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Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking: Inspection Of Towing Vessels

Well, it’s finally out! Yesterday the U.S. Coast Guard published their long-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the Inspection of Towing Vessels, all 75 pages worth. The public comment period is somewhat better than expected: 4 months long, closing on December 9, 2011.

The sometimes-significant disparities in safety standards between towing vessels engaged in the exact same kind of work as inspected vessels and ships is long-standing and well known. Now, for the first time, it is also being publicly stated: “The Coast Guard notes Congressional interest in harmonizing requirements for oil tankers and vessels towing oil and hazardous materials in bulk.” They go on to say “The proposed rule meets this standard, by, in part, requiring alternative, independent methods of retaining propulsion, steering, and related control similar to those required of self-propelled tank vessels.” The wonders never cease! Now maybe we can finally put to rest the vicious circular reasoning that allowed this two-tiered system to exist for so long: Q. Why is it done this way? A. Because it’s a towing vessel! Q. How can towing vessels get away with this? A. Because they’re uninspected! Q. Why are they uninspected? A. Because they’re towing vessels! The time was already long past to do away with this mentality.

This belated recognition of the need for application of proper and comparable safety standards comes with a lengthy phase-in period: within 5 years of the issuance of a vessel’s first Certificate of Inspection (COI), which itself may take up to 4 years from the date that the Final Rule is published. Given that it will likely take at least a year for the Final Rule to become final, we’re looking at a full decade to completely implement this new system and make the necessary equipment upgrades to comply with it. This is very reasonable and there  should be no serious whining about it.

As expected, a Safety Management System (SMS), in this case to be called a Towing Safety Management System (TSMS), will be the cornerstone of the new inspection regime, and most of the mid-sized and large operators can be expected to go this route in one fashion or another. There are already examples, like this one from Tugboat Compliance Systems, Inc., on the market and we should expect to see more of them popping up like like mushrooms after a rain shower. A safety management system, however, will not be compulsory and may not even be desirable in some instances, especially for very small companies. Electing not to adopt an approved TSMS, an operator would instead “be subject to an alternative, annual Coast Guard inspection regime.”

Just in case anyone had doubts, I’ll spell it out for you: if an operator chooses to take the SMS-path the inspections are to be third-party with some Coast Guard oversight, and I don’t think there was ever any question that this was always how it was going to be. The massive size of the U.S. towing fleet means that the Coast Guard would need an enormous increase in marine safety personnel to do all of the inspections “in-house,” as is the case with other inspected vessels. With the American empire clearly starting to go into visible and unmistakable decline we simply do not and will not have the financial wherewithal to do it that way unless we re-think and change our current priorities, and there’s no sign of that happening at this time.

So third-party it is. We can only hope that the inspections that will result from the proposed system, as well as the oversight, are far better than those which utterly failed to correct the unsafe practices going on at DRD Towing. That systemic failure, wherein the auditing company regarded itself as “friends” with its “customer” (DRD Towing, the subject of the safety audit), directly contributed to and enabled the poor safety culture at DRD, which then led to the occurrence of the Mel Oliver fiasco on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. That accident, which occurred over 3 years ago, was investigated by the Coast Guard. For reasons unknown there has still been no public release of the completed investigation report, despite the fact that a co-owner of DRD Towing has already been sentenced to prison for obstruction of justice and his role in the accident.

Regardless of whether audits or inspections become dominant, the responsible majority of the industry needs to insist upon an honest system with the teeth required for enforcement. Otherwise it will just be a huge waste of time and money, with little or no serious improvements in safety. Furthermore, it will put the better operators at a competitive disadvantage to the corner-cutters, reducing the incentive for doing the right thing. That was clearly not the intent of Congress.

One of the most important areas needing major improvement is the reduction of mariner fatigue, which is to say manning and watch-schedules. The “traditional” 6 hours-on/6 hours-off schedule of the 2-watch system is, by definition, a direct cause of fatigue, but whether the Coast Guard will actually be able to do anything substantive about it if the industry digs in its heels against to maintain the status quo remains to be seen.

In their own words: “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 would later request public comment on specific hours of service or crew endurance management regulatory text if it seeks to implement such requirements.” That’s still a very big “if.”

The industry as a whole could really step up to the plate, face this issue head on for the first time ever, and demand that everyone operate safely and on a level playing field by having adequate manning standards that are effectively enforced industry-wide. These new standards, to do any good, would have to treat humans as, well, humans, not automatons that can operate without quality rest. Whether or not the industry is collectively capable of this bold action also remains a big question mark. Time will tell.

The Coast Guard, however, minces no words in acknowledging the well-documented, dangerous and unhealthy effects of sleep deprivation. From FR page 49992, in the Sleep Loss and Its Consequences section, “Physiologically, at least two processes regulate sleep, one homeostatic and the other cyclic (also known as circadian) with a period of about 24 hours a day. The homeostatic process regulates energy availability and depends on the daily duration of sleep and of wakefulness; the need to sleep increases as wakefulness continues uninterrupted. The circadian process, also referred to as the body clock, regulates the time of the day when sleep is scheduled and also impacts the restoration and availability of cellular energy. In brief, the body clock abhors uncertainty; it prefers stable, daily sleep beginning at the same time(s). These studies show that both of these processes work well with daily sleep periods lasting at least 7 uninterrupted hours, where that sleep occurs at consistent times from day to day. Additionally, significant disruptions of the timing of daily sleep onset, or restriction of the duration of sleep below 7 uninterrupted hours per day, result in significant impacts on human physiology, health and performance.” There is no excuse for failing to act on this.

To comment go to federal docket USCG-2006-24412 (you’ll know you’re in the right place when you see NPRM: Inspection of Towing Vessels under the Document Details heading) and click the Submit a Comment button on the right-hand side. From there, after entering the required information in Section 1., you may type in your comments (up to 2,000 characters) in the box provided in Section 2. Alternatively, you may upload your comments, in the form of either Word (.doc) or Portable Document Format (.pdf) files, in Section 3.

Don’t be in a hurry to comment. Instead, take a deep breath and start reading. Think about what you’ve read, and then think some more, maybe lots more. Highlight stuff and make notes. Talk amongst your peers. When you’re ready, gather your notes and thoughts, then start writing. This is a pretty big deal in the history of this industry and it needs to be done right. To get it right, mariner input (as in working mariners) is essential. Think first, then participate.

You will be able to read any and all of the comments submitted to this docket as they are posted to the Docket Folder Summary. There are already a load of pertinent reports and studies there, so do some browsing on the subjects that interest you. You can even sign up for automatic notification whenever anything is added or modified on the docket. Just click the E-mail Alerts link just below and to the right of the Docket Folder Summary header near the top of the page.


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