Coast Guard seeks comments on rule requiring PFDs aboard barges

A proposal to require the use of personal flotation devices (PFDs) aboard uninspected commercial barges has generated concern among some marine operators, but a U.S. Coast Guard official calls it a “low impact” provision in line with policies that most companies already have in place.

Before 2010, lifesaving devices were required on uninspected barges and commercial sailing vessels — those not “propelled by machinery” — only if they carried passengers for hire. In 2010, Congress passed legislation requiring lifesaving devices on those vessels even if there are no passengers on board.

In July, the Coast Guard filed a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to align its enforcement with the act. More than 35,000 barges would be affected; there are currently no sailing vessels in operation that would be subject to the provision.

Martin Jackson, staff engineer in the Coast Guard’s Lifesaving and Fire Safety Division, said aligning with the rule change has not been a high priority because of the low number of PFD-related fatalities aboard uninspected barges. A Coast Guard review of casualties from 2000 to 2010 found only one case where someone on a barge fell overboard and died because he was not wearing a PFD. The death occurred despite a company policy requiring use of the devices.

“It’s strictly to bring everything in line with the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010,” Jackson said. “It’s a low-impact requirement because most companies already have a policy that you should wear a PFD or life jacket when you go on board an uninspected barge, especially one that is underway in a tow.”

Brian Vahey, government affairs manager for the American Waterways Operators (AWO), praised the Coast Guard for publicizing the issue and said it seems intent on drafting a regulation that is consistent with best practices in the industry. Despite that, Vahey said there is some concern among AWO members.

“Right now, I would characterize the reaction to the proposed rule as a little bit wary,” he said. “I think it goes without saying that our members are very quick to embrace any new regulation that they believe will improve safety on their vessels. I don’t think that they are necessarily against the rule in principle, but there are a lot of questions about how it is going to be implemented and what sort of flexibility operators are going to have.”

The proposed rule calls for each crewmember on a barge to wear a PFD approved under Title 46, Subchapter Q of the Code of Federal Regulations — “pretty much any inherently buoyant PFD,” Jackson said — with the PFD used in accordance with the conditions on the label. Deferring to standard industry practice, the rule would allow PFDs for barge personnel to be stowed on the towboat.

“If a barge operator … ensures that each individual dons the equipment before boarding the barge and keeps it on for as long as the individual remains on board, they can use the PFDs stored on the towing vessel in lieu of maintaining a set on each barge,” the Coast Guard states in the NPRM. “Presumably, a crewmember coming from a towing vessel would wear the PFD that was originally stored on the towing vessel. … Therefore, we estimate that there is no additional cost to purchase or install new PFDs in response to the proposed rule.”

Vahey said some AWO members question requiring barge personnel to wear PFDs if they are performing a job that does not subject them to falling overboard — for instance, if they are working in the middle of a multiple-barge tow and they aren’t exposed to water on any side, or if they are working in the internal spaces of a barge where a PFD would be cumbersome.

“I think those are the type of questions that (the NPRM) doesn’t entirely answer and that we would like to get more clarity on,” he said.

Vahey said AWO officials will be continuing their dialogue with members about what to include in the group’s response to the proposed rule. The Coast Guard is accepting comments until Oct. 15. To see the NPRM or to comment, go to

By Professional Mariner Staff