After seven years, Coast Guard releases proposed towing vessel inspection rules

After seven years of discussion, the Coast Guard finally has released its proposed rule that would establish the nation's first mandatory inspections for towing vessels.

The 75-page draft was made public Aug. 11. It would require towing companies to implement safety management systems or undergo annual Coast Guard inspections. It specifies requirements for machinery aboard towing vessels and the use of third-party auditors and surveyors.

Towing operators are glad they finally have the opportunity to review the plan in black and white. The Coast Guard is accepting public comments until December. The new rules will roll out over a period of several years.

"I think it is going to make the industry safer," said John Niehaus, vice president and general manager of Lewis & Clark Marine Inc. in Granite City, Ill. "It's going to make the marginal operators pay attention. It will help the employees to know that there is a set of rules for safety."

The regulations were drafted with input from American Waterways Operators (AWO) and the Towing Safety Advisory Committee, with talks beginning in 2004. In a summary of the proposed rule, the Coast Guard said its goal is to prevent accidents that cause injury and environmental harm.

"The intent … is to promote safer work practices and reduce casualties on towing vessels by requiring that towing vessels adhere to prescribed safety standards and safety management systems or to an alternative, annual Coast Guard inspection regime," the announcement said.

Specifics "include requirements for lifesaving and fire protection, electrical and mechanical items and operational requirements such as crewmember training and drills, navigation and towing safety and record-keeping provisions," the Coast Guard said in a separate statement.

Adm. Brian Salerno, deputy commandant for operations, promises to be "mindful of the burden created by regulations."

The Coast Guard also signaled that it would consider possible regulations to reduce risks from towing vessel crewmembers working too many hours.

The National Mariners Association, which represents low-level mariners, had hoped that crew fatigue would be addressed in the current proposed rule.

"Without making a specific proposal at this time, the Coast Guard also seeks additional data, information and public comment on potential requirements for hours of service or crew endurance management for mariners aboard towing vessels," the Coast Guard's notice said.

For years before the inspections proposal was made public, operators worried that the regulations would be expensive to obey. Small companies felt they might be at a cost disadvantage in setting up a compliance framework.

All the while, towing operators with a commitment to best practices complained that they were losing market share to operators who skimped on safety and could charge customers lower rates.

The Coast Guard didn't always enforce existing regulations consistently from district to district and was sometimes accused of playing favorites, said Niehaus, who considers his company to be "medium-sized" — with about seven boats and 75 crew. He said the new rules should promote consistency.

"What I like about it is everybody is on the same level playing field. That hasn't always been the case," Niehaus said. "They don't want to eliminate the •mom and pop' outfits. It just makes everyone take a look at their equipment, and the Coast Guard gave them plenty of time to do that."

In a statement, AWO President and CEO Thomas Allegretti said the intent is to "raise the bar of safety for the entire industry" with the new regulations.

"This is a complex rule-making and AWO will participate actively in the regulatory process, providing detailed and specific comments to refine the proposed regulations and ensure that they achieve their promise: helping to make the industry safer as it reliably carries the nation's cargo," the AWO's statement said.

The Coast Guard is accepting comments until Dec. 9. The Office of Management and Budget is accepting comments only until Nov. 9.

By Professional Mariner Staff