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Coast Guard survey: U.S. towing industry sees its fewest annual fatalities on the water

Nov 30, 2015 02:54 PM
A 150-foot section of a bridge at Biloxi, Miss., collapsed after barges went off course in 2009. U.S. Coast Guard analysts are paying keen attention to casualty statistics for incidents in which tows strike fixed objects.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

A 150-foot section of a bridge at Biloxi, Miss., collapsed after barges went off course in 2009. U.S. Coast Guard analysts are paying keen attention to casualty statistics for incidents in which tows strike fixed objects.

U.S. Coast Guard safety statistics for the towing industry show a dramatic decrease in the number of crew deaths over a 20-year period.

In 1997, 29 crewmembers died as a result of towing vessel operations. In 2014, only four crewmembers were killed, the lowest number on record. The statistics are part of a report released in August by the National Quality Steering Committee.

The steering committee is a collaboration between the Coast Guard and American Waterways Operators (AWO) to address crew fatalities, gallons of oil spilled, number of casualties and severity of crew injuries. The committee meets twice a year; the statistics are generated annually. Representatives from the Coast Guard and AWO held the first meeting of this committee in November 1995.

“The efforts show the amount of effort the towing industry and the Coast Guard put into collecting and analyzing information like this,” said Capt. Verne Gifford, the Coast Guard’s director of inspections and compliance. “Through thorough reporting of casualties, thorough investigation of each incident and thorough analysis, we’ve been able to identify a trend and take action to reduce these events.”

As the statistics are examined, the steering committee sometimes pulls out one particular area to study in more detail. A working group is often formed to come up with recommendations to address a specific problem.

Over the past 20 years, 14 topics have been addressed by working groups including tank barge spills, bridge strikes, crew fatalities, safe management of crew travel time and crew endurance.

At this year’s steering committee meeting, held in August, members talked about the fact that one-third of medium- and high-severity incidents over the past 15 years started with a vessel striking a fixed object. Incidents include all reportable marine casualties that involve any towing vessel or barge.

“The Coast Guard is going to drill down into the casualty reports and put together some information about what’s going on,” said Jennifer Carpenter, executive vice president of American Waterways Operators. “Are there patterns or clusters? Do we need a regional team to look at this? Do they center around a particular cause? Is it happening in a particular place in the country?”

When a vessel hits a fixed object, “fatigue can be a big reason why a lot of these happen,” said Gifford. “And you want to make sure that there are an adequate number of licensed people on board.”

There were 1,797 towing casualties in 2014, down slightly from 1,852 in 2013, according to the report. Of the incidents in 2014, 89 percent were of low severity, 7 percent were of medium severity and 4 percent were of high severity. In 2013 there were 133 high-severity and 81 medium-severity incidents. In 2014 there were 131 high-severity and 68 medium-severity incidents.

The Coast Guard will analyze the allision data and present it to the February meeting of the National Quality Steering Committee, which will then decide if a working group should be formed to address this issue. Analyzing the statistics are just part of the process.

“You learn hard lessons over time, through specific incidents,” said Jim Farley, president of Kirby Offshore Marine and a member of the steering committee. But then lessons have to be translated in practice.

“It doesn’t do you any good if it’s in a book on the shelf,” Farley said. “The people on the vessel have to believe it.”

Since 1995, two working groups have prepared reports to help reduce overboard fatalities. In 1996, a working group issued a report called “Towing Vessel Crew Fatalities.” A report specifically addressing fall-overboard deaths was released in 2012.

According to the 2012 report, one-third of all deaths from falling overboard occurred while the towing vessel was moored. Deck hands represented 78 percent of the deaths. A lack of experience played a major role. Twenty-four percent of deaths involved crew with less than one year of experience.

After the data were analyzed, a list of best practices was created. “Then it went out to the operators, to help address these issues,” said Coast Guard Division Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hjerstedt. “It was a concerted effort on the operators’ part to come up with best practices and get them out to the people on deck.”

Among the recommendations from the 2012 report: Create a safety system where crew are taught that all unsafe acts are unacceptable; encourage employees to report safety problems and that crew will not be punished for reporting; come up with a system in which the company learns from its mistakes and changes practices, and create a system in which the company can collect and analyze data to track safety problems.

“We are doing a better job as an industry convincing both the workers and management that all accidents are preventable,” Farley said.

The steering committee’s report also shows that the volume of oil spilled decreased from a high of 1.94 million gallons in 2005 to a low of 17,529 gallons in 2013. In 2014, 200,363 gallons of oil spilled in tank barge incidents. However, 99 percent of that total was from two large spills. The largest spill in 2014 resulted from a collision between the freighter Summer Wind and the tank barge Kirby 27706, in which 168,000 gallons spilled.

In the past 20 years, the rate of oil spilled per millions of gallons transported has declined, even as the amount of oil transported has increased. Between 2009 and 2013 the rate was between 0.1 gallons per million gallons transported and 0.23 gallons per million.

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