The importance of maritime safety cannot be stressed enough. With pirate attacks and terrorism at sea on the rise, ensuring security has become a major concern for shipping companies, especially if ships are plying in international waters. While the industry now has advanced maritime security systems such as ship security reporting systems (SSRS) and ship security alert systems (SSAS), crew members on a marine vessel remain the most critical cog for shipboard safety. Broadly speaking, a Ship Safety Officer (SSO) helps in overseeing every crew member’s duty towards ensuring safety and security on the ship.

What Does a Ship Safety Officer Do?

An SSO is primarily responsible for implementing and maintaining the on-board security plan. They are required to closely collaborate with the port facility security officer (PFCO) and company security officer (CSO) in order to conduct their duties efficiently. International maritime regulations such as the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code) mandate every ship to have a security officer in the crew who will take full responsibility for maintaining the vessel’s security at all times.

As a ship security officer, you will have the following responsibilities:

  • Implement and maintain the ship security plan (SSP).
  • Conduct periodic security inspections to ensure appropriate security measures are in place.
  • Alter the security plan as and when required, or propose to make changes while factoring in various aspects of the vessel.
  • Assist in conducting ship security assessments.
  • Ensure appropriate crew training to uphold high security standards on board.
  • Maintain high standards of vigilance and security awareness.
  • Teach and guide your crew on enhancing security measures.
  • Conducted security incident investigations and reported them to the ship’s master and shipping company.
  • Consult the PFCO and CSO regarding amendments to the security plan.
  • Assist the CSO with their duties.
  • Evaluate security measures with respect to ship storage, engine room operations, cargo management, and hazardous materials handling.
  • Maintain appropriate coordination between port authorities and board personnel for secure shipping operations.
  • Conduct safety audits to ensure proper testing, calibration, maintenance, and operation of ship security equipment. While undertaking safety equipment maintenance is beyond the scope of SSO responsibilities, they need to have an overview to carry out the process as per guidelines.

We will now be deep-diving into some of the critical responsibilities of a ship security officer.

Enforcing Regulatory Compliance

As an SSO, you will be guided at all times by three important documents or frameworks as mentioned below:

  • The shipping company implements statutory regulations and safety procedures.
  • ISM or International Safety Management Code.
  • Code of Safe Working Practices

ISM or International Safety Management Code

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has laid down the ISM Code as the International Management Code for the Safe Operation of Ships and Pollution Prevention. The purpose of this code is to encourage the shipping industry to develop and support a safety culture while making it more compliant with international conventions. There are three basic principles of the ISM Code:

  • Safety of people on board.
  • Safety of cargo being transported and the carrier vessel.
  • Safety of the environment.

This regulatory framework dictates that any entity recognized as the operator will also be responsible for implementing the code. It defines safety management objectives while mandating that every ship has a Safety Management System (SMS). Today, every vessel with a gross tonnage exceeding 500 tonnes is required to comply with this code.

Code of Safe Working Practices

This Code is more region-specific and applies only to seafarers on any UK-registered vessel. A regulatory framework endorsed by several competent authorities in the United Kingdom is considered a best practice for improving onboard health and safety standards. This Code governs every person on a ship and the onshore workers responsible for maintaining safety.

The Ship Security Officer is responsible for ensuring sufficient copies of these safety regulations are on board and accessible to the crew. They are also tasked with ensuring regulatory compliance and proper implementation of the provisions of these Codes so that the ship or the parent company does not come up short during an inspection, which could otherwise result in hefty fines and other legal measures.

Effective Implementation and Maintenance of Safety Management Systems (SMS)

Every shipping company must plan and implement a safety management system (SMS) to meet the safety requirements of the ship and the surrounding marine environment. An important provision of the ISM Code deals with all the important procedures, policies, and security measures to be practiced for safe operations at sea. This is a regulatory requirement, and the SSO is responsible for implementation. 

The SSO helps protect the ship and crew against unwanted security lapses by ensuring appropriate and adequate safety guidelines. Such compliance monitoring also ensures the ship does not disobey authorities during surprise ship inspections.

Comprehensive Risk Assessment and Hazard Management

The ISM Code has made risk assessment mandatory for every expected task on the ship, irrespective of its criticality. Each crew member is required to know how to access, fill in, and check for potential hazards associated with the tasks they perform. This assessment document can be found in the ship safety management system.

Whether a review of an existing assessment or a new one from scratch, the process starts with identifying all the hazards associated with a task. Once the group has agreed upon the potential hazards, it must be recorded in the assessment sheet. There are two important factors to be considered based on which every hazard is assigned a risk score:

  • The likelihood of a hazard leading to an accident.
  • The severity of the accident due to the hazard.

There are four possible likelihood scores—very likely, likely, unlikely, and very unlikely—while the severity can be categorized as extreme harm, moderate harm, and slight harm. The individual scores assigned to these factors of severity and risks are combined to determine the risk associated with every hazard. The risk is assessed against a matrix to establish the level of tolerance and whether the work can be continued.

A low-risk situation is one in which there is slight or no harm associated with an incident. However, if extreme damage or a high probability of harm occurs, it is regarded as a high-risk event.

As an SSO, you will be responsible for conducting thorough ship inspections periodically and engaging the crew in identifying basic issues that, if left unattended, can lead to major security lapses. Here are some of the measures worth considering:

  • Ensure the stairs and ladders are safe and well-lit at all times.
  • Put up appropriate warning notices all around the ship where applicable.
  • Ensure that the pilot board areas and deck eyes are painted white.
  • Appropriate application of anti-skid paint.
  • Clear warning signs are placed in areas lacking sufficient overhead clearance.
  • No moving objects were left unsecured anywhere around the ship.
  • All electrical equipment and motors are suitable for being exposed to harsh conditions.
  • Dirt and grease are cleaned after every job, and any opening large enough for a person to fall through is suitably fenced.

Encouraging Continuous Training and Education

With rapid technological advancements and a changing global industrial scenario, maritime professionals need to keep themselves updated on the latest and most relevant skills and knowledge. Thus, continuing education is important in being effective, informed, and competitive. You can advance your learning by attending workshops, conferences, or short courses. You can also consider apprenticeships and on-the-job training or obtain advanced degrees for career advancements and better opportunities in the employment market.

Through continuous education, you can update yourself on the latest regulatory changes. This is crucial for ensuring your ship follows the industry’s best practices in maritime safety. Those in leadership positions can also benefit from further education by developing their knowledge of the latest communication protocols and digital adoption to improve crew efficiency at sea. An SSO can encourage the crew to pursue continuous learning, creating greater awareness of environmental impacts and how best to mitigate these risks.

Dealing With Emergencies and Handling Crisis Situations

It is important to be calm and confident when handling emergency situations, and this can be achieved when you are aware of the various critical situations that may arise while on the ship. Your knowledge of handling such situations will give you better emergency preparedness and could make all the difference in taking appropriate measures that save the environment, valuable property, and several human lives. Here are some to-dos

  • General alarm: Put on an immersion suit and life jacket and rush to the muster station. The safety officer will explain the emergency condition further.
  • Fire alarm: Inform the on-duty officer and check whether it is genuine or false. In case of a genuine fire, raise the general alarm immediately and try to prevent the fire from spreading.
  • Man overboard signal: Once on deck, try to locate the fallen person in the water and throw down a lifebuoy.
  • Abandon ship signal: Head to the muster station as soon as possible with sufficient warm clothing, water, and food rations. Avoid carrying too much, as that could hinder your safety plans.
  • Engine room flooding: If the engine room floods, raise a general alarm and call the chief engineer. Measures should also be taken to prevent more seawater from entering the engine room.
  • Cargo hold flooding: If the cargo hold floods, inform the ship’s master and take measures to contain the flooding. This raises a general alarm about the situation.
  • Pollution: Every ship comes equipped with a shipboard oil pollution prevention plan. In the event of an oil spill or related population, this document will be your best guide in managing the situation.

When handling emergency situations, the SSO has one of the most important roles. As the person tasked with shipboard safety, everyone will value your input, so you must be aware of what is happening around you at all times. One way to ensure the crew is well-trained in handling such unforeseen circumstances is to conduct occasional mock safety drills and give clear, concise instructions for everyone to follow.

Maintaining a Comprehensive Paper Trail

Everything that happens on board the ship must be clearly documented to protect the shipping company against future illegal lawsuits or any dispute around compliance monitoring. Maintaining comprehensive and accurate records of all incidents, inspections, safety drills, and the necessary corrective actions to address the shortcomings helps the owners better understand the vessel’s functioning at sea. These records can also be used for a root cause analysis behind any hazardous situation or fatal incident. 

As the person in charge of ship security, the SSO needs to be well acquainted with effective documentation practices and software to ensure that everything around the ship is properly documented. This will go a long way in demonstrating their compliance standards and act as a guide for implementing various security best practices on board.

Final Words

SSO duties often change, and they may be asked to take on additional responsibilities based on certain factors such as vessel type and prevalent situations. The main duties, though, align with what has been stated above. Greater emphasis on developing a safety culture on board ships has led to new job openings and career opportunities, with companies offering exclusive crew training and compliance monitoring services for improved vessel and port security standards. 

For starters, effective digitization and technology adoption where suitable, an alert and trained crew, and a competent ship security officer on board to prepare a comprehensive security plan goes a long way in keeping your crew and vessel out of unwanted troubled waters.