Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Safety at Sea


December 1, 2019

A crewmember on the Connor Foss participates in a man overboard drill on the Columbia River. Photo courtesy of Foss Maritime.

Vessel and navigational safety is everyone's responsibility, and many west coast marine transportation operators are adopting a top-down strategy that has seen significant company-wide buy-in and heightened safety awareness.

With more than 200 tugs and barges, safety is a top priority at Seattle-based Foss Maritime Company, where everyone is committed to that value, something that the company lauds.

For example, if Foss crews record no lost-time incidents for a month or more, they get to fly the Foss "Always Safe" flag over their vessel, according to the company's website.

"Our people are driven by our company core values to help us to achieve safety in all aspects of the work that we do," said Beth Smith, Director of Marine Assurance, Foss Maritime Company.

She added that Foss has a strong Internal Audit Team and Safety Management System that "allow us to identify areas that are susceptible to failure and encourage continual improvement."

"Our employees are our company," she said, "by ensuring their safety we operate more efficiently with minimal loss."

Subchapter M – which lays out towing vessel inspection standards established by the US Coast Guard, which started enforcing those standards last year – affirms standards already in place at Foss.

"We embraced the official implementation of Subchapter M as a way for us to verify we were operating in accordance with the highest safety standards in our industry," Smith said.

A number of Foss vessels have already earned a Certificate of Inspection from the US Coast Guard under Subchapter M, including the Michele Foss in Seattle and the America in San Francisco, which were among the first Foss vessels to be certified, according to Grant Johnson, Foss Vice President, Health, Safety, Quality and Environment, in Tow Bitts, Foss' company blog.

The advent of Subchapter M has spurred a lot of industry-wide changes, said Rich Christiannsen, port captain at Seattle-based tug and barge operator Western Towboat.

"There's definitely a lot more oversight from company management, and a lot more direct involvement," he said. "Now we're getting real hands-on with safety drilling and our oversight of all their routines – what they do to check everything on the boat, whether it be a process or equipment."

Western was one of the first companies to use the MobileOps platform, allowing them to digitize its day-to-day operations.

"That's been huge for us, (having) a vetting tool to ensure everything that we think is happening on the boat is actually getting done," he said.

When it comes to navigational safety, Western Towboat crew members are doing regular navigational assessments and voyage planning – all done through MobileOps, Christiannsen said.

"It allows us to peek in on the boat to make sure it's getting done for every leg of the voyage, who's doing it and when it's getting done," he said.

That's especially important to Western Towboat because 90 percent of its business is in southeast and central Alaska, where maneuvering can be challenging, Christiannsen said.

"If you're considering the inside passage, the different spots that we have to travel through, we do have some policies and procedures in place as far as transit windows for certain areas," he said, adding that the Seymour Narrows and Wrangell Narrows are among the areas the company frequently traverses.

"We transit those areas at least five to 10 times a week," he said.

And depending on how the barge is loaded, the captain is given some leeway on when he decides to transit and how much current to travel or transit those areas, Christiannsen said, adding that weather plays a factor in how they load barges.

Company-wide participation is a big part of making Western Towboat's safety program a priority.

"It was getting ownership to absolutely buy into safety as a priority, and for our vessel employees to see the benefits of operating safely and not taking shortcuts," Christiannsen said.

To get them to see the benefits of the safety program, Western Towboat took a proactive, hands-on approach for about three years and then showing them the results. Winter training events occur three times a year where they involve all vessel employees.

"We have a robust safety statistics reporting program and we push back the results at these guys and they like to see what a difference it's made," Christiannsen said. "It's been huge with us."

Christiannsen also leads a regular conference call every Thursday to discuss safety matters.

"At the beginning of the conference call, we have 'Doing It Right' examples, and that's where we allow other people – captains, whoever it may be – to kind of shine the spotlight on someone or even a whole boat crew on something that went well, or a shining example of our safety management system that we push out and share with other crews, and it comes out in a weekly newsletter," he said.

The conference call also covers any near misses, he said, adding that "MobileOps also allows us to share near misses anonymously as well to encourage sharing."

Western Towboat decided to implement its changes one year before Subchapter M went into effect, allowing the company to easily transition into compliance July 2018.

"The sampling of boats pre-Sub M versus post Sub-M has made a huge difference," he said. "I'm catching every boat."

Crew members were already used to a lot of third party audits and surveys, Christiannsen said, adding that eight of their vessels already have Subchapter M certification.

"And they have said they've got it down now," he said. "It's been pretty good and it's been good for us to spend more time on the boats and have a management presence on the boats. We've started to see the effects of embracing this robust safety program, and they've seen the results and the statistics. So it's worked out really well."

The company will continue to build on its safety program.

"It's just the constantly improving part that we're really embracing because it's easy to sit our haunches here," Christiannsen said. "We've seen really great results so far, but probably looking at what's next and how we improve."

Whether the company is moving product on East Coast or west coast waters, safety is important to Vane Brothers, the longtime Baltimore-based marine transportation provider that entered the west coast market earlier this year to move petroleum barges in the Pacific Northwest and California coastal waters.

"Safety is basically your key to entry," said Captain Rick Iuliucci, Vane Brothers Vice President of Operations. "If you are not a safe and conscientious operator, you're not going to have customers who want to hire you, especially in any oil segment. And your employees are certainly not going to want to work for a company that's not deemed as conscientious of safety."

Vane Brothers takes a layered approach to ensure safety compliance, which includes regular checks by crewmembers, managers and independent third-party contractors consisting of retired master mariners who all report back their findings, Iuliucci said.

"I have the crew and I have my management and I have an independent third party who are all doing spot checks," he said. "If your safety management system says you do this, they're out there validating whether we do it or not."

One of the things also employed at Vane Brothers is the authority to stop work if it's unsafe, whether the employee is a deckhand, a captain or a marine superintendent who visits the vessel.

"We're all responsible, so if we see something on deck or we see some activity that is not in line with what we say we should do, then it is our responsibility to stop the work," he said. "That's critical. That's a building block, and I don't think you can get much further than that if people are afraid to raise their hand."

Twice a year, each of Vane Brothers' 139 vessels go through a SIRE inspection, the results of which are then submitted to a massive database with current information about tankers and barges and promotes vessel safety.

"These guys are getting a lot of visits," Iuliucci said.

Vane Brothers operates with a baseline core safety management system, allowing the company to easily adopt port-centric requirements into its plan, such as the Puget Sound Harbor Safety Plan.

"If there's a requirement for boom deployment that we have to demonstrate, that will be incorporated into our drill," Iuliucci said. "I have a baseline standard in my safety management system, so no matter where I go, I'm consistent."

Twice a year, each of Vane Brothers' 139 vessels go through a Ship Inspection Report (SIRE) program. Photo courtesy of Vane Brothers.

With Vane Brothers' presence in the Pacific Northwest, the company can now take advantage of the relationship between the Maritime Institute of Technology & Graduate Studies in Baltimore and the Pacific Maritime Institute in Seattle, which is now part of MITAGS.

Vane Brothers' wheelhouse people who work on the west coast recently participated in a three-day BRM refresher course at PMI.

"The scenarios, the models, the training is specific to the Northwest," he said.

Iuliucci stressed the importance of vessel safety to a company such as Vane Brothers.

"Without safety and without a good proven track record in safety, sometimes you're not even invited to the table, so it's key in allowing us to operate," he said. "It's the core of what we do."


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