COVID-19 and Subchapter M: Will the coronavirus affect the upcoming Towing Vessel compliance date?

The Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2004 has sent uncertainty as well as additional audit and survey demands across the towing industry. Even with a compliance date “phase-in period,” companies are scrambling to meet federal regulations enforced by the U. S. Coast Guard. As a result, companies are concerned as to whether they can actually meet Subchapter M requirements, or if this could spell the end of their businesses. Adding to the stress of meeting the upcoming July 20, 2020, compliance date, let’s introduce a nasty villain, code name, “COVID-19”! So another question is: will there be an extension granted to companies that need to meet this 2020 date, or is it just business as usual?

Companies that haven’t done so, or that are still trying to decide how to meet Subchapter M requirements, have options. These companies need to determine which option works best for their operation while balancing contract demands, flow of commerce, and maintaining a culture of safety. Let’s take a look at the two options available to the towing industry.

Option 1: Towing Safety Management System (TSMS)

Under the TSMS option, routine inspections of towing vessels will primarily be performed by third-party organizations (TPOs), including authorized class societies. The TSMS option will provide those companies with the flexibility to tailor their safety management system to their own needs. To companies with a larger fleet, the TSMS option may work better for their busy schedule. However, these companies must ensure that the TPO chosen meets the requirements of the code of federal regulations (CFR), specifically 46CFR Part 139: Third-Party Organizations. These regulations lay out the architecture of a functioning TPO that include qualified auditors and surveyors, who will need to meet 46CFR 139.130 as follows:

Qualifications of auditors and surveyors.

(a) A prospective auditor or surveyor must have the skills and experience necessary to assess compliance with all requirements of this subchapter.

(b) Auditors must meet the following qualifications:

(1) High school diploma or equivalent.

(2) Four years of working on towing vessels or other relevant marine experience such as Coast Guard marine inspector, licensed mariner, military personnel with relevant maritime experience, or marine surveyor.

(3) Successful completion of an ANSI/ISO/ASQ Q9001-2000 or ISO 9001:2008(E) (incorporated by reference, see §136.112 of this subchapter) lead auditor/assessor course or Coast Guard recognized equivalent.

(4) Successful completion of a training course for the auditing of a TSMS.

(5) Audit experience, as demonstrated by:

(i) Documented experience in auditing the ISM Code or the American Waterways Operators Responsible Carrier Program, consisting of at least two management audits and six vessel audits within the past 5 years; or

(ii) Successful completion of an auditor apprenticeship, consisting of at least one management audit and three vessel audits under the direction of a lead auditor.

(c) Surveyors must meet the following qualifications:

(1) High school diploma or equivalent.

(2) At least one of the following:

(i) Four years of experience working on towing vessels as master, mate (pilot), or engineer; or

(ii) Other relevant marine experience such as Coast Guard marine inspector, military personnel with relevant maritime experience, marine surveyor, accredited marine surveyor, experience on vessels of similar operating and physical characteristics.

Option 2: United States Coast Guard Inspection

The second option available is for required inspections to be carried out by U.S. Coast Guard Marine Inspectors. This option is meant for companies that do not wish to create and maintain a formalized safety management system. Coast Guard personnel attend the vessel at the request of the company to carry out the inspections needed to maintain compliance. Getting on the Coast Guard’s schedule is sometimes challenging because of the high volume of inspections requested by other companies with certificated vessels such as: barges, ferries, fishing vessels (head boats), dinner cruises, party boats, and deep draft vessels.

Helpful Tips

Companies would be wise to ensure they are “ready” for inspection by scheduling third-party surveyors to inspect their vessels prior to Coast Guard attendance. Deficiencies not noticed by in-house personnel can be remedied in a timely and cost-effective manner when found by a third-party surveyor. If a Coast Guard inspector finds the same issues, businesses may be faced with extensive delays or a mandated shutdown of operations. Scheduling a Coast Guard inspection 30 days out is a best-practice to ensure a spot on the schedule while leaving enough time to properly prepare for inspection day. Failure to be ready on inspection day could lead to insufficient time for the inspectors to complete the job and the need to re-schedule at a less convienent time.

Since 1875, Martin & Ottaway has been recognized as one of the United States’ foremost naval architecture and marine engineering consulting firms. With many qualified auditors and surveyors, we are accustomed to providing engineering and surveying services on short notice all over the world. Whether you are looking to prepare for a USCG inspection or are a TPO in need of auditing and surveying services, Martin & Ottaway is ready to answer the call.