Committee on Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping (HTW).

The IMO’s regulatory role is relatively recent extending back just over three decades and is predominantly contained within The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). In 1977, the IMO (then the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization or IMCO) arranged a conference that was the precursor to the Convention. The intention of the conference was ‘to specify minimum qualifications for training and certification for all grades of officers and crew on board merchant ships with priority for those immediately responsible for the safe navigation and handling of the ship’.

The first text for the convention was adopted in 1978 but did not become effective until 1984. The STCW was therefore a response to moves to establish universal minimum training, certification and watchkeeping standards for masters and officers which up to that point were the sole province of flag states. The lack of common standards prior to the STCW meant that there were wide variations in the training of seafarers and to a point that is still true today.

Compared to the latest version of STCW, the 1978 text was much slimmer and was contained in six chapters covering general provisions, Master and deck department, Engine department, Radio department, Special requirements for tankers and Survival craft proficiency. The six main chapters established basic principles covering keeping watches in the various departments alongside mandatory minimum requirements for certificating officers and crew.

With regard to the requirements for the radio department, as well as the certification requirements, ITU Radio Regulations and safety radio watchkeeping and maintenance provisions were included as these were also contained in SOLAS.

The singling out of tankers in particular was a response to several incidents involving such vessels and to introduce an aspect of pollution prevention. The regulation on tankers was designed to ensure that officers and ratings who had specific duties related to the cargo and cargo equipment of tankers should have completed an appropriate shore-based fire-fighting course; and have completed either an appropriate period of shipboard service or an approved familiarisation course.

Requirements were more stringent for masters and senior officers. The chapter contains three regulations dealing with oil tankers, chemical tankers and liquefied gas tankers, respectively.

The inclusion of requirements for proficiency in survival craft in a separate chapter was in recognition of the importance of such equipment – the lack of lifeboats on the Titanic was a major factor behind the development of SOLAS. The requirements and regulation have been added to over the years and ironically are still the matter of much debate at the IMO and in the industry generally due to the number of accidents involving training with survival craft onboard.

In addition to the regulatory text, more than 20 recommendatory resolutions were also adopted at the 1978 Conference. As usual with IMO conventions and codes, more detail can be found in the resolutions than in the regulations themselves.

A time of change

Training and certification matters were constantly on the agenda just as they are today. In 1991 the Convention was amended by resolution MSC.21(59) to take into account the impending GMDSS regulations entering into force in December 1992 and under which radical changes to ship communications would be introduced and the role of radio officer would disappear on most merchant vessels.

In 1994 amendments contained in resolution MSC.33(63) replaced the chapter on special training for crews on tankers and extended it to cover roro passenger vessels. This was in response to incidents involving passenger ferries such as the Herald of Free Enterprise and Estonia tragedies.

The regulation referred to masters, officers, ratings and other personnel on ro-ro passenger vessels thus bringing cafeteria, entertainment staff and similar personnel under the STCW. Mostly these personnel are called on in emergencies and are tasked with issuing lifejackets, directing passengers and crowd control.

By 1995 several criticisms and suggested changes were adopted in a major revision to the convention adopted at a purposely convened conference. One of the criticisms levelled at the 1978 Convention was that it was not being interpreted consistently and much of the wording was vague. This was a period before the goal-based philosophy was in vogue and when much IMO regulation was prescriptive.

The 1995 amendments entered into force on 1 February 1997. One of the major features of the revision was the division of the technical annex into regulations, divided into Chapters as before, and a new STCW Code, to which many technical regulations were transferred. Part A of the Code is mandatory while Part B is recommended. The introduction of the Code meant that future major changes could be put in place easier by MSC resolutions rather than a special Conference.

The competencies required break down into three categories; management, operational and support. Management level is defined as the level of responsibility associated with serving as master, chief mate, chief engineer officer or second engineer on board a seagoing ship, and ensuring that all functions within the designated area of responsibility are properly performed.

Operational level is the level of responsibility associated with serving as officer in charge of a navigational or engineering watch or as designated duty engineer for periodically unmanned machinery spaces or as radio operator on board a seagoing ship, and maintaining direct control over the performance of all functions within the designated area of responsibility in accordance with proper procedures and under the direction of an individual serving in the management level for that area of responsibility;

The lower support level is defined as the level of responsibility associated with performing assigned tasks, duties or responsibilities on board a seagoing ship under the direction of an individual serving in the operational or management level. The minimum standards of competence required for seagoing personnel are given in detail in a series of tables following each individual regulation.

The tables are arranged over four columns. The first list the various competencies, the second details the knowledge, understanding and proficiencies needed associated with it, the third is the method for demonstrating competence and the final column the criteria for evaluating competence.
The Convention and Code of 1995 extended Chapter VI which was original concerned with survival craft proficiency to cover ‘Emergency, occupational safety, medical care and survival functions’. Two new chapters were added covering alternative certification and watchkeeping.

Alternative certification enables crews to gain training and certification in various departments of seafaring rather than being confined to one branch for their entire career. The new rules on watchkeeping were aimed at preventing fatigue and required flag states to establish and enforce rest periods for watchkeepers and to regulate watch systems so as to ensure the efficiency of personnel is not impaired.

The 1995 Convention Chapter I, regulation I/4 established new procedures allowing port state authorities to intervene in the case of deficiencies deemed to pose a danger to persons, property or the environment. This right is restricted to ensuring crew certificates are in order or if there is an incident such as collision, grounding or pollution.

Flag states were required to ensure that training, certification and other procedures are continuously monitored by means of a quality standards system (regulation I/8) and were required to establish procedures for investigating acts by persons to whom they have issued certificates that endanger safety or the environment. Penalties and other disciplinary measures must be prescribed and enforced where the Convention is not complied with.

The 1995 convention recognised the use of simulators for training and assessment purposes and in particular made their use mandatory for training in the use of radar and automatic radar plotting aids (regulation I/12 and section A-I/12 of the STCW Code).

Another major change was the requirement under Chapter I, regulation I/7 for flag states to provide detailed information to IMO concerning administrative measures taken to ensure compliance. This was a major departure from the earlier text and is one of the few instances where the IMO has a policing role.
The information that flag states must supply covers education and training courses, certification procedures and other factors relevant to implementation.

The information is reviewed by panels of competent persons, nominated by parties to the Convention, who report on their findings via the Secretary-General to the MSC. Those states that are confirmed as meeting the requirements are included on a list of ‘confirmed parties’ more commonly known as the White List. A full list can be found at the IMO website.

For a flag state to remain on the White List its performance must be re-evaluated by the panel of experts every five years. Should it be found that, at the time of the re-evaluation that the country is not giving full and effective compliance to the convention, its name will be removed.

Countries that do not make the white list can still issue certificates to seafarers and these may be recognised by other states, but the omission from the white list can have a very detrimental effect on ships under the flag because the likelihood that they will be targeted by port state control is very high. For individual seafarers from nations not on the white list the opportunity to find work on other flag vessels may be reduced.

The seafarer can apply to the flag state to have his or her certificates endorsed as being recognised and thus permitting employment but if the request is refused then they will have to consider completing the certification requirements of the flag state or else seek other employment.

Even countries on the White List cannot demand automatic acceptance of their seafarers’ certificates by other flag states. Although the right to accept other nation’s certification lies technically with the flag state, in the EU the European Commission, under an EU Directive, is responsible for approving non-EU training systems recognised by EU flag states – this duty has been delegated to the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

The first changes to the 1995 Convention and Code were adopted in 1997 simultaneous with the 1995 amendments coming into effect.

The changes were connected with the additional requirements for ro-ro passenger ships extending them to other passenger vessels. The amendments included an additional Regulation V/3 in Chapter V on Mandatory minimum requirements for the training and qualifications of masters, officers, ratings and other personnel. Related additions to the STCW Code, covered Crowd management training; Familiarisation training; Safety training for personnel providing direct service to passengers in passenger spaces; Passenger safety; and Crisis management and human behaviour training.

In December 1998 amendments that would come into effect in 2003 were adopted. These were aimed at improving minimum standards of competence of crews, in particular relating to cargo securing, loading and unloading on bulk carriers. The amendments concern sections A-II/1 and A-II/2 under “Cargo handling and stowage at the operational and management levels”.

Amendments adopted in 2006 came into effect on 1 January 2008 and concerned two topics. The first was related to the ISPS Code and introduced minimum mandatory training and certification requirements for persons to be designated as ship security officers (SSOs). The amendments to the Convention and to both parts of the STCW Code included requirements for the issue of certificates of proficiency for Ship Security Officers; specifications of minimum standards of proficiency for ship security officers; and guidance regarding training for Ship Security Officers.

The second amendment was to part A of the Code and added additional training requirements for the launching and recovery of fast rescue boats as a consequence of numerous incidents involving injuries incurred during the launching and recovery of fast rescue boats in adverse weather conditions.

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