RINA: Charting a course to Subchapter M compliance
Some 12 years since the US Congress first recommended that the USA’s domestic towing industry improve safety, the final version of the so-called Subchapter M rule was finally published on 20 June 2016. The rule, which came into legal force a month later on 20 July, imposes new and extensive inspection and safety management requirements on a sector of the towing industry that has been subject to relatively little regulation up to now.
Inland towing vessels operating within the USA have never been subject to inspection by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), so this represents a major change. In the future, the level of inspection required will become broadly the same as for deepsea and passenger ships in terms of safety, record-keeping, the issuing of certificates of inspection (COIs) and manning requirements.
The reason that Subchapter M has been applied is quite clear. The inland towing business has for some time been the subject of considerable safety and environmental concerns. According to the USCG, in the five years from 2010 to 2014 towing vessels and their tows accounted for an average of 67.5 per cent of the number of vessels involved in collisions and groundings, almost 30 per cent of the number of all commercial mariner deaths and injuries, and just over 30 per cent of the number of all chemical discharge incidents and oil spills greater than 100 gallons (378.5l) into navigable waters within the United States.
Subchapter M outlines two methods by which operators can achieve compliance. The first is the towing safety management system (TSMS) option, that requires a company to develop and implement a TSMS and then be subject to external audits and physical surveys twice every five years by a recognised organisation. The second is the USCG option, which is an annual inspection by the USCG in conjunction with the development of a company health and safety plan.
There are concerns that many smaller operators, in particular, will struggle to cope with the new regulations because of the costs and operational complexities involved with certification. To address this issue, Italian classification society RINa and US company Tug and Barge Solutions have joined forces to offer what they say will be an affordable, safe and efficient option for Subchapter M compliance. Stefano Socci, RINa’s general manager for the Americas, points out: “We have worldwide experience in inland navigation and dealing with smaller clients, in places such as Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Indonesia. So we have accumulated a great deal of know-how with these types of vessels and the types of companies that operate them.”
The combined RINa and Tug and Barge Solutions approach is designed to save smaller operators time and money and provide a solution that is tailored specifically to the needs of different operators. Currently, only four classification societies have been delegated authority by the USCG to certify Subchapter M compliance. These are ABS, DNV GL and ClassNK, as well as RINa. Combined with Tug and Barge Solutions, RINa is now able to offer a comprehensive, turnkey solution to Subchapter M, it contends. RINa can now certify Tug and Barge Solutions’ safety management systems, conduct class surveys, and issue the safety management certificates which are required in order to obtain a COI from the USCG.
RINa and Tug and Barge Solutions have decided to focus mainly on small to medium-sized operators, which account for about 80 per cent of the total US towing fleet, as they believe that most larger companies will have the resources to achieve compliance through their own internal departments. Mr Socci says: “Many inland waterway towing operators in the US have a fleet of five vessels or less. Such companies will find it a struggle to put suitable systems in place and to maintain them. The RINa and Tug and Barge Solutions partnership can provide a solution that is reliable, easy to understand and user friendly.”
For the smaller companies, the training services that RINa delivers will be especially valuable, Mr Socci expects. They will be tailored to what each crew member does within a specific company. This will be documented using the safety management system developed by Tug and Barge Solutions which, too, is tailored to each specific company operation.
Mr Socci advocates an approach that is based on viewing compliance with Subchapter M as a positive investment, rather than a necessary evil. He says: “Towboat companies could see Subchapter M as a bit of bureaucracy, and do as little as they can and spend as little as possible to comply, essentially completing the paperwork and ticking all the necessary boxes. The other way is to invest in the project and make it work, viewing Subchapter M as an investment that will pay dividends through better ships, greater reliability and improved safety. The RINa and Tug and Barge Solutions partnership fully backs the second approach.”
As well as classification societies, Subchapter M suggests that various yet-to-be-named authorised third party organisations (TPOs) will have the ability to undertake inspections and to verify compliance. “Who these third party organisations will be and what their associated costs are remain a big unknown,” suggests Mr Socci. “Teaming up with a classification society seems the obvious choice. Why opt for a TPO when you can pair with a reliable classification society with a proven track record?”
There are several other issues that need to be addressed, RINa points out. The number of drydocks available within the USA is not sufficient to meet the necessary demand triggered by Subchapter M. If the required level of investment is not made by shipyards to create additional facilities it could lead to delays, and increased costs, for tug owners and operators.
Mr Socci says: “Drydock capacity is a concern, as this will be required not just for the inspections, but also for the repairs and retrofits needed to achieve compliance. There is not enough capacity now, but hopefully the requirement to inspect possibly as many as 6,000 towing vessels between 2018 and 2022 will provide sufficient incentive to encourage such investment by the shipyards.”
For many operators a drydock cost running into tens of thousands of dollars is a major cost. Mr Socci says: “We understand that, but as you are going to have to pay this anyway, why not take full advantage and not just spend the money, but invest it. If it saves a life, prevents an accident and avoids the complications and expense of a time consuming insurance claim, then companies will see a real return on that investment.”
There are also sections of Subchapter M that could potentially require a higher level of redundancy in parts of the hull and machinery. Mr Socci says: “There is uncertainty about this issue, too. Will vessels be grandfathered in? Or will the current fleet be required to retrofit in order to meet the new requirements? If the latter, then the cost to owners to meet some of these requirements will be substantial.”
Given such uncertainties, Mr Socci believes there is an even stronger case for inland waterway tug and towboat owners and operators to work with established classification societies like RINa and proven partners with experience of the US market, like Tug and Barge Solutions. “Together we will continue to analyse the recent Subchapter M final rule release and will be able to confidently navigate any towing firm towards affordable and efficient compliance solutions,” he concludes.