The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is an international maritime treaty which sets minimum safety standards in the construction, equipment and operation of merchant ships. The convention requires signatory flag states to ensure that ships flagged by them comply with at least these standards.
The current version of SOLAS is the 1974 version, known as SOLAS 1974, which came into force on 25 May 1980. As of November 2018, SOLAS 1974 had 164 contracting states, which flag about 99% of merchant ships around the world in terms of gross tonnage.
SOLAS in its successive forms is generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships.
SOLAS 1974 requires flag states to ensure that ships flagged by them comply with the minimum safety standards in the construction, equipment and operation of merchant ships. The treaty includes articles setting out general obligations, etc, followed by an annexe divided into twelve chapters, two new chapters were added in 2016 and 2017. Of these, chapter five (often called 'SOLAS V') is the only one that applies to all vessels on the sea, including private yachts and small craft on local trips as well as to commercial vessels on international passages. Many countries have turned these international requirements into national laws so that anybody on the sea who is in breach of SOLAS V requirements may find themselves subject to legal proceedings.
Chapter I – General Provisions
Surveying the various types of ships and certifying that they meet the requirements of the convention.
Chapter II-1 – Construction – Subdivision and stability, machinery and electrical installations
The subdivision of passenger ships into watertight compartments so that after damage to its hull, a vessel will remain afloat and stable.
Chapter II-2 – Fire protection, fire detection and fire extinction
Chapter III – Life-saving appliances and arrangements
Life-saving appliances and arrangements, including requirements for life boats, rescue boats and life jackets according to type of ship. The specific technical requirements are given in the International Life-Saving Appliance (LSA) Code.
This chapter requires governments to ensure that all vessels are sufficiently and efficiently manned from a safety point of view. It places requirements on all vessels regarding voyage and passage planning, expecting a careful assessment of any proposed voyages by all who put to sea. Every mariner must take account of all potential dangers to navigation, weather forecasts, tidal predictions, the competence of the crew, and all other relevant factors. It also adds an obligation for all vessels' masters to offer assistance to those in distress and controls the use of lifesaving signals with specific requirements regarding danger and distress messages. It is different from the other chapters, which apply to certain classes of commercial shipping, in that these requirements apply to all vessels and their crews, including yachts and private craft, on all voyages and trips including local ones.
Chapter VI – Carriage of Cargoes
Requirements for the stowage and securing of all types of cargo and cargo containers except liquids and gases in bulk.
Chapter VII – Carriage of dangerous goods
Requires the carriage of all kinds of dangerous goods to be in compliance with the International Bulk Chemical Code (IBC Code), ,The International Code of the Construction and Equipment of Ships Carrying Liquefied Gases in Bulk (IGC Code) and the International Maritime Dan:1974gerous Goods Code (IMDG Code).
Chapter VIII – Nuclear ships
Nuclear powered ships are required, particularly concerning radiation hazards, to conform to the Code of Safety for Nuclear Merchant Ships.
Chapter IX – Management for the Safe Operation of Ships
Makes mandatory the International Code of Safety for High-speed craft (HSC Code).
Chapter XI-1 – Special measures to enhance maritime Safety
Requirements relating to organizations responsible for carrying out surveys and inspections, enhanced surveys, the ship identification number scheme, and operational requirements.
Chapter XI-2 – Special measures to enhance maritime security
Includes the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code). Confirms that the role of the Master in maintaining the security of the ship is not, and cannot be, constrained by the Company, the charterer or any other person. Port facilities must carry out security assessments and develop, implement and review port facility security plans. Controls the delay, detention, restriction, or expulsion of a ship from a port. Requires that ships must have a ship security alert system, as well as detailing other measures and requirements.
Chapter XII – Additional safety measures for bulk carriers
Specific structural requirements for bulk carriers over 150 metres in length.
Chapter XIII - Verification of compliance
Makes mandatory from 1 January 2016 the IMO Member State Audit Scheme.
Chapter XIV - Safety measures for ships operating in polar waters
The chapter makes mandatory, from 1 January 2017, the Introduction and part I-A of the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code).
Origin and early versions
The first version of SOLAS Treaty was passed in 1914 in response to the sinking of the RMS Titanic, which prescribed numbers of lifeboats and other emergency equipment along with safety procedures, including continuous radio watches. The 1914 treaty never entered into force due to the outbreak of the First World War.
Further versions were adopted in 1929 and 1948.
The 1960 Convention was adopted on 17 June 1960 and entered into force on 26 May 1965. It was the fourth SOLAS Convention and was the first major achievement for International Maritime Organization (IMO). It represented a considerable step forward in modernising regulations and keeping up with technical developments in the shipping industry.
In 1974 a completely new Convention was adopted to allow SOLAS to be amended and implemented within a reasonable timescale, instead of the previous procedure to incorporate amendments, which proved to be very slow. Under SOLAS 1960, it could take several years for amendments to come into force since countries had to give notice of acceptance to IMO and there was a minimum threshold of countries and tonnage. Under SOLAS 1974, amendments enter into force via a tacit acceptance procedure – this allows an amendment to enter into force on a specified date, unless objections to an amendment are received from an agreed number of parties.
The 1974 SOLAS came into force on 25 May 1980, 12 months after its ratification by at least 50 countries with at least 50% of gross tonnage. It has been updated and amended on numerous occasions since then and the Convention in force today is sometimes referred to as SOLAS, 1974, as amended.
In 1975 the assembly of the IMO decided that the 1974 convention should in future use SI (metric) units only.
In particular, amendments in 1988 based on amendments of International Radio Regulations in 1987 replaced Morse code with the Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) and came into force beginning 1 February 1992. The issues covered by the treaty are set out in the list of sections (above).
The up-to-date list of amendments to SOLAS is maintained by the IMO. Previous amendments were made in May 2011. In 2015, another later amendment is the SOLAS Container Weight Verification Regulation VI/2. This regulation, implemented by the IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) requires that the full weight of loaded containers must be obtained prior to being onboarded on an ocean vessel. Communicating a weight value has called for the introduction of a new Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) communication protocol called VGM (Verified Gross Mass) or VERMAS (Verification of Mass), and involves cooperation between ocean carriers, Freight Forwarders/NVOCCs, EDI providers as well as exporters. The regulation states that exporters (shippers) are ultimately responsible to obtain a verified container weight. Originally scheduled for implementation on July 1, 2016, the regulation allows for flexibility and practical refinement according to the Maritime Safety Committee Memorandum #1548 to October 1, 2016.