Will “Subchapter M” Revolutionize Tugboat Safety?

August 2, 2016

On June 20, 2016, the United States Coast Guard released its “Final Rule” for the Inspection of Towing Vessels. The regulations, commonly referred to as “Subchapter M,” are the culmination of 12 years of investigation and deliberation regarding the tugboat industry.

The new regulations will affect more than 5,500 the United States flagged towing vessels. Many of these tugs and barges operate on the rivers and coastal areas near Texas and Louisiana. Every year, the domestic maritime industry, governed by the Jones Act, generates over $30 billion in wages and $10 billion in tax revenue.

The idea behind Subchapter M is that the new regulations will improve safety conditions for both vessel crews and the general public. But experts anticipate it will take years for the regulations to be fully implemented.

The maritime injury attorneys at Morrow & Sheppard will cover each aspect of Subchapter M in this and future articles.

Tugboat Safety: Long Overlooked

Safety issues have plagued the maritime towing industry for decades. This has resulted in scores of needless personal injuries and wrongful deaths: from 2002-2013, there were 271 reported fatalities caused by towing accidents and 443 reported injuries. Common safety failures aboard towing vessels include lack of rest, inadequate and dilapidated equipment, and poor crewing practices.

Two specific fatal tugboat collisions precipitated Subchapter M: (1) in September 2001, a tugboat struck the South Padre Island bridge, resulting in the deaths of five people; and (2) on May 26, 2002, a tugboat collided with a bridge over the Arkansas River near Webber Falls, Oklahoma, killing 14 people.

Both events involved injuries and death to members of the general public. Much less publicized, but no less tragic, are the numerous serious injuries and deaths involving the seamen who crew these vessels.   Subchapter M is intended to protect them too.

The New Rules

Generally speaking, Subchapter M covers two broad areas: (1) the standards of seaworthiness for towing vessels; and (2) safety management.

Requiring formalized safety management constitutes, for lack of a better term, a “sea change” for the towing industry. Since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, safety management systems have been standard operating procedure aboard mobile offshore drilling units, but such measures have not been implemented aboard most towing vessels.

Under Subchapter M, tow operators have the option to demonstrate safety management compliance either through annual Coast Guard inspections or through the implementation of an approved Towing Safety Management System (TSMS). The thought is that many smaller companies that do not have resources to generate internal policies and procedures will subject their vessels to Coast Guard inspections, whereas larger companies will implement formal safety management systems.

Subchapter M covers several topics, as follows:

Part Number Description
136 Certification
137 Vessel Compliance
138 Towing Safety Management System
139 Third Party Organizations
140 Operations
141 Lifesaving
142 Fire Protection
143 Machinery and Electrical Systems and Equipment
144 Construction and Arrangement

Section 140—Operations, includes several requirements regarding crew safety, including emergency drills, personnel records, health and safety requirements, and minimum training.

Our Maritime Injury Attorneys Represent Injured Sailors & Crewmen

What does Subchapter M mean for you? If you are a seaman who works on a tugboat or other towing vessel, the federal government has now made it crystal clear that you are entitled to the same protection as sailors on traditional ocean-going vessels. That is a big deal.

Unfortunately, it may take years for towing operators to comply with the new rules.

In the meantime, if you or a loved one is injured onboard a towing vessel, chances are Subchapter M has been violated. You may be entitled to bring a Jones Act personal injury claim, or a claim for vessel unseaworthiness. To know for sure, you should consult with an experienced maritime personal injury attorney.

Morrow & Sheppard has membership in the exclusive Maritime Law Association. Our Jones Act injury lawyers would be privileged to discuss your case, privately, with no strings attached.

Call us now at 800-489-2216 for a free consultation.

Get a Free Case Review by Calling Morrow & Sheppard Now.

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