New Towboat Regs – Is it Safety Management or Inspection?

uscg logoThe new towboat Subchapter M regulations don’t come out officially until next week, but given the delay in releasing them and the towing industry’s level of interest, the Coast Guard did everyone a favor and released an advance copy.

At just under 800 pages, the document will take quite a while to analyze and fully understand.   But the quick headline is that anyone who was looking for a traditional physical/mechanical inspection program will be disappointed, but so will anyone who hoped it would be a true safety management system.   It is more of a hybrid that calls on industry to have management systems for their boats, but also reflects the Coast Guard’s conviction that vessels need to meet design and maintenance standards.

The rule was created with industry at the table and it represents many years of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.  In fact much of the final regulation looks like the Responsible Carrier Program (RCP), a safety management system approach developed by the American Waterways Operators a dozen years ago.   The regulation does have an opt-out section that says towing companies can go through a traditional inspection if they choose not to prepare their own safety management system.

The full regulation will take some time to interpret the regulations, but here are some initial observations:

  1.  Although most towing companies are already complying with the RCP or the International Safety Maritime Code, it would a mistake for them to think they are in compliance with the new regulation.   Every company needs to read the regulation carefully and ensue that there are no gaps in their current approach.
  2. Training is coming to the towing industry in a big way.   Beyond the captain, companies are not required to provide much in the way of training under current regulations.  That changes with the new Subchapter M rules.  Companies will be required to provide a range of training for new employees and the training needs to be provided within five days of hiring.
  3. The emphasis in the regulations on the requirements for auditors or surveyors could be a problem.  That may be a lesson from the offshore oil and gas Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) regulations. The audit process there has often focused on whether the paperwork is done properly at the expense of looking at whether the program works and makes the operator safety.  Time will tell whether the towboat rules become a tool for continuous improvement or just a box checking exercise.
  4. The Coast Guard has tried to stagger compliance to give companies time to implement the program, but that time will pass in the blink of an eye.  Every industry that has adopted safety management systems has found that it took longer to implement and to get the bugs out than they ever imagined.  Towboat owners are advised to not waste any time in adopting the new requirements.

If you are a towing company that needs to comply with the new regulation, consider bringing Lifeline Strategies in to:

  1. Do a gap review of your existing system,
  2. Develop a plan if you do not have one
  3. Provide a database to manage your program or
  4. Help develop a training program for your crew.  

We are one of the few companies that has had experience in developing towing industry, ISM and oil and gas SEMS plans.  Let us help smooth your path to compliance.   Contact us at 

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