Background – Safety Management Systems and regulatory changes

Safety Management Systems in Canada

In 1998, Canada put in place the International Safety Management Code for the Safe Operation of Ships and for Pollution Prevention by issuing the Safety Management Regulations. It’s also known as the ISM Code.

The Code’s goal is to make travelling by sea safer by reducing human injury and death. It also protects the environment, especially the marine environment.

The ISM Code is included in Chapter IX of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). This convention applies to vessels on international voyages, which are called SOLAS Convention vessels. 

The current Safety Management Regulations only apply to vessels that are required follow the SOLAS Convention. But this group of vessels is only a small part of the Canadian fleet. Even though they don’t have to, many Canadian operators have voluntarily put in place safety management systems that follow the same rules as SOLAS vessels. 

The new Regulations propose making it mandatory for the Canadian domestic fleet to implement a safety management system. Other countries have made similar changes.

Goals of the proposed regulations

1. Reduce marine accidents for the Canadian domestic fleet. The consequences of these accidents may include: 

  • deaths and injuries
  • marine pollution 
  • costs of repairs
  • vessel downtime

2. Create a safety culture in the marine industry. A safety management system requires that a company:

  • examines the risks related to the way that it operates
  • analyzes the risks
  • develops ways to minimize them
  • puts these procedures in place, including checking that they work and always improving on them

3. Satisfy the recommendations of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), specifically:

  • Extend the use of safety management systems to passenger vessels (M04-01)
  • Expand the use of risk management practices to passenger vessels (M17-02)

4. Help make Canada’s transportation system safe, secure, efficient and environmentally responsible

Tiered structure 

The proposal expands safety management system requirements to Canadian domestic vessels using a system called a “tiered structure”, which means that vessels are put into groups of tiers. The tiers are based on vessel size, type, and the work they do.

The Canadian fleet would be divided into five tiers:

Tier 1 (SOLAS Convention vessels) 

  • The current Safety Management Regulations apply to all SOLAS Convention vessels, and the companies that operate them. There are no changes for Tier 1

Tier 2

  • Domestic vessels 500 gross tonnage (GT) or heavier and the companies that operate them. Gross tonnage is a measure of the vessel’s overall size
  • Any vessels that carry 50 passengers or more 

Tier 3

  • Domestic vessels longer than 24 metres, except for vessels in Tiers 1 or 2

Tier 4

  • Type A: Domestic vessels heavier than 15 gross tonnes, except vessels that are in Tiers 1 to 3, or
  • Type B: Domestic passenger vessels and tugs lighter than 15 gross tonnes, except vessels that are in Tiers 1 to 3

Tier 5

  • Domestic vessels 24 metres or shorter, lighter than 15 gross tonnes, and aren’t in Tier 4, Type B

How the proposed regulations will apply

The proposed Regulations will apply to: 

  • Canadian vessels and the companies that operate them
  • Foreign-owned, SOLAS Convention vessels in Canadian waters

The proposed Regulations won’t apply to: 

  • fishing vessels that are shorter than 24.4 metres and 150 gross tonnes or lighter
  • vessels that don’t have a motor, except those that carry:
    • passengers
    • crew
    • dangerous chemicals in bulk
    • oil in bulk
  • human-powered vessels (like a canoe)
  • vessels that are inflatable and carry persons on trips in Canadian waters for a fee and are required to follow the Special Purpose Vessel Regulations (i.e. White-water rafts) 
  • pleasure craft

Domestic safety management system

Each tier in the domestic fleet will need a safety management system. The safety management system requirements for each tier follow below.

Tiers 1 to 3:

  • Safety and environmental-protection policy
  • Company responsibilities
  • Designated person(s)
    • In the proposed Regulations, Tier 3 will have less requirements for these elements 
  • Master responsibility and authority
  • Resources and personnel
  • Shipboard operations
  • Emergency preparedness
  • Reports and analysis of non-conformities (issues), accidents and hazardous occurrences
  • Maintenance of the ship and equipment
  • Documentation
  • Company verification, review and evaluation*
    • *In the proposed Regulations, Tier 3 will have less requirements for these elements. 

Tiers 4 A & B and Tier 5: 

  • Safety and environmental-protection policy
  • Instructions and procedures to make sure the vessel is operated safely, and the environment is protected according to Canadian regulations
  • Defined levels of authority, and lines of communication between, and among, shore and vessel personnel
  • Procedures for reporting accidents and non-conformities (issues)
  • Procedures to prepare for and respond to emergencies
  • Procedures to internally review the safety management system


In the proposed regulations, Transport Canada applies different levels of oversight based on the type of vessel, their work, and the company that operates them: 

  • Tier 1 to 3 vessels will need internal or external audits and monitoring.
  • Tier 4 vessels will need a regular, internal review of all their safety management system documents.
  • Tier 5 vessels will go through risk-based monitoring

Below is a summary of the rules each tier will have to follow for Canadian Maritime Documents

Tier number

Rules that apply to Canadian Maritime Documents

Tier 1 

  • Company and vessel must have applicable documents that meet the requirements set in the International Safety Management (ISM) code.
  • Document of Compliance will be given to the company
  • Each vessel will get a Safety Management Certificate

Tier 2, 3, 4

  • Company and vessel must have applicable documents
  • Company will need a Domestic Document of Compliance
  • Vessel will need a Domestic Safety Management Certificate

Tier 5

  • Company and vessel must implement a safety management system
  • Transport Canada won’t issue a document of compliance
  • Company or vessel will go through risk-based monitoring