To TSMS or Not to TSMS? - Towing Vessel Safety Management for the Small Guy

portrait photo of Steve

Steven M. Lindholm, P.E., P.M.P.

On July 20, 2018, regulations requiring most towing vessels, such as tugboats, pushboats, and other vessels which move floating equipment – to become inspected on an annual basis, came into effect. These regulations are commonly known as ‘Subchapter M,’ after the section of the United States Code which describes the inspection process and requirements. For a more detailed explanation of those requirements, please read the article “Subchapter M:  What is it and how is it useful to you?” in the December 2018 issue of The Stress Point.

With the phasing-in of Subchapter M to the towing vessel community, operators are faced with a decision: use the ‘Coast Guard option’ and be inspected by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) or use the ‘TSMS option’ and be inspected by an independent company? For many operators with larger fleets, the answer is simple: We already have a safety management system – be it the International Safety Management Code (ISM Code) or the Responsible Carriers Program (RCP); let’s convert that to a Towing Vessel Safety Management System (TSMS).

But what about the small operators – the operators with fleets of 1 to 10 tugboats?

Safety management requires a lot of documentation, right? That’s more people, right? Well, not necessarily. What an operator requires to have to get their TSMS certified by a Third Party Organization (TPO) – the independent company approved by the USCG – is a matter of agreement between the operator and the TPO. Regulation 46 CFR 138.210 within Subchapter M lists the objectives which need to be addressed by a TSMS. The elements listed in 46 CFR 138.220 cover those objectives – but they are subject to review by the TPO depending on the needs of the operator. Having a TSMS which is approved by a TPO allows flexibility by the operator on surveys (that’s another subject).

So, what really are the objective elements which a TSMS must have, and how can a small operator still meet those requirements? Well, the objectives which a TSMS must address are (as taken from 46 CFR 138.210):

  1. Demonstrate management responsibility. The owner or general manager must be committed to safety management and holds the employees responsible for safe actions.
  2. Document management procedures. The TSMS must address who is responsible for safety ashore and onboard, the organization structure, reference procedures, and allocate resources.
  3. Ensure document and data control. Documents in support of the TSMS need to be revision controlled and the data supporting the safety procedures must be identified, retained, and available.
  4. Provide a process and criteria for selection of third parties. Specifically, how is the TPO chosen and why. This also applies, to a lesser degree, to other suppliers.
  5. Establish a system of record keeping. Create files for audit reports, survey reports, USCG documents, training documents, and other documents supporting those. Note this is also covered by the requirement in Part 140 for a Towing Vessel Record or equivalent.
  6. Identify and meet training needs. Document what positions are needed, their skills, and how the organization will fill those needs.
  7. Ensure adequate resources. Make sure your organization has the equipment and personnel to meet points a through f above.
How detailed does the TSMS have to be?

Well, as detailed as necessary to cover your organizational needs, but at least 7 paragraphs in length – one to cover each of the paragraphs above.  For instance, to demonstrate management responsibility, it may be enough to simply state the owner of a single towboat is the Master of the towboat and is responsible for ensuring all crew under him adhere to TSMS – if that is truly the case.  Once written, though, it becomes the standard to which the TPO will evaluate the TSMS in practice.

There are certain procedures which need to be specifically addressed in the TSMS:
  1. Policies and procedures for the safe operation of towing vessels and in compliance with U.S. law;
  2. Defined lines of communication between responsible personnel ashore and onboard;
  3. Procedures for reporting accidents and non-conformities with the TSMS;
  4. Procedures to respond to emergency situations;
  5. Procedures to verify compliance with Subchapter M (including internal or external surveys);
  6. Identification of internal audit procedures of the TSMS;
  7. Reference to external audit of the TSMS by a designated TPO;
  8. Procedures for management review of audit reports and management direction on correcting non-conformities;
  9. Procedures to evaluate recommendations for change.
So, how many people in an organization need to be involved in the TSMS and how much extra personnel will need to be hired to comply with the TSMS requirements?

Well, let’s see – there’s the owner or general manager, the Master(s) of the towing vessels, their crew…they all need to be involved in the TSMS to make a safety management system work. Do you need others? Well, maybe you have a purchasing agent or a secretary or a booking agent – they also are part of the TSMS and need to be involved. But notice: nobody needs to be added as the ‘TSMS Manager’ or ‘Compliance Officer’: those are functional positions, not people, and the position may be assigned to any individual within the organization as long as they understand their duties.

Creating an effective TSMS for a small operator does not have to involve a lot of new procedures – the best management systems simply formalize policies and procedures an operator has been using all along. Formalizing those procedures often allows for a review of your best practices – and will allow focus on those procedures which benefit the operation the most. Get advice from a TPO or safety management consultant; they can provide a ‘gap analysis’ of your policies and procedures, showing you how to create a compliant TSMS with the minimal amount of organizational changes.