Safety on board

Although the size of the global merchant fleet is increasing, the number of shipping accidents is steadily decreasing. Strict safety requirements are in force for the construction and operation of sea-going vessels. Travel by sea is also becoming safer and safer.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was first passed after the sinking of the “Titanic” in 1912, and several amended versions have been adopted over the years. In addition to minimum standards for the building, equipping and commissioning of ships, the SOLAS convention also sets the framework for a mandatory safety management system on board via the ISM Code, among other things. Furthermore, maritime security is regulated by the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, an amendment to the SOLAS convention that entered into force in 2004.

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The ISM Code – safety management on board

The International Safety Management (ISM) Code is a chapter of the SOLAS convention that includes an internationally valid set of rules and regulations specifying the measures for organising safe ship operation as part of a binding framework. 

The main goals of the ISM Code are:

  • Ensuring safe operational procedures on board
  • Promoting occupational safety and health
  • Avoiding environmental damage caused by ship operation
  • Preventing damage to ships and their cargos


Any shipping company operating vessels subject to the requirements of the ISM Code must have in place a safety management system that complies with the objectives listed above. 

The compliance and effectiveness of the system are periodically reviewed and certified by (or on behalf of) the respective flag state. These so-called audits are conducted both in shore-based shipping-company operations and on board the vessels. 

The captain is responsible for his or her ship and the individuals on board. On every voyage, the ship’s command checks to make sure that the safety regulations are being complied with and that the safety management system of their shipping company is being implemented. This includes, for example, adhering to maintenance schedules, reporting any problems or technical issues that arise to the shipping company, and planning and regularly conducting emergency drills, such as for evacuation or firefighting. 

Should an emergency occur, the shipping company is required – as part of its obligations under the ISM Code – to provide all resources needed to assist the vessel.

Inspections of the technical equipment on board

Just like a car, every ship must be regularly inspected for defects. Every five years, a state-recognised classification society performs an in-depth check of a wide range of issues, including whether all safety requirements are being met. If this is verified, the ship will be “maintained in class”. A vessel that is not fully seaworthy loses its certification and is not allowed to continue sailing. If this is temporary, it is a “suspension of class”; if permanent, a “withdrawal of class”. Minor deficiencies that do not jeopardise the safe operation of the vessel (so-called “conditions of class”) must be rectified in good time. And, as is the case with a car that has initially failed inspection, there will be a follow-up inspection.

Dual monitoring by flag states and ports

The state whose flag a ship flies (known as the “flag state”) must verify that all the necessary certificates for ship operation have been obtained. This also includes the valid certification of the classification society. German shipowners use high-quality flag states known for strict inspections and stringent requirements.

When a vessel calls at a port, the authorities of the respective port state have the right to board the ship without prior notification and to check to see whether all applicable regulations are being complied with as part of what is called a “port state control”. If they detect any safety-related shortcomings, they are permitted to detain the vessel until all the problems have been rectified.

Moreover, every shipping accident is thoroughly investigated by independent experts from the countries involved. In the event of shipping accidents in Germany or involving ships flying the German flag, Germany’s Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation (BSU) is responsible for conducting these investigations. The results of the investigations will then be reviewed by the 174 member states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Enhanced security measures on passenger ships (since 1 January 2015)

  • Sea rescue drill and detailed safety briefing for all passengers before the ship’s departure
  • Prohibition on accessing the bridge during important manoeuvres, such as when entering or exiting a port or making critical passages
  • Additional life jackets in public spaces and at assembly points
  • Additional exercises with and load tests of lifeboats performed by the crew
  • Improved voyage planning by the captain and coordination with the shipping company
  • Additional exercises on the ship handling simulator for the ship’s command
  • Taking into account the diversity of languages spoken on board when giving instructions in emergencies
  • Regular psychological examination of the ship’s command