Ship with PDCA image

11 Feb 2020

Subchapter M is a positive Regulation from the USCG to improve safety

Introduction. Industry maturity is essential in the implementation of any regulatory requirements. The reluctance of the industry toward implementation of the Subchapter M requirements is short-sighted.

Based on the analysis of casualties, tragedies and near misses, statutory bodies at the insistence of the executive (Congress as the representative of the citizens) propose regulations for compliance; to ensure the safety of the marine environment. The USCG is a premier internationally respected maritime authority and they have taken a lot of time to come out with Subchapter M, incorporating the best practices and lessons learned from years of implementation and enforcement of the ISM Code (toned down as required for the domestic towing industry in the US). Owners often, especially small businesses, see the initial investment as an expensive inconvenience. They perhaps fail to recognize the long-term benefits of safe operations using a system approach. An incident, accident, loss of life or marine pollution will be far more expensive than the initial investment. Not only to them but to the entire industry on the inland waters.

Appreciating Risks in the Context of the Maritime Environment. [1]This regulation may initially seem to many like another ‘policing’ activity by statutory bodies. When driving a car, people don’t wear a seatbelt to avoid being caught by the police. It is to keep the passengers in the car safe. The industry too must implement the Sub M regulations in the spirit of ensuring safety, mitigating risks in the context of the maritime environment and systematizing their operations. It is all about the PBMS (process-based management system) approach.

ROI (Return on Investment). Even without pollution or injuries estimated costs for the towing and barge industry are greater than $3 million. The cost of a closed waterway can amount to millions of dollars per day.[2] The NTSB concluded the probable cause of the grounding of the MODU Kulluk was, inadequate assessment of the risk for the planned tow of the Kulluk and implementation of a tow plan insufficient to mitigate that risk. As part of the Kulluk[3] team responsible for recommending safety measures, following the USCG & NTSB report them core reason for the incident is not surprising.  After all, “A bad system will let down a good person every time”.

Correct Implementation. This non-implementation of maritime safety regulations typically leads to tragedies. Every organization endeavors to produce a conforming product/service. Inspection before releasing the product to customer results in either clearing or rejecting the product or service. This dependence on inspection is a cost raiser. After all, rejection means delays and off-hire in the maritime industry. The intent should be to improve the auditing of the procedures comprising the management system so that processes result in a conforming product/service. The USCG has come out with the Subchapter M to provide that framework to create the management system, monitor it, inspect and audit it; thereby ensuring safety and in effect prevent loss in every way, including the loss of a vessel to a casualty. The industry must understand this aspect of the intended.

Learning from Tragedies. The tragic sinking of the Titanic a century ago is still teaching us lessons that we often neglect in implementing in the international maritime industry. I bring this international example as it has a lesson for the domestic industry. The SOLAS convention which was the outcome of the tragedy, investigations, and introspection by the maritime industry, further led to MARPOL, the ISM Code and later the STCW convention. The implementation of all these was dependent on the Flag States, then the issue came up, about the Flag States doing their job. Ships had the SMC[4] and other trading certificates; the maritime companies maintained some standards by them maintaining a DOC[5]. However, Flag States had no check. So, more regulations now, to bring the Flag States under the preview of the IMO with the IMSAS Audits to the III Code. More regulations are not the answer but are essential when implementers are reluctant to implement in the spirit of the regulation.

Lessons from the Sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise. The example of the Titanic is essential as Sub Chapter M is implemented. The ISM Code is a good safety initiative to be implemented. The learning in its clauses has been at the cost of precious seafarers’ blood. One of the primary lead-ups to the ISM Code was the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, a British RoRo[6] car passenger ferry on 7 March 1987 killing 193 passengers in near calm seas, when the vessel put to sea with the bow door open. A public inquiry into the sinking lead by Lord Justice Sheen castigated the ship’s owners when Lord Sheen “identified disease of sloppiness and negligence at every level of the corporation’s hierarchy”. This was almost the first time that instead of blaming just those at sea, those ashore were held responsible. It was this need for the operators and owners of seagoing vessels to have a management system with well-designed procedures that were to be resourced and monitored that necessitated the ISM[7] Code.

Role of TPOs. It is this ISM Code then which has been studied by the USCG and converted into the Sub Chapter M with all their expertise and wisdom. USCG is following the pattern of monitoring based on ROs[8] for international shipping by decentralizing and approving TPOs[9] for monitoring and controlling the implementation of Sub M. The purpose and objectives of these TPOs is not to interpret the Sub M to the convenience of the industry, but to implement the USCG intend to ensure safety.

This simple P-D-C-A, Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is the magic in ensuring the TSMS[10]  or the MS as per USCG direction, works to ensure safety on board and for the others. A good plan based on company policy wisely converted into measurable objectives to drive the procedures, work instructions and the personnel on board and ensure leading to good implementation. The competence of the crews and top management motivated to understand this is essential for them and others who ply in our waters. The Check Stage should be all-encompassing with primarily getting inputs from objective auditing, enabling better decision making by the leadership based on objective inputs. The check stage is mainly the audits, but it should consider any other inputs as failed inspections, near misses, industry inputs and new emerging risks. This stage also includes reports from the USCG and so on. This stage is vital and requires good training of auditors[11]. Auditors and management who understand that “the only bad nonconformity is the one which is not known to the organization.”[12] The Act stage is often very neglected, where top management leaves the review to their second-tier management. If they are committed to the management system (TSMS), it is essential that the leadership conduct a management review at regular intervals, soon after a mishap and any time they are in doubt about the state of the system functioning. At each stage of the PDCA cycle risk must be considered.

The TPOs will be cleared by the USCG as per USCG procedures. A lot is dependent on them, as they will implement the Subchapter M requirements on behalf of the USCG. The Statutory USCG requirements are created to provide, the required oversight, to maintain stakeholder focus, to protect the interests of the customer when tow boats & services are certified. USCG has outsourced this to TPOs who should perform to expectations, be well resourced, have the infrastructure and create the environment for compliance in the spirit of the regulations. The TPOs should maintain organizational knowledge levels as also maintain competent personnel and take accountability for the effectiveness of the TSMS.

Options for Compliance to Sub M. The USCG has provided options to the towing industry to choose from to ensure compliance. In Option A -the “Coast Guard Option” per (46 CFR 136.130(a)(1)) offers the best for small towing companies who own just two or three vessels. This option requires annual visitation by the CG for the inspections. In Option B wherein the “TSMS” Option (137.130) would be the more logical choice, for larger operators, for convenience, and for the cost. It requires, either Internal (first-party) surveys to be overseen by a TPO or external (TPO) surveys, where the TPO conducts independent verifications to assess compliance at the appropriate times in the cycle. The USCG Certificate of Inspection (COI)[13] is valid for five years and requires a valid TSMS issued by a TPO.

Whichever option is selected by the company they have to see the value of their system. If it is a paper exercise, of course, it will not bring the results. The fear that this will increase paperwork is misplaced. The TSMS does mean a little more of system implementation and so a little increased paperwork is to be expected. Companies should not go overboard with paperwork. Refrain from over documenting your system or using a template that does not reflect how they operate. Increased operating & compliance costs are not necessary. There will perhaps be some initial costs to comply however, the cost of operating safely is much lower than the cost of an accident. Another fear owner may have could be the interference in their business. However, increased safety on the inland waterways benefits all including, boat owners and other leisure craft operators, crew members, the environment and the economy (ensuring waterways not shut down).

Conclusion. In summing up, based on my experience and involvement as also work with USCG, I can say this is a very well-intended, well-meant initiative to help the towing industry. The real joys will come from the correct implementation. Subchapter M is not only about compliance. It is about building a safety culture. It encourages the industry to streamline and reduce the paperwork that supports compliance/conformity, by greater use of technology, by identifying common areas and integrating documentation requirements as also motivating the workforce to use and improve the system. To use the reporting and monitoring systems, to build a culture of risk assessment / risk-based thinking and to explore measures to reduce the cost of compliance as also to improve monitoring and develop performance indicators. The early risk appreciation from data driving risks and NC[14]s driving Correction[15] and CA[16] will itself pay for the investment by providing confirming vessels as product and service of the industry.



[1] For the Context of the Organization guidelines refer to Clause 4 (4.1,4.2 & 4.3) read with Clause 6.1 of the Standard ISO 9001:2015.

[2] Transportation Statistics Annual Report 2017.


[4] Safety Management Certificate per the ISM Code.

[5] Document of Compliance as Per ISM Code.

[6] Roll-on roll-off.

[7] International Safety Management Code.

[8] RO: Recognized Organization representing a Flag State as per role defined in SOLAS.

[9] Third Party Administrators.

[10] Towing Safety Management System.


[12] Quote original by Dr. IJ Arora President and CEO QMII.

[13] Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection.

[14] Non-Conformity.

[15] Correction is a quality term describing the immediate actions taken to address a NC.

[16] Corrective Action. CA is based on RCA-root cause analysis.