How the IMO is uniting the industry for safer shipping

Hiroyuki Yamada of the International Maritime Organization gives Rebecca Gibson an insight into the organisation’s critical role in protecting ships, seafarers and passengers at sea  

How the IMO is uniting the industry for safer shipping

By Rebecca Gibson |

Safety has been at the forefront of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) activities since it was founded in 1948. In 2024, the organisation will mark 50 years since the adoption of the current Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, which established minimum standards for ship operators to prevent disasters and protect lives. The IMO continues to review and update regulations based on new research, data and technologies, as well as geopolitical, economic and other challenges. 

“Operators must never compromise on safety when it comes to protecting passengers and crew,” says Hiro Yamada, director of the IMO’s maritime safety division. “Our World Maritime Theme for 2024 – Navigating the future: safety first – reflects the IMO’s work to enhance maritime safety and security, in tandem with protecting the marine environment, while ensuring the regulatory development process safely anticipates the fast pace of technological change and innovation.”  

One of the IMO’s latest goals is to ensure the safe transition to zero-emission shipping after adopting a revised greenhouse gas emissions strategy in July 2023. The aim is to generate at least five per cent of the energy the global shipping fleet uses by zero or near-zero greenhouse gas emissions technologies, fuels and/or energy sources by 2030, and to achieve zero emissions by or around 2050.  

“We need to thoroughly consider the safety aspects of the proposed measures,” says Yamada, noting that the industry must adapt how it designs and builds ships to decarbonise. “The IMO has already issued safety guidelines for using LNG, methanol, liquefied petroleum gas, and fuel cells, and is currently developing them for ammonia and hydrogen. We have also approved interim guidelines for ships making international voyages to safely use shore power in ports.”  

Crucially, says Yamada, seafarers will need additional training to ensure they can safely use these new fuels and technologies. “The IMO is revising the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, and its related code, to ensure the required standards and competencies keep pace with developments.” 

Improving domestic ferry safety also remains high on the IMO’s agenda. “We did not see any major incidents involving a cruise ship in 2023, but unfortunately there were a number of fatalities on domestic ferries,” says Yamada. “In April 2022, the Maritime Safety Committee adopted the IMO Model Regulations on Domestic Ferry Safety, which cover issues such as certification, manning, safety management, navigation and communications equipment, and life-saving appliances. The IMO is now rolling out workshops to support countries to use and transcribe the regulations into national maritime law.”  

The IMO is also capitalising on new technologies to help member states improve ferry safety education. “A project funded by the Republic of Korea and delivered with technical and in-kind contribution by the Korea Maritime Transportation Safety Authority is supporting beneficiary member states – including Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam – to use virtual reality technology to enhance the knowledge and skills of their personnel,” says Yamada.  

 International Maritime Organization’s Sub-Committee on Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping


IMO’s Sub-Committee on Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping has begun a comprehensive review of the STCW Convention and Code, to ensure seafarer training meets future needs for safety and protection of the environment

According to Yamada, virtual reality is one of the latest in a long line of technologies that are transforming maritime safety and security.  

“We’ve seen many technological advancements that have undoubtedly supported safer shipping, and more are being developed,” he says. “These technologies present new opportunities for the shipping industry, for example by enabling it to simplify and automate processes and increase data and information exchange between ports and ships. However, technologies also introduce new challenges, so we must carefully consider how to use them and integrate them into the regulatory framework.” 

The IMO has mandated the use of multiple technologies over the years, says Yamada. He cites examples such as the Electronic Chart Display and Information System, which automates multiple processes to enhance navigational safety, and the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which uses integrated satellite and terrestrial radiocommunication systems to support ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship distress, urgency and safety communications. IMO members have also agreed on a “key strategic direction” to continue incorporating new technologies into the regulatory framework as they emerge and mature.  

“The IMO will balance the benefits derived from new technologies with concerns about maritime safety and security, cybersecurity, the environment, costs, and the impact on both onboard and onshore personnel,” explains Yamada. “We aim to be neutral and develop IMO instruments and performance standards without preference for one technology over another. We’ll also consider the needs of developing countries and small island developing states.”  

For example, the IMO is discussing how ship operators can safely and securely use automation and artificial intelligence technology. “In IMO discussions about developing a code for autonomous ships, there has been agreement on including the principle that software and AI systems must be trustworthy, safe and secure,” says Yamada. “We will also consider principles for the ethical use of AI from global bodies such as the United Nations, Unesco and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as well as other sources.” 

Keeping up with the rapid pace of innovation can be challenging, particularly because the IMO’s processes to develop and adopt new regulations are constrained by timelines set out in conventions such as SOLAS.  

“There are minimum timelines established in all treaties,” explains Yamada. “A proposed SOLAS amendment must be circulated for six months before it can be adopted, then it will be accepted 12 months later and enter force six months after that. This allows time to consider all views from member states and industry stakeholders, including seafarers and ship operators.  

“However, the IMO has proven itself many times as an organisation that can respond and adapt to new challenges. We can issue voluntary guidelines whenever there is an urgent need – for example when Costa Concordia capsized in 2012. On World Maritime Day in September, I invite the passenger shipping sector to reflect on the progress we’ve made since the current SOLAS treaty was adopted in 1974 and look ahead to a safer future.” 

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe  for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.  

Contact author


Subscribe to the Cruise & Ferry newsletter

  • ©2024 Tudor Rose. All Rights Reserved. Cruise & Ferry is published by Tudor Rose.