Subchapter M

Subchapter M Helping Towing Companies Deal With COVID-19

It’s been two years since the Subchapter M regulations took final effect. July 20 marked the halfway point at which 50 percent of vessels in multi-vessel operations should have received Certificates of Inspection (COIs), as well as all vessels in single-vessel operations.

Since early this year, waterways operators have folded their COVID-19 responses and preparations into an existing process of complying with Subchapter M.

“Safety management systems is one reason why our industry has been doing as well as it has” in fighting the coronavirus so far, Jennifer Carpenter, president and CEO of The American Waterways Operators, told The Waterways Journal.

According to Coast Guard figures cited by the AWO, as of July 6, 1,877 of the 4,892 towing vessels operated by multi-vessel companies had been issued COIs (38.4 percent), and 360 were “in progress,” which would increase the total to 45.7 percent, or very close to the 50 percent requirement.

By contrast, only 103 of the 555 vessels operated by single-vessel companies had been issued COIs (18.6 percent), and 58 were in progress (which would increase the total to 29 percent).

Nationally, 71 percent of towing vessels have been certificated under the towing safety management system (TSMS) option, and 29 percent have been certificated under the Coast Guard option. Vessels that miss the deadline lose the TSMS option and must present their vessels for Coast Guard inspection within 90 –days. In a recent newsletter to its members, the AWO said, “The Coast Guard has confirmed that, once they have reconciled their data, they will follow the process outlined in CG-CVC Policy Letter 20-01 and issue CG-835Vs to companies that have not met the requirements requiring them to make vessels available for inspection within 90 days. Due to the Coast Guard’s reliance on Certificate of Documentation information to identify non-compliant companies, we encourage members that operate vessels owned by other entities to contact their OCMI and District Towing Vessel Coordinator to ensure the agency has accurate information about your managed fleet.”

Carpenter said she is encouraged by the compliance rate among multi-vessel operations, which was achieved despite the challenges of the coronavirus. “Delays have happened on both the industry and Coast Guard side due to the virus, but they have not been extreme,” she said. “Where smaller companies are behind or are not yet compliant, that’s due more to lack of preparation than to the virus.”

One positive adjustment has been remote inspections where possible. “Whatever happens with the virus, this will probably be part of our future,” said Carpenter, echoing experts in other fields where remote meetings and procedures have reduced contact to keep people safe from exposure to the virus.

Carpenter said the Coast Guard best knows the particular reasons single-vessel operators  give for not meeting their compliance deadlines, but “[small] size is not necessarily an obstacle to compliance. We know from the experience of our member companies that single-vessel operators can do this. We hear from most of our members that they are on track to meet their Sub M compliance goals.”

Coast Guard Flexibility

Carpenter is cheered by what she said were “practical policy interpretations” from the Coast Guard on certain Subchapter M compliance issues. The AWO has a Subchapter M Consistency Quality Action Team to coordinate with the Coast Guard on adjusting the regulations to inland circumstances where needed. The Coast Guard’s Eighth District recently issued an exemption from certain light and day-shape requirements that don’t make sense on inland waterways. Earlier this year, the Coast Guard issued a guidance letter on persons-in-charge for fuel transfers that allowed inland practices to continue.

During the COVID-19 crisis, many companies have added, or are adding, provisions to their TSMSs for dealing with infectious disease outbreaks, if they had not already included them. They are pre-screening crewmembers and setting up procedures for isolating infected crewmembers and safely removing them from vessels. Carpenter said she knew of some companies that had public-health or infectious-disease scenarios written into their SMSs even before COVID-19 was on the radar. “Most companies are strengthening their SMSs for the future, and these provisions will remain, to help them deal not just with the coronavirus, but with infectious diseases in general like the seasonal flu.”

Because towing vessels are a kind of self-quarantined world, it’s been easier for them to isolate and monitor crewmembers than it has been for some shore-based industries. But as the crisis drags on, said Carpenter, it’s impossible to keep crewmembers completely sequestered from the larger society.