Why does the Coast Guard Need to Implement Safety Management Systems for Passenger Vessels?

Passenger vessels are an essential part of the maritime industry, providing transportation, recreation, and tourism services to millions of people every year. However, they can also pose significant risks to the safety of their passengers and crew, as well as the environment, should an offshore accident occur. Because of the risk passenger vessels can pose, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been urging the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to adopt a safety management system (SMS) regulation for passenger vessels since 2005. As a maritime lawyer in Houston, I join the NTSB in asking the Coast Guard to do this, and quickly.

What is an SMS?

An SMS is a formal organizational tool which helps vessel operators identify and manage safety risks, comply with regulations, and continuously improve their performance. It consists of policies, procedures, checklists, and corrective measures that ensure that vessel crews are operating in accordance with best practices and official requirements. An SMS also helps foster a safety culture, encouraging reporting, learning, and communication among all levels of the organization.

What are the benefits of an SMS?

An SMS can provide many benefits for passenger vessel operators, such as:

  • Reducing the likelihood and severity of accidents or incidents by proactively identifying and mitigating safety hazards
  • Enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of operations by streamlining processes and reducing errors
  • Improving customer satisfaction and loyalty by delivering safe and reliable services
  • Saving costs and resources by avoiding fines, penalties, lawsuits, repairs, and reputational damage
  • Demonstrating compliance and accountability to regulators, customers, insurers, and other stakeholders

What are the challenges of implementing an SMS?

Despite the clear advantages of an SMS, the Coast Guard has not yet issued a regulation that requires passenger vessels to implement one. As a maritime lawyer in Houston (with one of the busiest ports in America) I encourage to do so. The USCG has stated that it is evaluating the potential use of SMSs for passenger vessels, and has requested public comments on the issue. However, progress has stalled since January 2021.

Some of the challenges that may hinder the implementation of an SMS for passenger vessels include:

  • The lack of a clear definition and scope of what constitutes a “passenger vessel”, and what types of SMSs are appropriate for different sizes and categories of vessels
  • Potential costs and burdens associated with developing, maintaining, auditing, and certifying an SMS for small or medium-sized operators
  • Resistance or reluctance from some operators or crew members to adopt new practices or change their existing routines
  • Difficulty of measuring and evaluating the effectiveness and impact of an SMS on safety outcomes

What are some examples of successful SMS implementation?

Despite the absence of a mandatory regulation, some passenger vessel operators have voluntarily implemented an SMS or have participated in pilot programs or initiatives that promote SMS adoption.

  • The Passenger Vessel Association (PVA), a trade association representing U.S.-flagged passenger vessel operators, has developed a voluntary program called “Flagship” which provides guidance and assistance for its members to implement an SMS. This program also offers recognition and incentives for operators who achieve high standards of safety performance.
  • The Washington State Ferries (WSF), the largest ferry system in the U.S., has implemented an SMS since 2010, as part of its participation in the International Safety Management (ISM) Code, a global standard for maritime safety management. The WSF has reported significant improvements in its safety culture, incident reporting, risk assessment, emergency preparedness, training, and communication as a result.
  • The Conception dive boat tragedy in 2019, which claimed 34 lives in a fire aboard a small passenger vessel off the coast of California, prompted the NTSB to renew its call for the Coast Guard to require SMSs for passenger vessels. The NTSB found that had an SMS been implemented, the owner and operator of the Conception could have identified unsafe practices and fire risks on board and taken corrective action.

The implementation of an SMS for passenger vessels is a long overdue and necessary step to enhance the safety of the maritime industry. As a maritime lawyer, I call upon the Coast Guard should act swiftly and decisively to issue a regulation that mandates SMSs for passenger vessels within 30 days, as requested by the NTSB. Passenger vessel operators also should embrace the opportunity to adopt an SMS in order to improve their operations, reputation, and customer satisfaction. An SMS is not only a regulatory requirement, but also can be a competitive advantage.

At the Herd Law Firm, we are Houston maritime lawyers, and are proud to support maritime workers and passengers in all types of struggles on the waterways, and never waver in our commitment to help these maritime workers and their families when they are injured. If you have suffered a severe injury on or off the job, we would be pleased to speak with you. We are a northwest Houston/Tomball law firm and look forward to your call.

Call us at 713-955-3699 or visit us at https://herdlawfirm.com/ !


Image Source: Santa Crus Fire Dept.


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