The UK’s port marine safety code



Mark Capon, managing director, Regs4ships Ltd



On 15 February 1996 the ‘Sea Empress’ failed to make it safely into port. She grounded during her approach and subsequently spilt 73,000 tonnes of crude oil near to Britain’s only coastal national park. The system for managing the risks associated with getting the ship safely in and out of the port failed – if the system had worked, the accident would not have happened.

One of the consequences of this disaster was the creation of the Port Marine Safety Code (PMSC). It was first published in 2001 and extensively refreshed and reformatted in October 2009, making it a far more concise and practical document. The code is supported by a ‘Guide to Good Practice on Port Marine Operations’ which, in my view, could be a far more helpful document if more ports were persuaded to put commercial competition aside and contribute to it.

Aiming for swift vessel turnaround, profitable services and, in the case of leisure and cruise ports, an enjoyable visit is good business practice, but ensuring that a ship can get in and out of the port safely is fundamental.

Incidentally, I use the term port to encompass the wide variety of terms used in the UK, including havens, harbours and docks and I use the terms ship and vessel to describe all types of water craft.

Managing marine safety

Managing the safety of marine operations (getting ships in and out of the port safely) in UK ports has improved since 2001 largely, in my view, because of the impact of the PMSC. This code was put together by the Department for Transport and the ports industry. It applies to all ports that are governed by bodies formed in accordance with the requirements of local legislation. It not only appreciates the diversity of ports and harbours but also recognises their special status as harbour authorities.

Harbour authorities are bodies created by statute to serve a public interest to ensure the port is managed, maintained and improved. As these harbour authorities are formed by law they have legal duties and responsibilities and they are granted powers to make their own local laws to assist in regulating conduct within their jurisdiction. Most of the law that forms harbour authorities, and a lot of law made by them, is antiquated and no longer relevant or fit for purpose. However, modernising the law has not found political favour and it is expensive, so the majority of it remains somewhat poor.

Old law aside, it remains that the individuals that are responsible for running ports have to be able to demonstrate that their organisations are ‘open, accountable and fit for purpose’. Those individuals may be board members of a company, councillors and co-opted members that sit on a council committee or commissioners (often volunteers) that govern a trust port – the structure of the governance arrangements make no difference. The PMSC is not law, in that harbour authorities cannot be forced to comply with it and failure to comply is not an offence in itself. But not to comply with it will almost invariably have a serious impact as it establishes the national standard that the police, authorities and lawyers will expect all ports, regardless of size or type, to meet when they come knocking to commence that uncomfortable post incident scrutiny. It is my view, that not to meet the standards in the code is foolhardy as non-compliance opens the door to the boardroom to allegations of both criminal and civil negligence.

It is the door to the boardroom that will swing wide open – the code makes it quite clear that accountability for the safe operation of the port, its waters and approaches rests with the ‘duty holder’, which is how the code describes those who make strategic decisions and control the finances ie. the board, commissioners, committee or council. While harbour authorities have powers to appoint a harbour master, pilots and other professionals, they cannot assign or delegate their accountability, so the buck literally stops with the board.

The safety management system

The central thrust of the code is that marine operational safety is to be managed by way of a formal risk based safety management system (SMS). The core of this system has to demonstrate that all the risks associated with marine operations are identified and managed so that they are ‘as low as reasonably practicable’ (ALARP). This is risk management. Keeping your fingers crossed is not managing risks. Having a shelf full of folders that are rarely, if ever, used is not managing risks. Over reliance on the skill and experience of staff is not managing risks.

What enables ports to manage risks is a coherent SMS, one that identifies the risks and then manages them so that they become reasonable.


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