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Safety management systems may transform towing industry

Feb 25, 2014 01:02 PM
Dann Marine Towing’s Sun Coast, an 85-foot, 1,800-hp tug whose work includes hauling coal barges in the Baltimore area.

Dann Marine Towing’s Sun Coast, an 85-foot, 1,800-hp tug whose work includes hauling coal barges in the Baltimore area.

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John Rutledge is the captain of Sun Coast, an 85-foot, 1,800-hp Dann Marine Towing tug that operates in the Baltimore area. A hawsepiper, the captain has seen a multitude of changes in his long career, but few as significant as the coming of vessel safety management systems.

The towing industry, he observed, “is still a dangerous business. People get hurt real easily. We try to manage the risks and the dangers.”

Dann Marine’s new vessel safety management system (VSMS) helps him manage those risks by identifying any potential problems on his boat and by helping his crew gain a heightened sense of how to operate safely.

Capt. John Rutledge, Sun Coast’s master in the pilothouse. John Mehaffey, the tug’s relief captain, stands behind him. Rutledge thinks the VSMS helps him and the crew to operate safely.

“We’re always trying to go for zero incidents. I think it’s helped us to achieve that,” he said of the company’s new management safety system.

Built in 1965, Sun Coast is approaching 50 years of age. Far from retirement, it moves barges around the port of Baltimore, primarily serving a power plant by delivering coal for fuel and limestone for the scrubbers that remove pollutants from its stacks. Typically it is paired with a 360-foot barge that can carry 8,000 tons of coal. Occasionally the tug makes the 300-mile round trip down the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk, Va., and back.

“An older vessel like this couldn’t pass (inspections) unless the company stayed on it diligently,” Rutledge said.

When he made that observation, he was sitting in the mess area of Sun Coast as it sat at a pier at the Smith Shipyard in Baltimore undergoing a two-month rehabilitation that included rebuilding both generators, replacing handrails, repairing bulwarks and the push knees, and installing a new hawser, watertight doors, radar and a fire detection system.

At its heart, a VSMS helps a company identify any physical problems on a boat that might compromise safety and then document the steps taken to correct the problems. It also addresses the human element by documenting crew responsibilities and procedures in place to ensure safe operations.

Of late vessel safety management systems have taken center stage in the towing industry because of the U.S. Coast Guard’s proposed Subchapter M requirements. Under the new rules, most towing vessels would have to meet mandatory inspection requirements. Towing companies would have to pass an annual inspection by the Coast Guard. Alternatively, an operator could create a towing safety management system (TSMS), have it audited by an outside third party such as a classification society and then submit it to the Coast Guard for acceptance. So far the Coast Guard has not decided when it will issue a final rule that would bring the Subchapter M requirements into force.

Rutledge described the pending inspection requirements as “the biggest change the industry has ever seen. If that doesn’t shake them to the core, nothing will.”

Despite the uncertainly about when the new regulations will take effect, Dann Marine Towing’s management decided it wanted to be ahead of the game by developing a VSMS that would be in place when the new rules are adopted. Aside from regulatory compliance, the company sees the safety management program as valuable in and of itself. First, it reinforces the company’s longstanding commitment to safety. And being able to demonstrate that commitment may give Dann Marine a competitive advantage when approaching customers concerned about the safe movement of their cargo.

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