The main body of international law concerning ship safety standards is contained in the 1974 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).  The purpose of the Convention was twofold: first, to consolidate existing international rules and standards into a single instrument; and second, to facilitate development of these rules and standards by prescribing a procedure for tacit acceptance of future amendments.

Over the years since 1974 a number of important maritime safety standards have been introduced within the framework of SOLAS. In modern times these have included for example the International Safety Management (ISM) Code and the International Ship and Port Facilities Security (ISPS) Code.

In view of the connection between maritime safety and protection of the environment a summary is given below of the main provisions of the Convention.

Scope of Convention

Chapter I, General Provisions, defines the types of ship to which the Convention applies. It contains regulations on the issue of documents attesting compliance with the Convention, and it provides for the control of ships whilst in the ports of contracting states.

The following are the various aspects of ship safety addressed in the other Chapters of SOLAS.

Construction rules concerned particularly with protection of the environment, such as those requiring segregated ballast tanks and double hulls, are contained in MARPOL.

Fire prevention, detection and extinction

Chapter II–2, Fire Prevention, Fire Detection and Fire Extinction, includes detailed provisions on fire safety for all ships, together with more specific provisions for passenger ships, cargo ships and tankers.

Life saving appliances and arrangements

Chapter III, Life Saving Appliances and Arrangements, sets out the International Life-Saving Appliance (LSA) Code, which establishes the standards with which all life-saving appliances and arrangements must comply.


Chapter IV, Radiocommunications, establishes the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), which provides for ships to carry equipment designed to improve the chance of rescue following an accident at sea.,

Safety of navigation

Chapter V, Safety of Navigation, identifies safety services which should be provided by all contracting states, including meteorological services for ships, ship routeing, ice patrol and search and rescue services.

Carriage of cargoes

Chapter VI, Carriage of Cargoes, covers all types of cargo which, owing to their particular hazards to ships or persons on board, may require special precautions.

Carriage of dangerous goods

Chapter VII, Carriage of Dangerous Goods, includes provisions on the carriage of dangerous liquid chemicals or liquefied gases in bulk, and on the construction of ships to carry these cargoes; it also contains special requirements for the carriage of packaged irradiated nuclear fuel, plutonium and high-level radioactive wastes.

The Chapter requires the carriage of dangerous goods to comply with the relevant provisions of the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code).

Nuclear ships

Chapter VIII, Nuclear Ships, sets out basic requirements for nuclear-powered ships, is largely concerned with potential radiation hazards, and refers to the Code of Safety for Nuclear Merchant Ships.

Ship management

Chapter IX, Management for the Safe Operation of Ships, requires compliance with the International Safety Management (ISM) Code. This requires shipowners, and any person who has assumed responsibility for a ship, to establish a safety management system.

High-speed craft

Chapter X, Safety Measures for High-Speed Craft, makes the HSC Code (International Code of Safety for High-Speed Craft) mandatory for all high-speed craft built on or after 1 January 1996. An amended version of the Code applies to all ships built on or after 1 July 2002.

Enhanced surveys

Chapter XI–1, Special Measures to Enhance Maritime Safety, contains provisions dealing with surveys of ships, ship identification, port state control and authorization of organizations conducting surveys and inspections. Regulation 2 requires the enhanced programme of surveys for tankers under MARPOL to be applied to bulk carriers aged five years or more.

New regulations on mandatory company and registered owner identification number rules are also expected to enter into force on 1 January 2009.

Maritime security

Chapter XI–2, Special Measures to Enhance Maritime Security, was adopted in response to the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. This Chapter introduced the International Ship and Port Facilities Security Code (ISPS Code).

Additional structural requirements for bulk carriers

Chapter XII, Additional Safety Measures for Bulk Carriers, includes various structural requirements for bulk carriers built after 1 July 1999, depending on the density of the cargo.

Amendment procedure

SOLAS provides that amendments can be made either after consideration within the IMO or at a Conference.

Amendments proposed by a contracting government are circulated at least six months before consideration by the Maritime Safety Committee. The MSC may refer discussions to an IMO Sub-Committee. A two-thirds majority of the contracting governments present and voting in the MSC is required to adopt an amendment.