Stats Highlight Improving Towboat Safety

Providing firm evidence of changing practices and the spread of safety culture throughout towing companies, safety statistics recently released by the U.S. Coast Guard show a dramatic decrease in crew fatalities, injuries and oil spills over the past 22 years.

The National Quality Steering Committee’s annual safety report, containing towing industry safety data and measures for 1994 through 2016, was released in partnership with The American Waterways Operators (AWO).

The report showed that while crew fatalities reached a high of 34 in 1997, they have steadily fallen to only four in 2014, and eight in 2016.

One table shows that the towing industry fatality rate was 6.7 (i.e., 6.7 per 100,000 full-time workers) for 2015, half the rate of the transportation sector as a whole. 

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There were zero injuries that met a “critical severity” threshold in 2016. The accident types most associated with injuries were by far was falls onto surfaces (428). Next were strain or sprain (268) and being struck by a moving object (170).

As the safety statistic database has been developed, it has been refined and strengthened with the help of the towing industry. Not all deaths aboard towing vessels, for instance, count as working fatalities if they are not related to vessel operations—for instance, if a crewman dies from a pre-existing condition. While there were 15 total deaths aboard towing vessels in 2016, only eight counted as “operational towing vessel crew fatalities.” Five of the other seven deaths were due to existing medical conditions and two to accidental overdose.

One chart illustrates how “while the annual number of fatalities for all accident types has steadily decreased, the number of fatalities due to falls overboard has remained constant, numbering between two and four every year from 2010 through 2016.”

Oil Spills Also Decline

Oil spills also show a steep decline from 1997 through 2016, with an exception for the year 2005, when a single incident released more than 1.9 million gallons. On November 11, 2005, Tank Barge DBL 152 struck a collapsed pipeline service platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The incident spilled an estimated 1.9 million gallons of a heavy oil mixture, a mixture of the barge’s own cargo and that leaked from the pipeline. Most of the oil was denser than seawater, causing it to sink to the bottom of the Gulf.

In 2016, the statistics show that 32,202 gallons of oil were spilled as a result of 64 tank barge pollution incidents.

However, most of the 2016 total was the result of just three incidents.

An allision between a tank barge pushed by the mv. Capt. Jim Green and the Subsea 7 Dock in Port Isabella, Texas, accounted for 77 percent of that year’s spills, or 24,948 gallons. The allision between the mv. Amy Frances and the Vicksburg-Vidalia Dual Bridge resulted in another 4,696 gallons of slurry oil released into the Mississippi River, or 15 percent of that year’s total. The third largest spill, of 1,400 gallons, occurred when a tank barge at Houston Fuel Oil Tanking Dock No. 7 was overfilled during cargo operations. That spill accounted for 5 percent of that year’s totals.

Of the remaining spills, 46 were of amounts between 1 and 100 gallons, and 10 were of amounts less than a single gallon. The report concludes, “Overall, the oil spill rates continue to be relatively low considering the volumes transported, and the fact that oil transportation volumes have steadily increased since 2011 (a 22 percent increase over the last 5 years).”

The Corps of Engineers reported that in 2015, 283 million short tons, or about 77.5 billion gallons, was transported by barge in U.S. waterways.

‘Low-Severity’ Incidents Adjusted

Among the adjustments made to the safety database with the help of the towing industry was an exclusion of some “low severity” incidents. “Our review of the data verifies that some previously reported low severity incidents are no longer required to be reported due to Marine Casualty Reporting Navigation and Inspection Circular (NVIC) 15-01 As a result, there are fewer lower severity incidents, allowing investigators to spend more time and give greater scrutiny to medium and high severity incidents,” the report notes.

Spike Was Due To Data Error

While the number of Reportable Marine Casualties in the towing industry declined by 32 percent between 2014 and 2016, other maritime sectors reported a decline of 42 percent.

An artifact of definition seemed to produce a spike in reportable incidents from 2015 to 2016, requiring an adjustment of the data set, the report noted: “It was discovered that personal casualty and pollution incidents not involving a towing vessel or barge incident were [originally] included in the data set. The errors for 2015 were corrected in this report.”

The full report is available at