By: CN OM LT Manuel J. Moreno Chávez. Ingeniero de Ejecución en RRPP y Experto Senior en Legislación Marítima

Among all the international conventions relating to maritime safety, the most important is undoubtedly the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

Together with the STCW 1978 Training Convention, the MARPOL 1973/78 Convention, and the MLC 2006 Convention, they form a legal structure known as "The 4 Pillars of the International Maritime Industry".
It is also one of the oldest, since its first version was adopted at a Conference held in London on November 1, 1914.

The second SOLAS was adopted in 1929 and entered into force in 1933; the third was adopted in 1948 and entered into force in 1952; the fourth was adopted (under the auspices of IMO) in 1960 and entered into force in 1965; while the current version was adopted in 1974 and entered into force on May 25, 1980. 

As we can see, SOLAS 1974 has been modified on numerous occasions, with the purpose of keeping it permanently updated. The version currently in force is known as "SOLAS Convention, 1974, as amended".

Successive SOLAS conventions have paid attention to various aspects of safety of navigation and safety of life at sea. The 1914 version, for example, included chapters on safety of navigation, construction, radiotelegraphy, life-saving appliances and fire prevention. 

The period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the peak period for passenger transport by sea, as there were no airplanes and emigration from Europe to the Americas and other parts of the world was still taking place on a large scale.

In that context, passenger ships represented a much more common means of locomotion than they do today, and accidents often resulted in great loss of life. During that period, the average annual casualty rate as a result of accidents involving British ships alone was between 700 and 800.

The event that led to the convening of the 1914 International Conference on Safety at Sea (SOLAS) was the sinking of the White Star liner Titanic during its maiden voyage in April 1912. More than 1,500 people perished, including passengers and crew, and the disaster raised so many questions about existing safety standards that the United Kingdom government proposed an international conference to develop new regulations. The Conference was attended by representatives from 13 countries, and this first version of the Convention was adopted on January 20, 1914.

SOLAS introduced international standards on safety of navigation of all merchant ships; the provision of fire-resistant watertight bulkheads; life-saving appliances and fire prevention and extinguishing appliances on passenger ships. Also, the installation of radiotelegraphy equipment on ships carrying more than 50 persons (if the Titanic's distress messages had not been picked up by other ships, the loss of life would probably have been much greater). 
The Conference also agreed to establish an ice monitoring service in the North Atlantic.

The Convention was to enter into force in July 1915, but the outbreak of World War I postponed its commencement. Nevertheless, many of its provisions were voluntarily adopted by various nations.

In 1927, proposals were made for a new Conference, which took place in London in 1929, with representatives from 18 countries. The Conference adopted a new SOLAS Convention that conformed to the 1914 version, but included several new rules, which entered into force in 1933.

By 1948, technical advances rendered the 1929 version of the Convention obsolete and, once again, the United Kingdom hosted an international conference at which the third SOLAS Convention was adopted, which followed the established pattern but covered a wider range of ships and in greater detail.

It introduced important improvements, such as watertight compartmentation on passenger ships; stability standards; maintenance of essential services in case of emergency; structural fire protection, including three alternative methods of compartmentation by means of fire-resistant bulkheads, and trunks to protect main stairways. 

An International Equipment Safety Certificate was introduced for cargo ships of 500 gross tonnage and above, an indication of the growing importance of cargo ships relative to passenger ships, which were already beginning to be affected by competition from aviation.

The regulations on boarding and the rules relating to the safety of navigation were also revised, and the meteorological and ice-monitoring services were updated. A separate chapter dealing with the carriage of grain and dangerous goods, including explosives, was included. Considerable progress had been made in radiocommunications since 1929, a fact that was taken into account in the 1948 Convention.

SOLAS Convention Objective.

The main objective of the SOLAS Convention is to establish minimum standards for the construction, equipment and operation of ships, consistent with their safety. Flag States are responsible for ensuring that ships flying their flag comply with the provisions of the Convention, which requires the issuance of a series of certificates as proof that this has been done.

The monitoring provisions also allow Contracting Governments to inspect ships of other Contracting States if there are reasonable grounds to believe that a given ship, and its equipment, does not substantially comply with the requirements of the Convention, this procedure being known as "port State control".

The current version of the SOLAS Convention contains provisions establishing general obligations, amendment procedures and other provisions, accompanied by an Annex divided into 14 Chapters.

Chapter I - General Provisions. 
This chapter contains rules relating to the survey of various types of ships and the issuance of documents certifying that the ship complies with the requirements of the Convention. This chapter also includes provisions for the supervision of ships in ports of other Contracting Governments.

Chapter II-1 - Construction - Compartmentation and stability, machinery installations and electrical installations. 

The subdivision of passenger ships into watertight compartments is to be so designed that, after the assumed damage to the hull of the ship, the ship remains afloat and in a position of stability. Standards are also laid down for watertight integrity and bilge circuit arrangement for passenger ships, as well as stability requirements for passenger and cargo ships.

The degree of subdivision - measured from the maximum permissible distance between two adjacent bulkheads - varies with the length of the ship and the service for which it is intended. The highest degree is applicable to passenger ships.

The standards for machinery and electrical installations are intended to ensure that essential services for the safety of the ship, passengers and crew are maintained in various emergency situations.

In 2010, the "goal-based standards" for oil tankers and bulk carriers were adopted, stating that new ships must be designed and built for a specific design life, and must be safe and environmentally sound, both in intact and under certain damage conditions, throughout their service life.

These rules stipulate that ships must have adequate strength, integrity and stability to minimize the risk of loss of the ship and pollution to the marine environment due to structural failure, including dismemberment, which may result in flooding or loss of watertight integrity.

Chapter II-2 - Fire prevention, detection and extinguishing.
This chapter contains fire safety provisions applicable to all ships, including specific measures in relation to passenger ships, cargo ships and tankers.

The following principles are established: division of the ship into main and vertical zones by means of insulated structural boundary bulkheads; separation between accommodation spaces and the rest of the ship by means of insulated structural boundary bulkheads; restricted use of combustible materials; detection of any fire in the area in which it originates; containment and extinguishing of any fire in the space in which it originates; protection of means of escape and access to fire fighting positions; prompt availability of fire extinguishing appliances; minimization of the risk of ignition of cargo gases.

Chapter III - Rescue devices and means.
This chapter contains rules relating to life-saving appliances and appliances, including lifeboats, rescue boats and life jackets, depending on the type of ship. The International Life-Saving Appliances Code (IDS Code) establishes specific technical standards for life-saving appliances, which are mandatory in that all life-saving appliances and means shall comply with the applicable requirements of the IDS Code.

Chapter IV - Radiocommunications.
This chapter incorporates the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). All passenger and cargo ships of 300 gross tonnage and above, engaged on international voyages, shall carry equipment designed to improve the chances of rescue following an accident, including satellite-based casualty locator beacons (SCRs) and search and rescue responders (SARs) used for the location of ships or survival craft.

The rules in Chapter IV deal with commitments made by governments for the provision of radiocommunication services, as well as requirements relating to the carriage of radiocommunication equipment on board ships. This chapter is closely linked to the Radio Regulations of the International Telecommunication Union.

Chapter V - Safety of Navigation.
Chapter V indicates certain safety of navigation services to be provided by Contracting Governments, and contains provisions of an operational nature generally applicable to all ships engaged on all classes of voyages.

The subjects dealt with in this chapter include the maintenance of meteorological services for ships; the ice watch service; the organization of traffic; and the provision of search and rescue services.

It also stipulates the obligation of masters to render assistance to those in distress, and the obligation of Contracting Governments to take measures to ensure that, from the standpoint of safety, all ships are adequately and competently manned.

Also, the carriage of voyage data recorders (VDRs) and automatic identification systems (AIS) on board ships is made mandatory.

Chapter VI - Carriage of Cargoes. 
This chapter deals with all types of cargoes (except bulk liquids and gases) "which, because of the particular hazards they involve for ships and persons on board, may require special precautions". Its rules set out requirements for stowage and securing of cargoes and cargo units.

Chapter VII - Transport of Dangerous Goods.
Part A - Carriage of Dangerous Goods in Packages - which contains provisions on classification, packaging, marking, labeling and placarding, documents and stowage of dangerous substances. Contracting Governments are also required to publish instructions in their respective countries, and the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code), developed by the IMO, is made mandatory and is constantly being updated to accommodate new dangerous goods and to supplement or revise existing provisions.

Part A-1 - Carriage of Solid Dangerous Goods in Bulk - sets out document, stowage and segregation requirements for these goods and provides for the reporting of dangerous goods incidents.

Part B - Sets out requirements for the construction and equipment of ships carrying dangerous liquid chemicals in bulk and requires chemical tankers to comply with the International Chemical Tanker Code (IBC Code).

Part C - Establishes requirements for the construction and equipment of ships carrying liquefied gases in bulk and provides that gas carriers shall comply with the International Gas Carrier Code (IGC Code).

Part D - Establishes special rules for the carriage of irradiated nuclear fuel, plutonium and high-level waste in packages on board ships, and also provides that ships carrying such products shall comply with the International Code for the Safe Carriage of Irradiated Nuclear Fuel, Plutonium and High-Level Waste in Packages on Board Ships (INF Code).

Chapter VIII - Nuclear Ships.
This chapter establishes basic standards for nuclear-powered ships and refers, in particular, to radiological hazards. It also refers in its requirements to the detailed and comprehensive Code of Safety for Nuclear Merchant Ships, which was adopted by the IMO Assembly in 1981.

Chapter IX - Management of the operational safety of ships
This chapter makes mandatory the International Safety Management Code (ISM Code), which requires the ship owner or any other person who has assumed responsibility for the ship to establish a safety management system.

Chapter X - Safety measures applied to high-speed craft.
This chapter makes the International Code of Safety for High Speed Craft (HSC Code) mandatory.

Chapter XI-1 - Special Measures to Enhance Maritime Safety 
This chapter clarifies the requirements relating to the authorization of recognized organizations (responsible for carrying out surveys and inspections on behalf of Administrations); enhanced surveys; the system of assigning an IMO number to ships for identification purposes; and port State control over operational requirements.

Chapter XI-2 - Special measures to enhance maritime security.
Regulation XI-2/3 of this chapter enshrines the application of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code). Part A of the ISPS Code is mandatory and Part B provides guidance on how best to comply with the mandatory requirements. 

Regulation XI-2/8 confirms the role of the master in making decisions that, in his professional judgment, are necessary to maintain the safety of the ship. It also provides that the master shall not be compelled by the company, the charterer, or any other person to make decisions in this regard. 

Regulation XI-2/5 provides that all ships shall be fitted with a ship security alert system. Regulation XI-2/6 sets out standards for port facilities, providing, inter alia, that Contracting Governments shall ensure that port facility security assessments are carried out and that port facility security plans are developed, implemented and reviewed in accordance with the provisions of the ISPS Code. 

Finally, this chapter sets out rules on the provision of information to the IMO, the control of ships in port (including control and compliance measures, such as delaying the ship, detention of the ship, restriction of its operations, including, in turn, movements within the port or expulsion of the ship from the port) and the specific responsibilities of companies.

Chapter XII - Safety measures applicable to bulk carriers. 
This chapter establishes structural requirements applicable to bulk carriers of 150 m in length and over.

Chapter XIII - Verification of Compliance. 
This Chapter establishes the obligation to comply with the IMO Member States' Audit Plan, taking into consideration the guidelines developed by the Organization through the International Code for the implementation of IMO instruments (Code III).

Chapter XIV - Safety measures for ships operating in polar waters.
This Chapter establishes special safety rules for the navigation of ships in the polar waters of the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, the detailed requirements of which are stipulated in the recently adopted Polar Code.

The 1974 Convention has been amended several times in order to keep it up to date. The amendments adopted by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) are contained in MSC Resolutions.

The 1974 version includes the tacit acceptance procedure - whereby an amendment will enter into force on a certain date unless, before that date, a certain number of Parties have raised objections.

Appendix - Certificates. 
This section includes all the models of Safety Certificates that ships must have, in direct relation to their size, class, characteristics, type of navigation, etc.

  • Annex 1 - Certificates and Documents to be carried on board ships.
  • Annex 2 - List of Resolutions adopted by SOLAS Conferences. 

Final Comments.
The 1974 SOLAS Convention has the special characteristic of having been promoted, adopted and applied almost 50 years before the approval of the Constitutive Convention that gave life to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an organization that has not only given it its full support, but has also had the task of keeping it updated, in line with scientific advances and new technologies, both in ships and in the maritime environment.

Regardless of the new and important topics that the Convention currently contains, such as "Management of the operational safety of ships", or "Safety measures applied to high-speed craft", or "Safety measures for navigation in polar waters", the SOLAS Convention maintains unchanged its purpose and its primary spirit, which is to ensure the Safety and Protection of Life at Sea.


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